Thursday, November 29, 2012

Fire Everything!

There's a scene in the Star Trek reboot movie where the bad guy, Captain Nero of the Romulan mining ship Narada, sees that his entire plan for retroactive revenge on the Federation is going pear-shaped.  As you might imagine, a guy who's dragged his entire crew into the past to avenge the death of his planet (admittedly, that is a lot of trauma to deal with) can be expected to display some epic emotional outbursts.

As Spock pilots a tiny, high-velocity spacecraft full of dangerous materials on a collision course into the Narada, Nero bellows, "Fire everything!"  He commits everything he has against what he knows must be certain annihilation.

As in fiction, so in life.  The so-called "fiscal cliff" is rapidly approaching.  If we go over it, assorted automatic things happen: certain Bush The Younger tax cuts discontinue, assorted funding levels are reduced, certain tax rates go up.  If you're a Republican, rising tax rates are certain annihilation.  If you're a Democrat, cutting the budgets of assorted federal agencies like the National Labor Relations Board and the Social Security Administration are certain annihilation.  It sounds like it's a guaranteed bad day for everybody.

Why the fuss?  Because if we go over the fiscal cliff, economists say we're almost certain to enter another recession.  Here's where things get a little weird.

Economists teach a couple of things about recessions that are especially salient in this context:

1) Recessions are not always fully understood by the very people who are paid to study and analyze these things.

2) Recessions may be a necessary facet of modern economies.

If it's necessary and paradoxical and not fully understood and unavoidable, let's just pull out all the stops.  Fire everything!  Let's not just go over the fiscal cliff - let's dive over it.

Get the recession out of the way.  We just came out of one with the housing bubble, and a few nice things came out of that: banks aren't making ludicrous assumptions on future earnings of loan applicants, and so are less likely to create their own toxic debts, and also housing prices came down from their unreasonably lofty heights.  That's good for everyone.

Everyone, that is, except those people who actually listened to the creditors' siren songs of easy loans and earnings projections, only to find themselves entirely upside-down on gigantic houses they never had a reasonable hope of affording.  Consider that tuition on a lesson learned.

The dollar isn't especially strong these days.  No one can explain to me why inflation is an economic necessity - would deflation be so bad?  To have a dollar that buys a little bit more than it did last week, instead of less?  I understand stronger dollars would mean fewer exports overseas - so what?  We haven't been exporting that much overseas for quite some time now.  For some reason Buick is huge in China, but those cars are built in-country by Chinese labor and when's the last time you saw Japanese youngsters squabbling in storefronts for the hot new electronic devices from the US?

Right: never.

So go ahead and shrink the economy.  Reduce American workers' expectations a healthy amount.  Not that long ago minimum wage was only $3.50 per hour, but it was okay: a loaf of bread was only a buck.

We don't have to leap over the cliff and hit bottom the hard way.  Enact a few tax increases right now.  Nothing big.  Pare a percent or two off some funding budgets.  Give people a little time to adjust to the new load.  Then more tax increases, more spending cuts.  Get started right now, but you don't have to pop the clutch and go over the precipice like Thelma and Louise.  We can go over the fiscal cliff with a parachute, descending to a new, less-heady height at a measured pace.

But I think it's high time we had some contraction.  Inflation, expansion, biggerizing ad infinitum.  At some point it has to stop, at some point we must regain control of the economy instead of letting it continue to expand unchecked.  Things that expand too far burst.  Fire everything, make a few holes, let some air out.

NOTE: I am not an economist and know nothing whatsoever.  Yes, I am aware that recessions are "bad."

Saturday, November 24, 2012

One Danger of Consumerism

There's an ad on Youtube circulating, an ad that states "we need to make stuff again."


Why do we need to make stuff?  The specious part of that statement is the word "need."  Obviously as people we tend to want things, and the way we live predicates certain material things like houses and clothing.  But what else is there that we need?

Food.  That's not making stuff, that's growing stuff.  I guess you could call it "making" when you send it to a factory for canning.

China, and in fact all of Asia, is stealing a march on other parts of the world when it comes to manufacturing jobs in the electronics sector.  Up until fairly recently it was a given that the best electronics came from Japan.  But just recently both Sony and Panasonic, longtime leaders in the Japanese electronics industry, were downgraded to junk status.


So who's enjoying the bounce?  When major players fall from the heights like that, somebody else must be on the rise.  When the tide is going down here, it's going up somewhere else.  Samsung, a Korean company, is climbing fast as Sony's and Panasonic's influences contract.  Also on the rise are Lg (also Korean), Huawei (China), HiSense (China) and Vizio (ostensibly American, but with offshore manufacturing).  I contacted Vizio but got no indication of Vizio moving manufacturing to American soil anytime soon.  Admittedly, I didn't contact very high in the food chain and I didn't pursue very hard.

There's cars, of course.  We all know who the major players are there, and none of that has really changed much.  It's worth noting, too, that there really is no such thing as a foreign Japanese car anymore.  Subarus are manufactured in Indiana, Toyotas in California, Nissans in Tennessee...the only really foreign cars are European.  And even some of those are made in the States: Volkswagen has a plant in Chattanooga, BMW a plant in South Carolina.

But the question I'm asking is: do we need all this stuff?  Our economy is driven by people wanting, and buying, stuff.  Buying it in huge quantities, no less.  Huge quantities are stock in trade for such retailers as Costco and Sam's Club.  You can buy 1-gallon tubs of "heavy duty" mayonnaise.  Exactly how does mayonnaise become "heavy duty?"

You can make the case for 1-gallon tubs of mayo: if you're a church or club and you're putting on a picnic, there's a valid need for a large container.  Same with #10 cans of baked beans, a #10 can holds three quarts of food and delivers a lot of product for a relatively small outlay in packaging and handling cost.  But when you're just a family of four, it's going to take a lot of leftover dinners to get through the contents of a single #10.  There's not much point in having a can that size, let alone being a small family and buying it.

The things we use up need to be produced at a regular rate: toilet paper, clothes, food.  Energy products like fuel and electricity, those need to be generated at the source and delivered.  But so many things that people suddenly think they need, they don't.  Not really.

You can make the argument for a cell phone.  It's a lot harder to make the argument for a smart phone.  It's damned near impossible to make the case for, and really really hard to defend the decision to dump your old smart phone just so you can upgrade to the latest model.  People are knocking each other over for a brand-new iPhone 5, but why?  It's not that great.  Between utterly hilarious iOS Maps screwups and difficulty updating the silly thing to the latest operating system, you might wonder whether bothering with the new one is even worth the trouble.

An original iPhone got quite a lot done.  And none of what it does - aside from making and taking phone calls - is really what you need.  It's just what you want.

These capabilities these devices bring, the extra goodies we bring into our home, most of them only excel at one thing: making us less human.

Instead of calling someone and speaking to them directly, do you send a text message?  Too bad.  Texting leaves vocal inflection behind, and then you're stuck relying on foolish smiley and frowny faces to imply emotional weight to your otherwise dry, robotic message.

Bigger and better TVs so you can stay home and watch a movie that is delivered to you by the Internet.  Do you remember when going out to a movie was an event, something you planned?  If you're younger than about 25, you might not.  I certainly do.  I also remember sneaking out to movies at the local $.99 theater, a place that showed second-run titles.  When the big multiplexes were showing the brand-new titles for $5.00 a show - this was in the 80s, mind, and $5.00 was nearly two hours' wage for a kid my age - I could catch something affordable if I didn't mind waiting two months.  And forget waiting just four to six months for the movie to come out on video - you were lucky if it came out within two years.

A large part of being human is the social nature of humanity.  But as we further insulate ourselves from each other with our electronic devices that distract and entertain without requiring us to be anywhere near each other, we're giving up crucial skills that make us a powerful force.  We're losing our ability to interact, to cooperate.  We're becoming a nation of people that are used to having their every whim ready to be answered by whatever gizmo we're carrying.  Can't remember a name?  Look it up.  Want to order a pizza for dinner?  Just click the box, fill in your address, pay via PayPal.  Too bad you have to talk to the pimply guy driving that rustbucket jalopy the pizza's delivered in, but whatever, right?  You got what you wanted.

Our wants are becoming the driving force of social evolution, and we're allowing it to happen.  Put the gizmo down.  Turn off the TV.  Go find a book, read to your kids.  Play a game, shuffle the cards.  Be less connected to the huge wide world of distractions, and more connected to the family and neighborhood around you.  You'll be better off if you do.

Turn off the computer.


Friday, November 16, 2012

The Sunset of Twinkies?

In the hilarious post-apocalyptic zombie comedy Zombieland, Woody Harrelson's character "Tallahassee" has a serious craving for Twinkies.  He's met with some unfortunate turns of events, like finding a wrecked Hostess truck that is literally full to brimming with...Sno Balls.  His frustration is epic, and the irony is actually kind of tragic.  In a post-apocalyptic wasteland where finding fresh food is starting to become an issue, the poor guy can't find what he really wants.  They'll keep you alive, Sno Balls.  But if it isn't what you have a hankering for, it stops being a fun food and starts being unpleasant survivalist fare.  Like eating Tofurky on Thanksgiving Day, when what you really want is a great big slice of real ham.

Did you click on the link?  Did it work for you?

Of course it didn't.  The End Times are upon us.  Twinkies, that indefinable food product whose shelf life is supposedly most easily measured with a Mayan calendar, might be nearly done.

In fact, Twinkies are no more stable on the shelf than any other snack cake.  But compared to many other foods, they remain palatable in the wrapper much longer than other offerings, so while their shelf life isn't appreciably longer than anything else, they are tolerable longer than other items.

Why might Twinkies be done?  Because Hostess appears to be going the way of the dodo.  And why is that?  It looks like there are a few vectors pushing the ball in this direction:

1) Consumers are moving more toward healthier choices.  The Twinkie, and indeed most of Hostess' offerings, have never been associated with a healthy diet, not even white bread in the last 20 years or so.  (Hostess is also the purveyor of the ancient Wonder Bread brand)  As consumers move away from poor diet choices, Hostess is left high and dry as the tide goes out.  It was one thing when kids ran around all day and burned off all that fat and moms stayed home and made dinner, but so much of America's diet already comes out of boxes, cans and fast food bags that shoppers are choosing slightly less self-destructive snack food options.  At least, I hope that's what they're doing.  I'm tired of the "fat American" stereotype.

2) The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union was striking hard against Hostess to try to force them to continue contributing to the pension fund.  This is where I butt up against the liberals: I strongly believe unions have had their day.  Now it appears to me that unions exist for only two reasons: money and power.  Neither of these is actually for the sake of the workers they ostensibly represent.  Unions wield tremendous power, yes...but the power they wield is destructive.  They browbeat the employers with the capacity to idle plants by calling the workers away from their jobs.  But what about when such activity is so destructive to the company that the company is forced to close?  That's exactly what is happening here.

Now, BCTGM, answer me this: how will you support all those workers now?  You exist to support the workers in their relationship with management, but that management is disappearing.  The Hostess company is going away, and taking 18,000 jobs with it.  I ask this question: if the jobs disappear, what happens to BCGTM representation for all those workers?

I strongly suspect they will be out in the cold.  I will investigate this further and report back.

Hmm.  At this moment, I cannot get on their website.  I bet it's completely inundated with traffic as a result of this, or else perhaps they have taken it off line for a while.  God knows I wouldn't want to hear what people had to say about me, if I had been a proximate cause in the dissolution of 18,000 jobs in the face of a new recession.

And there's the last vector: 3) the looming recession.  In the face of the so-called "fiscal cliff," people are going to be watching their money even closer than they have for the last several years.  Junk food is one of those things that people stop buying.  It's a luxury.  Granted it's a small luxury and an inexpensive one, but when you're taking jars of coins to the bank so you can afford groceries, you don't tend to spend it frivolously at all, not for anything.  A once-in-a-very-long-while treat for the kids, maybe.

Honestly I won't miss Twinkies.  I didn't like them much as a kid.  They were too sweet and not especially pleasant in the mouth, all gooshy and oozy.  If Twinkies and Sno Balls are gone (especially Sno Balls, I hate coconut with a pathological passion), I won't spend one instant wishing they could come back.  And besides, some other snack food company may buy the rights to the name and the recipe and keep Twinkies in production.  

But at this moment, it looks like Tallahassee's quest for Twinkies may be futile.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Election and perspective

It turns out that needing Virginia was not ironic for Obama.  He needed it.

By area, it looks like most of the country voted for Romney.  But acreage doesn't vote, people do.  When it comes down to it, more electoral votes went blue, and that's what matters in the long run.  In fact, 270 electoral votes are needed to win, and though the raw percentages show a pretty close race, the electoral count falls heavily in favor of Obama: 303 to Romney's 206.

It's interesting to look at the example of Virginia's polling map.  According to the map, it looks like Romney should've owned Virginia outright - it's a sea of red with a few blue speckles.  But where Obama won were mostly the population centers, and he took them by large margins, close to 70-30 in some places.  Where Romney won he tended to win by small margins.  He could've chipped away Obama's lead if Virginia had had two fewer population centers.  Alas, it is not so.

As with Virginia, so with the nation.  It appears to me that the largely rural parts of the country went mostly Republican, but it was the most populous states that voted for Obama - the most densely populated states with the largest numbers of electoral votes.  Historically racially tense parts of the country, the Old South and more sparsely populated western states like Wyoming and Kansas, landed squarely in Romney's court.  But places like Kansas and Wyoming bring a total of only 9 electoral votes, whereas the single win of California's 55 votes utterly wipes out such ephemeral victories and several more besides.

Ironically, Romney's own gubernatorial stomping grounds of Massachusetts went strongly toward Obama.  Massachusetts' own 11 votes cancels out both Kansas and Wyoming.

I'd like to take a moment to look at the tags of "liberal" and "conservative."  I think these are misleading.

"Liberal" implies that the person at whom the moniker is targeted is liberal with the government's power.  Some might replace "power" with "money," charging that those people believe strongly in taxing the citizens and spending the money on assorted programs, especially if those programs redistribute that wealth to lower income individuals.

"Conservative," on the other hand, suggests that the person supports limiting the government's power, limiting how much tax it collects and most importantly limiting how much money it spends.  But what happens when we change the perspective on these labels?

The Conservatives tend to be pretty free and breezy - you could even say "liberal" with how much oversight businesses should have to experience.  They will shout that to do otherwise is to tread on the toes of the free market, to hobble the bargaining power of business, to interfere where interference is not necessary.  To that I say: 2008.  That's when many years of lax oversight caught up with the banking industry and set off a cascade of worldwide economic collapses and panics.  We're still not out of the woods.  Maybe a little conservatism in the offices - or at least peeking over the shoulders of those in the offices - might have prevented that?  Too late to know, now.  All we can do is pick up the pieces and try to prevent it happening again in the future.

The Liberals are pretty darned uptight about business and jobs.  They seem to expect that people cannot be expected to do what's best for themselves all the time.  You could even call them "conservative" in their expectations of how future behavior will develop.  It's downright pessimistic, to try to sock so much money into all those greedy mouths and scrabbling hands, to hand out so many loans.  Yes, we're under a crushing load of debt...but did the current Liberal In Chief spend all that money?  Actually, no.  $10.73 trillion of that debt was handed to him by the outogoing President, George W. Bush.  You can say that Obama has incurred more debt in less time and you'd be right - but the dollar isn't worth as much now, and the US's credit rating has slipped.  A lot of that can be attributed to the effects of the '08 financial crisis.  Obama had little, if anything, to do with that.

But the point behind the loans is that the US Government wants its money back at some point.  You're expected to pay that loan off, after you've used the money to get through school and get a good job, get out of physical therapy and back on your feet, whatever the crisis is.  And all of those people who don't do that are letting their government, and by extension every last one of us, their fellow citizens and taxpayers, down.