12/01/2016

Sears: Tearing Failure from the Arms of Success

When I was a kid in small town western Kansas, back in the 1950’s, Sears and Roebuck was king of retail; mail-order retail, that is. Every home had a big Sears catalog somewhere prominent and Sears was the place to go for furniture, appliances, hand and power tools, and clothing. By the 1960’s, my hometown had an actual Sears store which stocked the most popular items and made ordering from the catalog even easier. Over the years, Sears morphed into full fledged department stores and, now, these things they call “Hometown Stores”: which are micro-stores that offer free “delivery” (to the store) of items not stocked in the store. Sears is sort of like Amazon with an inconvenient delivery system.

Still, that could work if the Sears mismanagement team had some idea what the 21st Century looks like. They don’t. Sears has been losing money, consistently every quarter, for years. Sears Holdings, the TBTF holding company that now clings to Sears and Kmart, appears to be completely clueless about modern retail, website presence, and management of a business in general. It’s almost impossible to imagine that some senior executive from Sears Holdings would not end up in Trump’s cabinet: they are that stupid. Almost as if he was created by a Hollywood screenplay writer for the part, the Sears’ CEO’s name is “Edward Lampert.” I shit you not. Right out of 1880, his advice to Sears employees who are staring unemployment in the face was, “I’m asking each of you to work faster and smarter and to sharpen your efforts throughout the year.” Of course, Eddie Lampert will be sitting in his corner office, twiddling his thumbs or dialing an Aspen real estate broker as he looks for a place to spend his unearned and undeserved $4,300,585 salary. No chance any responsibility for Sears’ failure belongs to the top guy, right?

It’s almost worth buying something from a local store to get a feel for how backwards Sears Holdings is. I guess I performed that experiment for you when I bought a super-cheap Kenmore/Maytag dishwasher from my local Hometown Store. The store was, of course, a well-run, neat and organized local business, but the on-sale item I wanted to buy had to be ordered. Supposedly, the appliance would be delivered in a week or so and “we’ll call you” when it arrives. You’d think Sears would have an automatic notification system for when products can be picked up, like almost every other big box retailer on the planet has, but you’d be wrong. I discovered my dishwasher was waiting to be picked up by calling the store and getting a clerk to check the delivery area to see if it was there. Turns out it was and had been for more than a week. This isn’t a local store problem, the store is barely manned by what looks like a high school kid and a part-time mostly-retired woman and they do a good job of greeting customers, ringing up sales, and maintaining the store. This is a front office back in Chicago mismanagement problem. The useless and lazy bums staffing those corner offices, raking down huge paychecks, and issuing stupid “work harder and faster” memos are not doing any part of the job of management.

A terrific and entertaining way to see how badly mismanagement is performing is to buy something at Sears and experience the customer feedback on-line form at www.hometownfeedback.com/. Every part of this survey is right out of the bad old days of the computer “inmates are running the asylum.” The form doesn’t fit on the screen, the questions are formatted so badly they are unreadable, the questions are clearly written by non-English-speaking authors, and the questions motivations are obviously designed to put blame on the lowest level employees and deflect any responsibility from the deadbeats at the top.

11/30/2016

The Price of Being A Nation of Assholes

One of the few terrific management books of the last 100 years is Robert Sutton’s 2007 The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. In case you are a typical American and don't have the mental capacity to read a book, Sutton offered two tests for identifying assholes:
  1. After encountering the person, do people feel oppressed, humiliated or otherwise worse about themselves?
  2. Does the person target people who are less powerful than him/her?
Sound familiar?
To provide guidance to the generally clueless sort who make corporate decisions, Sutton also gave us a dozen identifying asshbole ehaviors, he called them The Dirty Dozen:
  1. Insults
  2. Violation of personal space
  3. Unsolicited touching
  4. Threats
  5. Sarcasm
  6. Flames
  7. Humiliation
  8. Shaming
  9. Interruption
  10. Backbiting
  11. Glaring
  12. Snubbing
Thanks to the Electoral College and the ultimate American asshole, Alexander Hamilton, we are about to experience a federal government totally staffed by assholes. Outside of the 61,900,651 confirmed assholes who voted for Trump (as of November 8, 2016) any normal person would recognize all 12 of those behaviors as Donald Trump’s prime personality markers.  From my own personal experience in this past election, those characteristics are core pseudo-conservative principles, too.

What does it mean for the future of the country when half of our voters idolize assholes? Keep in mind that, on average, the least educated portion of the country voted overwhelmingly for Trump, demonstrating why Trump and Republicans “love the uneducated.” For one, it means our media will continue to become more mean spirited, less fact-oriented, more focused on profit and less on public service, and society in general and public service will be less inviting to decent, intelligent people. I’m a firm believer in the FACT that incentives are everything. When society rewards polioticians’ bad behavior far more consistently than decency, manners, intelligence, and competence, people with those qualities will find other places to commit their time. Eventually (as in January 20, 2017) our federal government will be almost fully-staffed by the worst, most selfish, least capable people in the country. The country is about to experience at least two years governed by all assholes. I don’t think this is going to work out the way these voters expected or hoped.

11/29/2016

Red Wing Is Bad for My Health

My wife and I moved to Red Wing, Minnesota at the end of 2014, after almost 20 years in Little Canada, Minnesota. Little Canada is a bedroom suburb of St. Paul and while it is a an independent city with its own government, Little Canada is really just a collection of home developments with a few bars and a couple of Dollar Stores. Red Wing had been one of my favorite Minnesota destinations since I moved to the state in 1996. Since I moved to Minnesota, I’ve taken my out-of-state friends here to show them why I love Minnesota. The scenery is as good as the Lake States and Midwest gets. The Mississipi River is a national treasure. Red Wing has a lot of history to be proud of and some of it is still standing. There are proponents of the city (55% of the residents would call them “liberals”) who would like to see Red Wing survive and thrive into this century and beyond. The 21st Century infrastructure is here: from high speed, reliable fiber optic internet service to power generation to food production to traditional transportation (including a functioning railroad station and city buses). Unfortunately, there are more people who want to turn back the clock to when white people ruled and everyone else obeyed than there are people who recognize the critical value of diversity and progress.

Most of Minnesota is socially inbred and new residents often complain that, unless you are 3rd or 4th generation, you’ll always be viewed as an outsider and close friendships will be unlikely. Red Wing is no different in that aspect. The first thing I realized about moving to Red Wing was that we were leaving some precious relationships and while Red Wing is “only” 50 miles from the Twin Cities that distance is enough to terminate anything resembling regular association. Relationships are critical to mental and physical health and we’ve replaced deep friendships with casual acquaintances.

The Twin Cities are famous (in the US) for being one of the best places in the country for fitness and recreation. With its bicycle trails, water resources, and easy access to outdoor resources, you’d think Red Wing would have been a good place to be as a retiree looking to stay active. First, we left a pair of cities with a large collection of fitness centers, all actively competing for residents’ dollars and moved to a city with one option, the Red Wing Family YMCA. The Red Wing YMCA is one of two YMCA facilities (Rochester is the other) in the state that does not accept Medicare fitness plans and membership is expensive: nearly $1,000/year for two seniors (or a family of 17). That is twice what we paid for both YMCA and for-profit gym memberships in the Cities. There are a couple of much smaller gyms that do accept Medicare fitness plans, but they only offer weights and machines.

Red Wing is a tourist town and, as such, there is no shortage of restaurants and they are pretty good. Not good for you, but good as in well-designed to encourage over-eating and poor diet habits. Healthy eating is far harder than in the Cities where farmers’ markets and co-ops abound. Red Wing has a seasonal farmers’ market, but the local grocery options are very Midwestern traditional and not particularly healthy; including Wal-Mart and EconoFoods, two national chains that make no effort to stock local products.

One upside is the Mayo Clinic both in Red Wing and in nearby Rochester. After a couple of years of ignoring our healthcare, my wife and I have both found decent doctors at the Red Wing facility and we were fortunate to be here when one of us was found to have cancer. I can not fault the Mayo’s performance in any way. There is, however, no alternative to the Mayo Clinic in Red Wing: no independent physicians or clinics and no other hospital outside of 50 miles north in the Cities. While our experience with Mayo was good, we know several residents who have nothing positive to say about the local clinic and who travel long distances for healthcare.

Educational opportunities in Red Wing are sparse and disappointing. Part of my motivation for moving her was the Guitar Construction and Repair program at Southeast Community Technical College. I attended the program for one full school year, 2015-2016. The instructors are excellent and the program is a state treasure, but it is being down-scaled in favor of a two year liberal arts direction. The school recently renamed itself “Minnesota State College Southeast” in an attempt to move away from the technical school label. The school’s management is mostly absent, based in Winona and barely supervised in Red Wing. The facilities are excellent and you’d think there would be great demand for classes in both the technical programs and in 4-year school prep, but the school is a ghost town most of the day. There are no night classes and much of the program appears to be designed for right-out-of-high-school students rather than the more typical customer for community colleges: working adults. Part of this is the state’s fault, since there is a wrong-headed move to “standardize” the community colleges across the state, which will kill off most of these schools with mediocrity. There is no “community education” program like those found all over the Cities.

Possibly worst of all, in 2016 Trump got 55% of the Goodhue County vote (37% Clinton and 3 other right wing “parties” split the rest of the county). Jason Lewis—a self-declared mysoginist, racist (to the point of advocating the return of slavery), homophobic, xenophobic, anti-public education, anti-science regressive—defeated another clearly superior-in-every-way Democratic candidate, Angie Craig, without a platform, without an agenda (other than being against everything), and without a clue. by an overall slim 2% margin but a considerably larger margin in Goodhue County. Lewis advocates tax policies designed to expand econimic inequality, eliminating national healthcare, and a variety of failed 1980’s pro-1% policies that even the dumbest economist would stay away from.

So, the end result of retiring from the Cities to Red Wing has been boredom, loneliness, about 30 pounds of weight gain, and a dramatic loss in social, educational, and recreational opportunities. More than half of my neighbors are regressive, racist, uneducated, and proud of their white entitlements. In all, I’d call this a failed experiment. I suspect Red Wing doesn’t want me and I’m not sure I’ll be able to look at this place the same ever again.

11/28/2016

They Took Ur Jobs!

Trump promised to bring the jobs he shopped out to China back to the USA. What do you think the chances are that Trump’s hats, shirts, ties, and other cheap shit will come back to US clothing manufacturers? How about zero, unless he can get US wages down to China’s.

The Trumpets wailed about how badly they were being treated, most of whom are living on Social Security and Unemployment and Welfare. These are the same people who elected Reagan and started the transfer of wealth from the US to Indochina and from the working class to the 1%. But they don’t get that, because they are the “uneducated” that Trump loves so much. When Reagan took his dribble-down axe to the federal tax code and made “unearned income” (interest and investment income, rent, income received from the ownership of natural resources, inheritance: aka “passive income”) more profitable than active income, any chance of US jobs expanding died and has almost no chance of ever returning. Trump is a prime beneficiary of this tax/social engineering plan and if you think Donald Trump has ever done one thing that didn’t benefit himself over every other person on the planet, you are one of his beloved “uneducated.”

For example, the unemployed (probably for decades) steel workers who campaigned and voted for Trump are great examples of uneducated voters without a clue. What could Trump do to bring steel production back to the US? He doesn’t even us US steel in his own casinos. The problem is on multiple levels: 1) the US tax system does not reward capital investment, 2) even if someone were insane enough take on creating a modern steel production facility, it wouldn’t employ uneducated, unskilled labor and would be highly automated, and 3) the US hasn’t invested in manufacturing and engineering education for so long that the country doesn’t have the talent to build a competitive steel production facility. Financial services has siphoned off at least two generations of the nation’s most talented people to the point that 45% of US STEM undergrads are foreign students who intend to return home with their US-subsidized education and skills. Our manufacturing economy is so weak that 74% of US STEM grads work in non-STEM related jobs. And why not? Engineering is complicated, competitive, and constantly demanding new skills. Finance is barely any different today than it was in the early 1980’s, when the Reagan Administration decided to blow-off enforcing Glass-Steagall. To become a finance millionaire, all you need is ruthlessness, a total lack of morality, and a little luck. You actually have to have talent, education, and perseverance to be Elon Musk.

The media has decided to blame Trump on liberals who, supposedly, ignored the “plight” of the poor white man. The reality is that the poor white man has always had the tools he needed to crawl out of poverty and step into the middle class: public education and white entitlement. The problem is these are the same poor white men who were easily distracted by the 1% aiming them at poor blacks, Hispanics, and every other ethic immigrant with a work ethic. The one skill poor whites will always have is an innate capacity for hate and violence. Otherwise, their claim of “white supremacy” is disproven by their existence.

There is, as best I can see, no fix for massive unemployment in the unskilled labor demographic. The best this lot can hope for is decent healthcare, available education for the small percentage with the values to work for it, tolerable housing, and the usual distractions of sports, religion, and guns. Preying on this crowd with easy credit and heartless bankruptcy laws is the Republican tactic and, so far, telling these nitwits that Democrats and liberals and immigrants are to blame has worked. It doesn’t make their lives any better, but it does keep their capacity for hate and violence in play.

11/25/2016

Red Wing, MN Real Estate Market 11/25/2016

I check the real estate market fairly regularly, mostly to see what the rental business tells me about my hometown’s economy. I was more than a little surprised to see how much of Red Wing is up for sale this Thanksgiving weekend (154 total homes for sale, with 2 forclosures and 11 for sale by owner properties). When we started looking for a home in Red Wing (population 16,000) in 2014, there were only a couple dozen homes for sale and practically none in the $200k-and-above territory. Today, there are 59 $200k-and-up homes for sale with a surprising number (13) of $500k-and-above homes available. Two-thirds of the Red Wing homes for sale are $100k-and-up, which is middle class and upwards in a city this small. More than one-third of the homse for sale are $200k-and-up. If that doesn’t make the city council and government very, VERY nervous, they are braindead.

Red Wing for Sale

spring creek palace

Are the rats leaving the ship? Post-2016 election, I am certainly thinking about bailing out of Trumpland. The only thing to think about a city and county that votes overwhelmingly for a bankrupt, mobbed-up, Russian-financed con man is that there is a whole lot of stupid here and that is not a good sign for the future of the area. This palace belongs to one of my rich neighbors and they are asking “$699k” for the property. If I owned a $700,000 home in a place that was suicidal enough to elect Trump and Jason Lewis, I’d be panicked. (Maybe, if I could afford a $700k castle that wouldn’t be true, so that could be beyond my imagination.)

However, I can easily afford the home I’m living in and the self-destructive citizens of this county and city are making me nervous. I’ve lived in a town this size when industry and the people who make things happen fled. In the early 1980’s, right after Reagan was elected, Nebraska’s farm economy crashed and I lost all of the equity I had in a home in Fremont. When we moved to Fremont, there were a half-dozen houses for sale. When we crashed and burned, there were several hundred and prices were rock bottom. A smarter person would have bankrupted and walked away from the property, but I paid the downpayment for my buyers, took a $5,000 loss on an $18,000 loan, and left town broke and in debt. Today’s situation in Red Wing feels suspiciously familiar.

The south end of the Twin Cities appears to be in a similar economic situation. While Ramsey and Hennepin County properties are still pretty strong, Dakota and Washington Counties are well-decorated with bank owned homes and auctions. There are too many nice looking properties selling for under $100k in areas where the non-foreclosed properties are selling for $200k-and-up. This is some kind of economic indicator, but I don’t know what kind. Could be a good time for rental propertyinvestment or it could be time to cut and run from the stupid parts of the state.

11/22/2016

Making the Vote Count

Every since the inbred crowd started voting in mass and gave us Goldwater, Nixon, Reagan, Bush I, McCain, Romney, and Bush II, I’ve argued that passing the US Citizenship Test ought to be a prerequisite for voting. Face it, if you are too stupid and uninformed to pass a test designed for people who have barely dried off their feet after getting off of the boat or crossing one of our boarder rivers, you shouldn’t be making decisions about who is running the country, your state or hometown. There are lots of on-line examples of the US Citizenship Test, try and see if you belong in a voting booth.

After Trump’s election, I’ve doubled-down on this idea. I absolutely believe a few sample questions from the Citizenship Test should be administered (automatically with randomly selected questions) before anyone casts a vote. However, after Trump I have decided that simply failing the test isn’t embarrassment enough for those morons who don’t bother to know how the country works but who think their opinions matter. Like nit-picking hanging-chads and racially–coded “purged registration lists,” I think we should do something with the idiot vote. Rather than helplessly wringing our hands after one more fraudulent Red State election count, let’s get some entertainment out of our rapidly growing idiot population.

Since the reddest states are all going to computerized voting machines my voting test system could be tacked on with almost no extra costs (Sorry Diebold. You’ll have to game the election system some other way.) I definitely want everyone to vote, so we’re not going to toss out anyone’s vote until we’ve had fun with it. We’re just not going to count the idiot votes for making any important decisions.
However, after the informed voters have made their selection and candidates have been chosen we’re going to do something with the idiot vote.

For every office in every election, every city, county, state, and federal final tally will include who the morons voted for. That will give us two important post-election things to consider: 1) We’ll all get to laugh at the nitwits in our midst and their pitiful attempts to participate in an informed election and 2) the so-called knowledgeable voters who made similar choices to the idiots will have an opportunity for self-reflection and, hopefully, take that moment to remove themselves from the gene pool.

Dropping the Bar Further than Ever

MN02_109Minnesota’s second congressional district, my new home town, elected a character right out of America’s worst nightmares and history: Jason Lewis. Our old representative, John Kline, wasn’t much better, but he at least pretended to be a local representative rather than the corporate shill he has been since 2003. Kline mouthed the Republican code words for racism, economic inequality, corporate rights over human rights, and the usual litany of bullshit Republicans have spewed since Nixon. Lewis doesn’t bother.

Jason Lewis thought the US was mistaken in actively deciding to banish slavery. In his steaming pile of gibbering monkey drivel, Power Divided is Power Checked: The Argument for States' Rights, Lewis wrote “In fact, if you really want to be quite frank about it, how does somebody else owning a slave affect me? It doesn’t. If I don’t think it is right, I won’t own one, and people always say ‘well if you don’t want to marry somebody of the same sex, you don’t have to, but why tell somebody else they can’t. Uh, you know if you don’t want to own a slave, don’t. But don’t tell other people they can’t.” So, Minnesota’s proud Union heritage has been blasted into history by electing a quasi-modern pro-slavery half-wit. Yeah, he’s anti-civil rights, too, but that’s just a given for what passes for “modern” Republicans.

Not surprisingly, Lewis has an elevated opinion of his own sex. Lewis called women “simply ignorant of the important issues in life” and “non-thinking” during one of many mentally-deficient moments on his hate-jock radio show. Of course, if you can tolerate his bullshit book for even a few pages, you’d discover that Lewis is the poster boy for historical delusion and technological incompetence. You might even be tempted to call him “non-thinking.”

Most hilariously, he has referred to himself as John Galt-like, which is pretty amazing. This child of the idle upper-class a couple of party animal degrees: a master's degree in political science (University of Colorado at Denver) and a BA in education/business (University of Northern Iowa). With that background, he’s barely equipped to manage a Dollar Store. Galt was, at least, a fictional character who had some ability to create and utilize technology. Lewis needs help identifying his microphone in a radio studio. Like most of the pseudo-conservative nut jobs in the Republican Party, Lewis will demonstrate his job killing skills in Washington, but his nitwit voters will blame his incompetence and laziness on Democrats.

Minnesota foisted one idiot, Michelle Bachmann, on the US political scene, which made the state a world-wide laughing stock. Here we go again.

11/19/2016

Open Letter to Econofoods (and all of Walmart’s competition)

I think you are missing bet in the competition for grocery business in southeastern Minnesota. My local store doesn't appear to either know there are local farm suppliers for apples, eggs, meat, and other staples, but seems to be dumping the few local food sources they recognized; like Sturdiwheat. I live on the west end of town and my closest grocery is the Tyler Road Econo Foods, but right up the hill is Walmart with most of the same groceries slightly to substantially cheaper. 

Since an actual local grocery, Buchanan Grocery, stocks local products, including Wisconsin and Minnesota cheese, Sturdiwheat products, Pepin Heights apples and cider, and other locally grown products, I am starting my grocery runs there. The way back first takes me past Walmart then our Econo Foods store.

There is no convenience advantage to spending more money at Econofoods and without a local food motivation you've made it difficult for me to follow my natural opposition to shopping at Walmarts. I think someone in marketing needs to get fired and whoever is making the distribution decisions should be next.

In the battle for grocery customers, it’s pretty amazing to see that a small, sort-of-locally-owned chain would be so clueless about locally produced food. The Econo Foods' website makes the claim, "We offer a full service grocery store and take pride in carefully selecting the best meats and hand picked produce from local farmers." The reality is that most of the products that could be sourced locally come from Michigan and the Kroger Company distributors: including apples and other seasonally available fruits and vegetables, apple cider, cheese, milk, eggs, meat, grains and flour, and, as I mentioned in my letter, Sturdiwheat products. I am willing to pay a reasonable premium for locally grown foods and a smaller price to avoid shopping at Walmart, but if the so-called local store is no more willing to buy locally produced foods than Walmart, why would I care which one gets my money? I’m just sayin’.

11/17/2016

Trump’s Election Upside

Buying local is expensive and a hassle. Most conservatives don’t bother with spending their welfare and social security money on local produce or on local products or services. Without progressives, liberals, and moderates there wouldn’t be any local businesses outside of second hand stores.

In 2016, 1,322,891 Minnesotans voted for Trump and 55% of Goodhue County residents voted for everything Minnesota Nice was supposed to oppose. There were worse places in the state, some voting as high as 74% for Trump (Morrison County, where 32,000 barely-educated, 97%-white, timid Fox News-misinformed souls live in rural isolation) and many of the non-urban counties citizens voted Trump in 60% or greater numbers. Morrison County is typical of those outstate Minnesota ungrateful wretches, where unemployment fell from 12% in 2009 to about 4% in 2016. “Thanks, Obama,” said no one while they voted for a guy who relished their displacement and economic destruction in 2009.

So, when I go to buy groceries, household products, building materials, appliances, furniture, services, or anything locally, I have to think, “I have a 60%-or-better chance of subsidizing a Trump nutjob with my money.” Obviously, if I buy from Target or Wal-Mart there is a 100% chance that I’m handing my money to a corporate fascist but I’m spending considerably less money (For example, $0.89 for eggs vs. $4+ for locally grown eggs). The premium I am paying might be for the expectation that I’m buying chemical-free produce, but I wouldn’t trust a Trump supporter to be half-honest as an organic food supplier. I wouldn’t trust a Trump supporter not to be a slave owner, for that matter.

This puts local suppliers in a tough position. They advertise they are not Republicans or Trumpeters and alienate 60% of their neighbors but self-identify with 90% of their customers? They don’t advertise their political positions and people like me assume they are part of the 60% and we pass on gambling that they might be sentient humans? Not my problem. My job is to avoid the Trumpeters as much as possible and that means I either go with known quantities or avoid local producers because they are expensive.

11/16/2016

Stupidity Kills

IMG_7851

I’ve had this tag on my keychain for about 25 years. It sustained me through the Bush 43 years and 13 years of teaching the addled children of the characters who voted for Reagan, Bush I & II, and, now, it’s going to apply for at least 4 more years of Trump. It’s not comforting, it’s just reality.

11/15/2016

Striking A Blow for Corporate Personhood

About 90% of action movies are stories about one guy overcoming The Powers That Be. Sometimes it’s a rich asshole his gangster employees, sometimes it’s a corporation doing everything from selling contaminated food or medicine to peddling weapons to terrorists or other gangsters, sometimes it’s even just gangsters with power and money. It’s always the same kind of people, though: the people the American public just put into the highest offices in the nation.

When I’ve watched those movies, I have always wondered who is rooting for the bad guys? Somebody has to be, right? The bad guys always have numbers on their side; both in the movies and in real life. The army and the cops are almost always working for the Boss; or are the Boss themselves. Along with the people who are supposed to be the wall between evil and chaos,, it’s usually true that the majority of people are well-intentioned, good-hearted, but cowardly. But when 60,637,350 Americans voted for Trump (vs. 61,422,098 for Clinton as of November 15, 2016) it's hard to prop up the illusion that the average citizen is just a timid good guy. I can’t help you with that delusion at all, in fact.

So, who did those 60,637,350 supporters of the bad guys put in power?

  • Reince Priebus as White House Chief of Staff
  • Steve Bannon (Breitbart News) Senior Counselor to the President

and these are the current leading actors for the rest of Trump's collection of super villains:

  • Secretary of State: TBD [Newt Gingrich, Bob Corker, John Bolton]
  • Treasury Secretary: TBD [Steven Mnuchin, Jamie Dimon]
  • Attorney General: TBD [Rudy Giuliani, Pam Bondi, Chris Christie]
  • Defense Secretary: TBD [Kelly Ayotte, Jeff Sessions, Michael Flynn]
  • Health and Human Services Secretary: TBD [Ben Carson, Rick Scott]
  • Interior Secretary: TBD [Lucas Oil, Sarah Palin, Robert Grady, Jan Brewer]
  • Agriculture Secretary: TBD [Sid Miller, Sam Brownback, Dave Heineman]
  • Labor Secretary: TBD [Victoria Lipnic]
  • Commerce Secretary: TBD [Wilbur Ross, Chris Christie, Dan DiMicco]
  • Education Secretary: TBD [Ben Carson, William Evers]
  • Energy Secretary: TBD [Harold Hamm, Robert Grady]
  • Homeland Security Secretary: TBD [David Clarke, Michael McCaul]
  • Veterans Affairs Secretary: TBD [Jeff Miller]
  • Environmental Protection Agency Administrator: TBD [Myron Ebell, Jeffrey Holmstead, Joe Aiello]

It’s hard to imagine a nastier looking bunch of rich, corrupt bad guys than this list. We’ve been here before. Nixon’s gang was no better or worse than Trump’s collection of deplorables. Reagan’s gangsters were so corrupt that a bunch of them (138) went to jail. If you are an X-gen youngster, you might imagine that Bush 43 was a disaster of a president and . . . you wouldn’t be wrong. In terms of bankrupting the nation, G.W. was record-setting. He was the kind of doubling-down on borrowing to go to war. But most Republicans are big talkers when it comes to the evils of the national debt and big spenders when it comes to handing taxpayer money over to the military-industrial gangsters.

Nobody with adult reading skills should be surprised who Trump is taking with him to Washington. Trump, himself, is the poster child for the classic evil rich guy who is even more evil behind closed doors than he is in public. About 60,637,350 Americans voted for exactly the guy that you’d hope most people would hope gets killed at the end of the movie. 60,637,350 Americans voted for the people who brought us corporate personhood, Citizens United and worse, and the massive spread between the haves and have-nots. Think about that. When you look at your neighbor, your local store owner, your local politicians, and your friends and when you realize there is a 50% chance that they’d be cheering for the bad guy in the next Batman movie, you can’t help but think about how low humanity has sunk in this country.

11/14/2016

What’s in the Glass?

The wrong question is, “Is the glass half-full or half-empty?” The right question is, “What’s in the glass and if it is something good why they hell isn’t it full?” In other words, “Who the hell syphoned off my glass of beer and how did they do that without me knowing about it?”

My 10 years in medical devices taught me a lot, probably too much, about who is sucking the glass empty in our misnamed “healthcare system.” Today, my wife is having her second radiology exam after her doctor discovered she had a rare form of cancer that was, probably, caused by her mother’s receiving a steroid/synthetic form of estrogen (DES, diethylstilbestrol) that was wrongly assumed had some miscarriage preventative effects. In the end, DES was worthless for that purpose and was repurposed without much FDA examination for increasing weight gain in cattle (“improved feed utilization”). When you attempt to buy “steroid-free” beef, pork, chicken, or other meat you are hoping to buy meat that was not fed DES.

Sitting in the Mayo Clinic’s Radiology waiting room, watching the parade of sales reps waltz in and out of doctors’ offices and departments, I’m reminded of who we can blame for our country having the most expensive, least effective system in the industrialized world: follow the fuckin’ money assholes. Everyone from the drug companies to the medical device companies to the insurance companies to doctors who game the system to the politicians these corporate criminals bribe to keep our system dysfunctional, inefficient, and incompetent are to blame. In fact, a rational nation would hold them criminally to blame and we’d empty our for-profit prisons of victimless “criminals” and pack them full of suits, CEOs, sales people, and insurance executives. Instead, the dumbest states in the country elect the worst of these characters to political office: Rick Scott (Florida Govenor), is probably the worst but he’s far from the only criminal in office. Obama’s Justice Department has been more aggressive in pursuing these criminals than any President in my lifetime, but Congress has worked hard to protect its benefactors. At least one of this season’s Republican candidates, Ben Carson, was rewarded by G.W. Bush for his creative accounting with the Medal of Freedom for pretending to be a physician while raking off more than his fair share of corporate welfare. Some people couldn’t identify a hero in a stack of actual heroes.

A few friends have been medical sales reps and they actually put their patients so far toward the front of their priorities that my fellow medical device employees hated talking to them. They were the exception, however. Most of the sales reps were so clueless that they’d call Technical Services to ask what products they had in their on-call bag. A few called to warn us that a doctor might actually be inclined to do his/her job and could be calling to ask about product failures (which in my 10 year experience never happened). Mostly, every interaction with anyone in the medical field was dissapointing. Docs didn’t worry abouts how their patients coped with the drugs they prescribed, the devices they implanted, or the incredible, bankrupting costs of having their lives saved (or not). Since the docs didn’t care, neither did anyone else in the system. The most callous group in the lineup of people with their hands out and their hearts closed were the industry executives: the multimillionares.

11/13/2016

Our Timid New World

Today, I woke up to my youngest daughter calling to gloat about Trump’s victory. Since we hadn’t had the guts to check the news yet, I didn’t know that Donny had defeated Clinton but I suspected he has since her husband is a pseudo-conservative and she’s tagged along out of some sort of loyalty. We had bigger issues on a personal level to talk about, so we just avoided the subject and I’m sure she was disappointed.

Later today, I experienced a second opinion on our election process and the outcome. Amana/Maytag sent a guy to try and repair our twice-failed Amana dishwasher. The service call was supposed to be under warranty, but the guy and the customer service people decided it wasn’t. I got stuck with a $60 bill for nothing and, then, a demented lesson in politics and history from a guy at least my age driving a beat up van working for a small town appliance repair company.

“We just got rescued.”

“What?”

“We finally have a president with business experience.”

“If bankrupting six companies, stiffing your vendors, and losing stockholders millions is ‘business experience,’ that’s what we got.”
“In 1980, I was running a mechanical contractor business. When Reagan got elected, it was like the whole country breathed a sigh of relief.”
“Not where I lived. In 1981, the market tanked, interest rates kept climbing, and you couldn’t get an engineering job anywere in the Midwest unless it was with a military contractor.”

He went on (and on) about how “the whole economy” turned around overnight after Reagan took office. Of course, reality has a liberal bias and as Forbes Magazine tell it, “Unable to borrow money at an interest rate they could afford, 17,000 businesses had failed by the fall of 1982 and unemployment reached record highs.” When I contested his weird take on 1980’s economics, he asked, “Have you ever run a business?”

Why yes, I have. Several, in fact. A couple for employers and a half-dozen of my own. I supported my family working several jobs and going to school nights. I never stiffed my vendors or declared bankruptcy, either. Turned out, he’d done both but he thought that was just “business.”

gross-fed-debt-over-gdp2If a “business man” was what we needed in the presidency, Jimmy Carter was overwhelmingly more qualified than a demented talk radio jock who was a B-actor in his prime. Carter had turned a small family farm into a substantial farming and distribution business after a successful career as a Navy officer and nuclear engineer. His stint as Georgia governor provided that state with one of its few moments of respect and national prominence. But, according to this repair guy the whole economy suddenly turned around when Reagan took office. Of course, the facts contradicts the myth, so we print and worship the myth.

In 1983, I left Nebraska for California, since Reagan’s home state was the only functioning economy in the country. If I’d been willing to work for Northrop, Lockheed, or one of the dozens of military-industrial complex employers in southern California, I’d have been rolling in money. Instead, I clung to my values and worked for a consumer products manufacturer for ten years and came away from California broke but debt-free.

So, I met a Boomer generation Trump-voter and he turned out to be who I expected him to be: a barely-literate, failing student of history; including his own past. I don’t know how you fix any of this crap. A very few people are doing a lot of work to support the rest of the country and I think they are going to have to lay down that burden and let the country’s deadbeats know how precarious their position is. From my own family experience, it has become clear that people are very selective and creative in their memories and that seems to me to be an impossible educational hurdle. If most people are incapable of learning from history, we don’t have much hope of ever getting beyond our cave-dwelling habits and violent past.

11/12/2016

They are All the Same?

I just spend an afternoon messing with our two year old Amana dishwasher. There are all sorts of things to learn from doing your own work on home appliances and since this particular device was dirt cheap when the bank installed it after repo'ing the house, I didn't have much to lose when it came to tearing the unit apart. So, I did.

Initially, Whirlpool (the company that owns Whirlpool, Maytag, KitchenAid, Jenn-Air, Amana, Gladiator GarageWorks, Inglis, Estate, Brastemp, Bauknecht, Indesit, and Consul brands), said this would be a warranty repair, since the dishwasher failed in exactly the same way a year after we bought the house. When the repair goofball showed up, all of that information seemed to vanish in the Whirlpool (pun intended).

After getting stuck with a $60 repair bill and a $300 estimate for a $250 dishwasher, I decided to do a little troubleshooting of my own. Pretty quickly, I discovered the pump that provides water to the spray jets was defective. After pulling the pump and applying power to the motor outside of the appliance, it was obvious that the noise we'd been living with as long as we've had this dishwasher had been coming from a poorly designed and assembled pump. The armature shaft was about 70% too small for the two end bushings, allowing the motor shaft to pound side-to-side as the motor spun. At first, I tried Whirlpool for the replacement pump, but they wanted $125 for a cheap Chinese-made plastic pump that probably cost less than $5 to build. Then, I checked all of the usual on-line suspects for a discount price and found the pump from as little as $36 to more than $100.

However, even more interesting than the range of prices was the fact that this exact pump is used in Whirlpool/Amana/KitchenAid/Maytag dishwashers that ranged in list prices from $250 to more than $1,000. That was quite a revelation! If you think paying more for an appliance is going to get you better quality, this information ought to bust that bubble.

The repair goofball claimed the problem with modern dishwashers is "the computers," but I kept finding repair blogs and DIY sites that mostly found failures exactly like mine. Dishwasher, washing machine, dryers, and other appliances use most of their power driving motors and those motors and pumps are made more cheaply and poorly in every generation. Power generates heat, motion creates vibration and heat, torque stresses materials and connections, and those three things are the prime factors for part failure in any design.

The general lack of product warranty variation is a great indicator of just how poorly made and unreliable these appliances are: universally 1 year "limited warranty" is the industry standard. You can pre-buy repairs with the add-on warranty policies, but the reputation of those policies is terrible and the contract is not made between the customer and the manufacturer but an intermediate insurance company and miscellaneous repair companies. Warranties are not designed by accident. Reliability assurance weigh the part quality, design weak points, and other factors to make a very educated guess for the mean-time-between-failures the majority of a manufactured product and a fudge-factor cost is sometimes added to the wholesale price of a product to obtain a nice round number, like 12 months, for marketing purposes. Most products have a little safe margin built into the design, which explains why so many of us have experienced product failures 1-6 months after the warranty expires. Expecting a modern product with a 12 month warranty to last 3-5 years is irrational. The product has been designed to last 12 months with normal use. You are unlikely to see much more than that.

When it comes to "getting what you pay for" with the Whirlpool company and it's sub-brands, you are buying cosmetics and "features" like rarely-used wash cycles. Why would you spend money on a stainless steel interior/exterior if you know the fatal flaw in the product is a $5 pump? Your mileage may vary, but I am going to buy the cheapest replacement dishwasher I can find and play on throwing the whole thing away in a year or two.

11/17/2016 POSTSCRIPT: Yesterday, I received a call from a Whirlpool "customer service" person who left a wrong call-back number and a breathless "I really want to resolve this" message. So, I wasted my time trying to return the call and, after a really long time on hold, I was told that since the dishwasher was long out of warranty "I can't do anything to help you." Weird. Why would you bother to call, waste my time on hold for twenty minutes while you re-discovered your company wasn't going to do anything more than I was told the first time? 

Since the faux "service call," I've pulled the pump mechanism apart and did what I did for a living doing for 30+ years: analyzed the pump failure. It was an interesting experience. The actual pump design is pretty clever: two brass bushings, a highly magnetized armature, and a washer to seal moisture from the pump motor. Unfortunately, the armature shaft and the brass bushings are a poor fit, allowing the armature to flail about until the shaft and bushings were really distorted and, finally, the motor magnet intermittently positioned itself against the motor casing where it wouldn't start. Once the motor turned, however, it ran strongly but nosily: exactly the noise we've heard from this dishwasher from the day we started using it.

11/11/2016

Placing My Bet Now

Regardless  of what you conservative fluffballs think, President Obama has done a fine job of keeping the country safe and restoring as much of our deficit economy as possible without a lick of work from our deadbeat Republican congress. If he’d have been given actual patriots to work with, we’d be in a whole different world today.


But you fuckwits decided to blow up the country and see if a random 1% mobbed-up Russian pimp asshole could fix what people with functioning brains could not make a dent in. That’s the beauty of being a moron; you not only don’t have to think before you act but when you fuck up the world you won’t be intelligent, decent, or courageous enough to admit the mess is all your fault.

Here’s my bet for 2017: Trump and his idiot vandals will be so busy looting the national treasury that, like Bush and Cheney and pals, they’ll take their eye off of the national security job and we’ll experience another national disaster like 9/11/2001. The beauty of being a pseudo-conservative is, as always, never having to admit responsibility or error. You morons stumble through life with both feet stuck in trashcans and your heads up your asses and you think your shit smells like roses.

So, let me say it before hand, “Thanks Donny and friends.”

This time, you’re going to discover that tactic is going to fail; big time or "bigly" (if you’re the usual Trump illiterate). You are going to crash the world economy, the plant’s eco system, and there won’t be any coming back from it. You may not admit that it was your fault, but it won’t matter because everyone is going to suffer. Climate change, massive national debt, near-universal unemployment, and a national reputation for stupidity that turns our allies into either a laugh track or enemies.

10/24/2016

Making 'Merica Great "Again"

Aside from the Trumpetes’ foolish jabber about turning back the clock on technology, trade, energy and natural resources, employment and management skills, and reality, I think an examination of what it would take to return our economy from a deficit to a surplus system is an interesting idea. Of course, Republicans deserve massive credit for driving the economy deep into deficit spending: Reagan and Bush II were both huge deficit spending believers. In spite of their big talk about the terror of deficit spending, Republicans absolutely rebelled when Obama told them he expected future spending bills to be on a “pay as you go basis.” The Party of Stupid is also the party of “borrow and spend” and nothing is going to change that in any foreseeable future.
 
However, if we did suddenly become responsible and decide to put on our big boy pants and do the dirty work of turning around the economy, what would we do? This is my list, in order of importance:
  1. Money and politics has to go. Not only does Citizens United need to be overturned, but we need a Constitutional Amendment banning private money (corporate and individual) from our political campaigns. That law needs teeth, as in “you get caught, you hang.” We won’t seriously look at any real solutions until our government is not bought and sold on a daily basis.
  2. The tax system has to be fixed. We’ve been at “war” since 2003 and the only way to pay for wars is to progressively tax income until the war debt is gone. I can see how eliminating the corporate tax could be incentive for business in the US, but that has to be coupled with doubling-down on unearned income taxation, inheritance taxes, and upper-income tax rates. Continuing to encourage rock stars and athletes, banksters and money laundering, and Trump-like con artists with tax incentives to do unproductive money-shuffling has cost the country at least two generations of scientists, engineers, and people who could be doing actual work. Incentives are everything and our current tax system provides incentives for exactly the wrong things; including activities that endanger national security.
  3. The world is on the metric system and the longer we put off moving to modern weights and measurements the less competitive American companies and workers become. Face it, nobody but us cares about the length of the King’s fuckin’ foot. If you think that is an exaggeration, the only non-metric countries in the world are: Burma, Liberia, and the USA. Talk about being late to the party! Thomas Jefferson was the first President to recommend the metric system and we still can’t figure it out. Not being comfortable with the world’s weights and measurements puts a serious crimp in the abilities of American workers, technicians, and engineers. It makes many of our manufactured products useless to the rest of the world. Constantly doing mental or paper/computer conversions slows us down, creates errors, and makes Americans look backward and foolish to the rest of the world.
  4. graphThe current slow death of religion has to speed up. Currently, about 18% of people 60 and younger attend church and fewer than 50% believe in God. That's an improvement over the past 50 years of superstition, but not enough and not nearly quick enough. Every thing from science, energy production, employability, democracy, to national security is being damaged by our national proclivity toward superstition and fantasy. To keep up, we’ll have to grow up.
  5. The war machine and military-industrial complex have to go. Not only do we have to quit pretending we're the world's policeman, we have to admit we suck at the job. We can't tell national security from corporate interests and until we can we need to put our weapons back on the shelf. The US loves war, but we can't afford it. As a peace-keeper, we’re not that talented.
  6. Our public education system needs to be overhauled. First, private education needs to die. When the wealthy can abandon public education and do everything in their power to contaminate the discussion about how to educate the whole country to benefit their class, the whole country gets screwed. Finland provides us with a terrific example and, since our own experiment has been a disaster, we need to look to someone who has built a wheel that actually turns and supports weight. As Jeff Beck said, “Amateurs borrow, professionals steal.” We need to rip the pages out of Finland’s education reform book and paste them into our own system.
  7. We have to go back into space. The brief moment when 'Merica was great by almost everyone's standards was when we were in the Space Race and were focused on a big accomplishment. The scientific and industrial spin-offs from NASA were incredible. We owe much of what we know today about climate change to NASA's research. As crippled as our industrial and scientific power is today, without the space race we'd be 3rd world. This is a no-brainer.
  8. Every “for profit” industry in the country needs to be re-evaluated to see if it is working better than when those activities were performed by non-profits and government. Personally, I think deregulation and privatization has been a disaster, but I have not made a scientific study of every area where it has been applied. I have been upfront and close to education, health care, energy, and infrastructure and I am unimpressed with the performance of the private sector.
  9. Our legal system needs to get over its power tripping and empire building and develop a sense of proportion. Police need to go after big crime and quit screwing around with the easy and safe stuff. Victimless crimes do not belong at the top of the priority list. The War on Drugs was a fraud and it’s long past time to admit it. The big money and long-term damage to society is in white collar crime and that’s where the main enforcement and prosecution focus needs to be: cybercrime, financial fraud, corporate environmental and consumer abuse, and the government contracting corruption and bribery that risks national security. Our prison system needs to be refocused on rehabilitation rather than punishment and revenge. We can not be the country that leads in citizens incarcerated and hope to be anything resembling “great.” National, state, and local police departments are over-staffed with unskilled goons who are great at beating up protestors, jailing small-time criminals, and protecting corporate criminals, but they are helpless when it comes to tracking down the lowest-level hacker who has ripped off a few thousand retirees bank accounts. Our law enforcement system needs to be updated and technological to get the right job done. Use the Pareto principle to identify the most effective places to spend time and money and quit knee-jerk reacting to squeaky wheels.
That’s my list. What have you got?

10/20/2016

Getting Answers Without Making Enemies

Back in my management salad days, we had a manufacturing engineering rule that stated, “Any new paperwork/procedure has to directly benefit the person who does the work.” This put some pressure on management when we began to add quality control processes to assembly line jobs. Anytime we wanted to add an inspection, a check box on an inspection form, or a self-monitoring quality control chart to an assembler or technician’s job, we had to find a way to prove to that person that we were making their job easier, giving them more control of their work, and/or upping their value to the company (making it possible for them to make more money).

I get reminded of this requirement every time someone sends me a SurveyMonkey link. Most recently, Google sent me a link to a 3-question about the effectiveness of AdSense, Google’s blog page revenue generator. That pretty much fits my rule. I make a few dollars every month from my blogs and optimizing that revenue would be important to me if that revenue were a critical part of my family income. It took a few seconds to complete the form and, hopefully, we both got something out of the exercise.

On the other hand, an organization that my wife and I occasionally participate in sent us a survey about a change in the organization’s leadership. While there was no indication of how many questions I’d be asked, after a page of questions I realized I wasn’t committed enough to having my voice heard to waste any more time with the survey. I made it far enough to get to the second page, looked at the repetitiveness and irrelevancy of the questions and bailed out. Back in my academic days, I created a collection of surveys for the faculty senate and administration and I made an effort to be concise and user-friendly. I am perfectly happy to be out of that business, though. Doing that kind of work in a poorly managed environment is a wrestling match between the control freaks and the information collectors. I’m only interested in the information and did everything possible to ignore the control freak requests.

Some questions are more complicated and absolutely require more questions: the Myers-Briggs Personality test or the Political Compass analysis, for example. Otherwise, if you can’t get the answers you need in ten or fewer questions, you need to think harder about what you really need.

10/17/2016

Buying Fantasies, Ignoring Reality

I wrote, a while back, about my confusion with the crowd of people who use the excuse, “I don’t believe that,” as an argument against facts, logic, experience, and objective observation. Many of these people have interpreted a variety of religions (Islam and Christianity, can’t tell ‘em apart from their fundamentalists.) or by their self-limited world views in ways that prevent them from absorbing information or new skills. As if being uninformed was a credential, too many Americans are convinced their lack of education, skills, or insight makes them specially suited for evaluating the accuracy of science, historical research, sociology and psychology, and politics. This weird worship of stupidity seems to be raising its moronic little head in every area of American life. To the absurd point that one of the least talented, educated, capable, moral or honest people who has ever lived is not only The Party of Stupid’s presidential candidate but who has accumulated a hoard of uneducated, thoughtless, violent and destructive whacko minions large enough to threaten the US political, social, and economic systems.

Wallace Kansas (4) 20120223 DSquatThe problem with going with “I don’t believe that” as a personal philosophy is that it limits every aspect of your life. Lots of difficult-to-swallow things are true: science and engineering history is packed with ideas that were practically worshipped for centuries and, later, proved wrong. A scientist or engineer who hangs on to wrong ideas quickly becomes unemployed and unemployable. An individual who clings to old ideas and skills becomes the human equivalent of a buggy whip. You might be the absolute best buggy whip ever made, but there aren’t enough buggies around to support a hobbyist, let alone a professional. People in the Midwest are waiting for the family owned farm economy to come back; mtr1along with the small businesses and services once needed to support that economy. People in West Virginia are waiting for coal to make a resurgance; regardless of the fact that if coal does come back it won’t employ miners but a few huge equipment operators who will decimate the Appalachian Mountains so that the area will be unlivable for centuries. The problem red state dependenceisn’t that these people are incapable of adapting. The problem is that they refuse to admit that they need to adapt. They desperately want to believe the world will return to how it was “when America was great” and time, technology, international trade, and their own skills will revert to a simpler day. It is never gonna happen, but they refuse to “believe that” and they may continue to refuse until they either die or break the bank.

As long as these long-suffering people insist on clinging to their own past, they can’t be retrained for new work because their philosophy over-rides the scientific method and logic. Worse, possibly, is the fact that the few people living in those places who can adapt tend to simply move away rather than fight the tide. I know. I’m one of those who moved away.

10/04/2016

Dreams and Nightmares

 

I lost a friend this week for not having sufficient sympathy for one of my daughter’s in-laws. In retrospect, I think a good bit of our disagreement was about “the American Dream.” The term, "the American dream," first appeared in 1931. Author and historian, James Truslow Adams (1878-1949), wrote about this concept in his book, The Epic of America. He said, [the American Dream is] “that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.” That is pretty much in line with my own concept of what the American dream should be, along with the goal that my children will be able to come closer to a life that is “better and richer and fuller ” than my own.

whoever_dies_with_the_most_to_bumper_bumper_bumper_stickerSince the 80’s, the American dream has become something more closely linked to “stuff.” The bumper sticker, “He who dies with the most toys, wins” is more the current version of the American dream than Adams’ description. This is nicely tied to the business man’s claim that “time is money,” when every artist on the planet knows the reverse is true. Money is pretty much just paper or bits of useless metal, at best. Donald Trump proves, with his every living moment on this planet, how little money can actually buy. Most people wouldn’t choose his petty, selfish, friendless life over almost any other lifestyle, cb2bd64378be8ddc0756acdfc0c84c08but (supposedly) he’s “rich.” He has a lot of toys, but he’s a miserable, miserly person. I’ve known homeless guys (We used to call them “hoboes.”) who were happier, more interesting, and were more satisfied with their lives than Trump and his family.

The lack of sympathy, mine, that blew up a decades-old friendship was over this disconnect. For almost twenty years, these in-laws have made it clear that my wife and I are not up to their standards of consumer-ship. They and their son took any opportunity to make comparisons between our possessions and theirs. Theirs were always heavily-leveraged with second mortgages and credit cards and ours were second-hand purchases made with cash. They lived on the edge of bankruptcy until they finally fell off.

My step-grandmother and other role models drilled into my head that I always needed enough savings to survive for at least three months without employment. After the recessions of the 1970’s--and 80’s and 90’s--I grew that paranoid safety margin to at least six months and the older I got the more safety margin I felt I needed to build. Through the Dotcom years and the insane first years of this century, as I approached my 60’s, my willingness to gamble with either credit or speculation vanished completely. The world looked insanely out-of-control and my investments became more conservative by the year until—against all advice from my stockbroker and bank—almost all of our money was in US federal bonds and FDIC insured CDs when the 2007 Great Recession hit.

In the meantime, our daughter’s in-laws doubled-down on everything from new cars, boats, a luxury home in the Nevada desert, and spent money they would never have like it was pixie dust. Then the market crashed and I had to worry about my conservative securities and property. They ended up losing everything and living in a leased cross-country semi, mostly running from debt and living day-to-day. They even resorted to selling their underwater Nevada home to their own daughter, transferring that back-breaking debt to her family.

Like the ant and the grasshopper story, I should (I’ve been told) feel sympathy for the grasshoppers and gamblers who bought into the “time is money” and “the most toys, wins” delusion. I suppose it’s the Midwestern Calvinist in me (according to my wife), but my patience with stupid is all played out. And there wasn’t much there in the first place. These are the same people who bought Reagan’s “greed is good,” who went along with Bush/Cheney telling us we can carry on two expensive wars and reduce upper-income taxes, and who now believe that Trump (a man who can’t make money owning a casino) will make “America great again” with a big wall and negotiating our national debt with China the way he negotiated the bankruptcy of his own six businesses.

10/01/2016

Running out of Material

June 10, 2013

In 1997, when I started writing Rat’s Eye Rants, I was 49 and pissed off. I couldn’t have imagined ever running out of material to write about. For some reason, I thought there might be others as pissed off as me who’d want to hear my thoughts and who might add their own to make the Rat’s Eye into a discussion site. Never happened, which mostly gave me some painful insight into how unwanted, unneeded, and dysfunctional my view on modern life was. Weirdly, my same outlook on motorcycling turned into a well-read column in a magazine, Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly, and a million-plus-hits blog, Geezerwithagrudge.com.

Early in the first decade of this century, my Rat’s Eye output dwindled. When I first started writing the Rat’s Eye, I was working for one of the worst managed companies I’d ever experienced (and I’ve experienced some seriously terrible management). I had the thought that there was almost as much to learn from bad management as good. The first few years of the Rat’s Eye were all about mismanagement because I had a bit of misplaced faith that capitalism and business were something less than pure evil. After five years with Telectronics and five years with Guidant, my faith in capitalism, industry, business, and humanity took a turn for the worse. Since then, when I hear children and other uneducated people babble about the terrors of  “overregulation” and big government, I assume I’m listening to the jabbering of an idiot and tune out. Shit and cream both rise to the top and shit is, apparently, far lighter than cream in a corporate environment. Worse, the structure of most corporations quickly turns cream to shit.

Could be I’m wrong. Maybe toward the end of 2016 I might still be pissed off and full of ideas. I doubt it.

9/19/2016

Where Your Entitlement Stops

We’re on the road in a min-RV during the winter of 2013,  as I write this essay. Just yesterday, our eight-year-old cat ran off and we’re sorting out our feelings and rearranging our mobile life to go on without him. He was a real member of our now-two-species family and this is as much of a loss as when an old friend who I hadn’t seen in several years died.

Our cat, Spike, was as full of personality and as loving as 90% of the human population and overwhelmingly more so than any Republican I’ve ever met. When my wife or I were sick, Spike would sit as close to us as possible and try be a comfort. When I was working in the basement shop or the attic studio, Spike would pick a chair and just hang out for as long as I worked. When Robbye was in her art studio, Spike had a favorite chair that was reserved for him. He was dependable, quiet, friendly company, always. When we were trapped in the house during winter storms, he would strike up a running battle with the dog and the two would play for hours. It was impossible not to think he was playing for our laughter. And we laughed at the two animals for hours over the seven years Spike lived with us. When we realized he had gone so far from the RV that he wouldn’t be able to find his way back, all of us (dog included) spent a somber day searching for him and hoping, pointlessly, that he might return. He didn’t and we had to move on.

Every loss should bring change, more than just the loss. After losing Spike, I decided to change my own tolerance of poor manners. Having pets means that the lowest class of people all seem to believe you should give a shit about their phobias or allergies or general hypochondria. Entering someone’s house is a privilege, not a right. Decent manners would require one to shut the fuck up about your piddly problems with their home and enjoy the privilege. Or leave. Your choice. I could care less which option you pick as long as I don’t have to hear about it.

When someone comes into our home and immediately feels the need to tell us about their cat allergy or how much they dislike cats/dogs/kids/white paint, I’m done with them from here out. Since they were clearly raised by undisciplined, arrogant, entitled morons who taught their little retards that the whole world should be interested in their sub-human problems, I don’t need to know more about them. Seriously. I’m not interested. Keep it to yourself.

As a degenerating society, we have moved beyond the point where it was once socially unacceptable to talk about “religion and politics” to the disgusting point where strangers think all of the rest of the world should give a shit about their personal problems. I don’t. If you have food allergies, bring your own food. Don’t waste my time jabbering about your piddly genetic defects. As far as I’m concerned, the world is over-stuffed with human beings and anything that reduces human population is a good thing, so don’t expect me to pick through your salad to make it safe. In fact, you might double-check your food to be sure I don’t intentionally slip some peanuts or whatever under a leaf.

Letting a host know that their home isn’t properly outfitted for you is clearly impolite and arrogant. So, don’t bother. I don’t care and I’m going to let you know, in Spike’s memory, how little I care about your genetic or personality defects. In fact, I’m perfectly happy to watch you vanish from the planet if you are so genetically defective that you can’t survive on a world full of animals other than yourself.

9/12/2016

What is Charisma?

I have worked for at least five companies which were started by ordinary men, with ordinary-or-less skill, who had no more vision or foresight than your average truck driver or waitress, and whose lucky business experiments turned into enterprises that even their worst characteristics were unable to destroy in their working lifetime. When I hear the wingnut talking heads jabber about “the entrepreneur spirit” or “business charisma” or read a Forbes article about some ‘genius” business exec who appears to be about as bright as a barfly, I admit to total confusion. I’ve known the little guys and the big guys (CEOs, COOs, CFOs, and miscellaneous VPs and directors of Misfortune 100 and 500 corporations) and I have seen nothing brilliant, creative, or inspirational in their behavior or talents. I’m not saying that all of those guys, those “leaders,” were idiots or incompetents, but I am saying that they were not anything special in any identifiable way. At least, in any way I could identify.

However, enough exposure to this stuff will teach even the dumbest guy something. This past week, I spent two long, dreary, dull, monotonous, painful days with my wealthy and “successful” brother. Thirty years ago, he started a business with some non-participating “partners” (aka investors) that tuned into something overwhelmingly successful. His son has taken on the business while my brother has turned what he believes is his “business skill” toward a collection of real estate and development investments that are most likely going to undo 30 years of good fortune, big money, and gaudy luxury. Neither of them appear to be bound for a happy ending. The son has decided that “being too nice” to his employees (the ones who built the business) was his father’s great fault and the father has bought into the idea that he is a business genius and can turn shit to gold just with a wave of his hand.

As an adult who has had competent people working for him for 30 years--doing the technical and skilled tasks—my rich-but-disabled brother become unable to pay his own personal bills, venture competently into the world outside of his 1%’er compound (Guantanamo for rich people?), deal with people who don’t see him as a source of unearned income (everyone not asking for tips and handouts or running a con), manage his personal habits (drinking, anger, healthcare, money, and his family and friends), or feed himself outside of ordering a meal at a neighborhood restaurant. “I’ve got people” is the plaintive cry of the characters who are supposed to be so inspirational, according to the business press. Obviously, competence , intelligence, or foresight are not key characteristics of a corporate leader. So, what is at the heart of what makes someone likely to turn a fairly common idea into a fortune?

You could call it “charisma” or you could call it “entrepreneurial spirit” or you can call it “luck,” but what it isn’t is genius. What I have seen, consistently, is a quality that I’ve read is at the heart of the Harvard Business School training; a willingness to pull credit up and push blame down. That’s it. That is the whole story when it comes to who makes the big bucks and creates the biggest successes in business.

Normal, non-psychopathic people, are smart enough to realize that things happen in business because of more than just one person. Normal, productive people naturally share credit and blame to get the job done. Normal people do not put themselves ahead of everyone else in a project. People with “charisma” are not normal.

Media children who have never had a real job, performed a useful task, or accomplished a measureable thing in their lives, assume their unenlightened myopic vision of how a business works has some connection to reality and pump that into the idiotic biographies they publish or broadcast in business journals or television programs and try to sell the rest of us on buying into magic instead of what lies in plain sight. “Are you gonna believe us or your lyin’ eyes?”

I vote for my eyes. Thanks for asking.

Charisma appears to be nothing more than they psychopathic ability to convince smarter, more-talented people that there is a shared mission: a mission that, in reality, is nothing more than a ploy to get talent to buy into making one person or a very few people rich and/or powerful while wasting the time and energy of the people with real talent. This is not unlike the qualities of a historic military leader who can convince young men to throw away their lives for “honor” or some other irrational fantasy, while burning up the resources and future of nations for fun and profit. This kind of “leadership” ought to be something intelligent people run from as if it were attached to a plague carrier. Characters like Henry Ford, Jack Welch, Steve Jobs, Lee Iacocca, and the usual charismatic suspects business promotes as examples of “leadership” are all of the same semi-psychopathic character.

From a different perspective, the Harvard Business Review raved about Jobs’ ability to con employees into making him rich, “In this new organization, employees were supposed to work ceaselessly, uncomplainingly, and even for relatively low pay not just to produce and sell a product but to realize the vision of the messianic leader.” I’m pretty that is exactly what I said, except I called the business plan “a ploy to get talent to buy into making one person or a very few people rich ” and the HBR called it “the vision of the messianic leader.” In my opinion, the difference between their description and mine is that mine provides detail about the “vision.” None of these assholes is trying to create something lasting, other than their personal fortune and power. The only noticeable societal change any of these characters produced was to their family inheritance.

A few years ago, one of the founders of Intel, Andy Grove, cautioned employees of all sorts to consider their employer as just a customer, rather than a partner. When you see someone with charisma offering employment, I recommend running as fast as possible in any direction that puts as much distance between this “leader” as possible. Nothing good will come, to you, from exposure to a psychopath. This is the kind of customer real businesses avoid.

9/05/2016

A Slave Nation, A Slave World?

When human beings come together with a mission, we can be an inspiring, uplifting, force for good in the world. That happens about 1 out of 10,000,000 times in human activity. Maybe not that often. Most often, we “come together” because we are forced to through coercion, superstition/religion, fear, greed, or stupidity.

Slavery is one of the ways humans are coerced into “togetherness.” In early human history, and you can read all about it in the Bible/Koran/Torah/Book of Mormon/Dianetics or whatever crazy list of human silliness to which you subscribe. Slavery is the handiest way for the most psychopathic humans to control the dumbest humans. The majority of our species is too stupid to live outdoors, so most of us appear to be designed for slavery. It’s as old as civilization, assuming you’re willing to accept a very loose definition of “civilization,” and the #1 reason humans are destined to be a mistake in evolution that will set the earth’s attempt to colonize the galaxy back at least 50 million years. (I put that sentence in for my wife, who is a neo-pagan and believes we’re supposed to be the earth’s “seed” species. I, on the other hand, have seen no evidence of intelligence in the universe and suffer no such delusions.) The fact that we tolerate overlords so willingly is beyond sad. Our ability to practically worship our never-ending supply of 1%’ers depresses me to no end.

In his detailed history of the pre-Civil War slavery years, A Disease in the Public Mind, Thomas Fleming writes, “If we study the income of those men who owned twenty slaves or more and qualified as ‘planters’ –some 46,274 individuals—the pictures is even more astonishing. These men owned half of all of the slaves, which means their net worth was at least $1.5 billion. Put another way, a mere 0.58 [%]of the South’s total population [9,101,090 per the 1860 census, so the actual percentage was 0.51%] composed 70 percent of the richest people in the United States in 1860.”In 150 years, nothing useful has changed. Obviously, that was just a continuation of the trend carried over to the New World from the old world and, as I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, this has been going on for as long as humans have banded together into gangs/communities.

Likewise, in Fleming’s book he writes of the slaves/soldiers’ common bond with each other. “Only their sense of honor as soldiers kept them in uniform. Above all else, they detested the abolitionists, who had gotten them into this murderous nightmare.” While we can’t seem to live without the 1%’ers driving us from one catastrophe to the next, it’s easy for all of us to bond together to hate the people who try to break us free from our slave owners. And as usual, we fight each other for the fun and profit of the few. Nothing new there either, as one of the Civil War veterans said, "this is a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.”

And you wonder why I am so disgusted with the human race?

9/04/2016

Vanishing Point

Three years ago, last month, I left home
After a dozen years standing in one place
I moved on
At the time, it felt like dying
It felt like being liberated from cement shoes
It felt like losing my family
It felt like winning the lottery
Who knew it would be like vanishing?
No one said, “Don’t go”
Or “We need you”
They all said, “We’ll keep in touch”
I threw my own going-away party
Otherwise, I would have disappeared unnoticed

8/31/2016

What’s Inside the Sausage?

For some perverted reason, I decided to put myself on the ballot for one of Red Wing, Minnesota’s city council seats this fall. Part of that citizen-penance has been to attend city council meetings, especially this fall’s budget planning sessions. There I was reminded, again, that humans are incapable of learning from past experience. If you have ever been part of a corporate budget planning session, especially for a manufacturing company, you wouldn’t be able to recognize the civil service version. Instead of presenting a best-case/normal-case/worst-case revenue budget figure, so the city’s representatives can decide what gets done and what doesn’t, the city’s “finance officer” presents the happiest scenerio possible without any presented data to support his optimism. As usual, the more I learn about how my municipal sausage has been made, the less likely I am to want to eat sausage.

A new-to-me  term titled “tax capacity” was introduced along with a really depressing chart that described how city property taxes could be increased over the next decade. “Tax capacity” is the city finance officer’s best guess as to how much the city can raise tax rates before “something bad” happens. That undefined bad thing would be when the city raises taxes and the cost of services so high that even the current retirement community in the city and the small-to-large businesses are motivated to leave.

The problem with optimistic budget plans is that optimism is not often justified. In the case of Red Wing there are many looming financial difficulties and, by leaving them completely undefined and unanticipated, the city is setting itself up for failure. Here are just a few of the likely bumps in the road in Red Wing’s future:

  • The country elects another borrow-and-spend Republican President and, this time, the House and Senate are also Republican. After a brief bubble in a variety of recently “unregulated” sectors, the economy crashes into a real depression when all of those previously-regulated gangsters and con men crash the house. Housing values fall, businesses fail, tourism vanishes, people move away looking for the few jobs that exist in the rest of the country, and the tax base collapses for loss of population and local income.
  • The Prarie Island Nuclear Power Plant is either decommissioned (as planned) and 6-10% of the city’s revenue vanishes overnight. The city is not only left with a huge hole in the budget, but clean-up costs at the nuclear power plant fall on the city and county as Xcel “bankrupts” out on the obligation, as they have repreated across the country. Thanks to the revenue from this facility, Red Wing has over-built its school system, police and fire departments, city management, and services. The cost of maintaining these facilities and personnel without Xcel’s tax revenue could push local taxes high enough to cause rapid population loss.
  • Prarie Island has a Three Mile Island-level event, which not only forces the plant closed “unexpectedly,” but causes the city, county, and state to spend massive amounts of borrowed money to hang on to something resembling a community. Since there has been no planning for this event, the city moves quickly from prosperous to bankrupt when the bonds/debt comes due.
  • The obviously aging Red Wing demographic takes a jump in years and tax revenues fall when one or two major manufacturers decides to leave the area. What little attraction there was to the city for young families vanishes and they evacuate Red Wing for the Cities.
  • The same “aging Red Wing demographic ” continues to increase in years, allowing more Minnesota residents to take advantage of property tax allowances and the aging Minnesota demographic votes itself a better deal on property taxation in general. That shifts the municipal tax burden to younger families and to a lesser extent on local business. Of course, that provides incentive for the younger citizens to leave the area.

These are just the top of my list. I could add at least three or four more bad news scenarios and I’m sure you can think of a couple I would miss. Even without a significant catestrophic event it is likely that the overall US economy will continue the generally downward path it has been on since the late-60’s and all those bills we put off for a more prosperous future generation will come due on our children and their children. The time to solve those problems is now, while there is still some money available to work with.

When a competent business (a rare organization today) makes an annual budget, one part of the planning is examining all of the good and bad things that could effect that plan. During the Red Wing budget process I heard far too much about how much additional tax capacity the city would absolutely have for the future. I’m not picking on Red Wing here, either. I suspect that my little town is no different than 99.999…% of the country, including counties, states, and the feds. Civil servants are not the right people to be in charge of the budget process. Either citizens, both elected and not, tell their government how to manage the community or the process is out of control. As I’ve said at least a couple hundred times this summer, there is no such thing as a successful non-participatory democracy. The only way to actually find a fix for the looming problems of Red Wing, Goodhue County, Minnesota, and the United States is for citizens to be actually involved instead of pretending to be patriots on-line and in preaching-to-the-choir bar conversations with like minded friends. It’s dirty work and no one wants to do it, but you always get exactly the government you deserve.

nuclear closingsRed Wing and Goodhue County’s golden goose, the nuclear power plant, Prarie Island’s operating license expires in 2033-2034 and Xcel Energy has and will continue to explore shutting the plant down early. Fusion nuclear plants are expensive to maintain and alternative energy is becoming cheaper, more reliable, We are likely near the tipping point for a variety of technologies that will make nuclear even more unprofitable and undesireable. In not more than a dozen years, Red Wing and Goodhue County will lose a huge source of municipal income. There appears to be no local concern or plan to address that drastic change.

The questions that should be asked today, while there is some time left to work toward solutions are: How much of the city’s future debt is covered with savings? Is the city pension fund (or funds) fully covered? Does any new city hire automatically trigger increased savings in the pension funds? Are new hires and capital expenditures justified with the anticipated future population and demographics?

DemographicFor example, in 1995 the city built a new high school complex that includes “a full size greenhouse and one of its kind Minnesota Department of Natural Resources-licensed Aquaculture Facility play host to plant science and agricultural courses. The Hovda Auditorium seats 732 people and supports concerts and community events. The Black Box Theatre allows seating for 250 and hosts smaller productions. . . The sports complex includes a football stadium, eight tennis courts, three baseball fields, four softball fields, soccer fields, a nine-lane all-weather running track and field event areas. The district also owns both of the city's indoor ice arenas: Prairie Island Arena and Bergwall Arena.Minneapolis DemographicThis is a facility that educates about 1200 students. As you can see by the age demographics chart at left, Red Wing’s population is pretty much the same as the rest of Minnesota. However, if you compare that to Minneapolis’ demographics the picture is more than a little scary. Red Wing’s population “hump” is solidly in the 25-64 territory with an obvious hole in the 18-24 age group. Adults in the 18-44 age groups are highly mobile and will evacuate quickly, especially if they are skilled, if the local economy tanks, if local taxes makes the city unlivable, or if the quality of life declines. An empire as substantial as the Red Wing High School could quickly become a major economic drag on the city with even a 10% drop in high school age students. With current trends, it’s not hard to image a much small school age population in the next decade. Those 1990’s high expectations for Red Wing’s growth were likely driven by delusions of grandeur that have not been realized by the city.

At the budget meeting I heard several recommendations from city bureaucrats that the council approve hiring consultants to do work I would have expected the city employees to be doing. That reminded me of some of my consulting jobs where management wanted close evaluation of low paid employee activity when that same examination of management and executive effectiveness would have produced far greater returns. So, with that in mind I’d like to know who evaluates the effectiveness of city employees? With all of that consultant money being spent on things that should be at least partially researched and evaluated by the existing city employment, why not hire a management consultant every few years to evaluate the efficiency of the city’s employees including all levels of city management? In fact, that should be in the city’s charter that such an evaluation is the first thing an incoming City Council undertakes.

Instead of allowing city employes to speculate on corrosive and unproductive concepts like “tax capacity,” I’d like to see city employees refocused on business concepts like “value added” service to the community, customer service, and data-driven customer satisfaction. Obvious and tested business concepts like “return on investment” with the return being value provided to the taxpayers would be core to a well run city. I have no idea how to get this conversation started and history, unfortunately, shows that Americans want entitlements, wasteful spending, and incompetence reduced; just not the entitlements, wasteful spending, and incompetence that benefits them. Personally, I think catestrophe is the only thing that successfully motivates human beings. We are, by nature, stodgy conservatives afraid of change in any form and Americans are more conservative than most 1st world nations.