Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Ethical Car Salesman

Could you sell cars ethically?  Not unless your customers let you!

I had a dream last night that I went to work for the local Japanese car dealer as a car salesman.  I was going to sell cars ethically, I thought, and not corral people into shitty deals - paying too much for the car and too much for financing.   Or so I thought.

A young couple came in to look for a new car.  He was a blue collar worker and she worked part-time at WalMart and was a homemaker.  They had just moved to a new double-wide outside of town. They had an old clapped-out sedan, and wanted something new.  She had her eye on a new midsized SUV, he wanted a monster 4x4 truck.  And we had those, all shiny and new lined up out front.  But out back, we had an acre of sedans, all marked-down and on sale, with generous factory rebates.  No one wants sedans today, but SUVs and trucks sell themselves.

I showed them a fully loaded midsized sedan with all the bells and whistles.  And they could have it for about $25,000 with the rebates and whatnot.   They liked it, but were not too excited.   When I showed the wife one of the midsized SUVs out front, her eyes lit up.  "All the other Moms in the trailer park have SUVs!  I want one too!"   The husband wasn't too sure.   "That's a fine car for her, but I would not be caught dead in it - it's a ladies' car!" he said.  It wasn't a bad car, but it was only mildly optioned and cost about $35,000 with no rebates.  It it only got mediocre gas mileage.

The husband went nuts when I showed him one of our monster 4x4 pickups out front.  "Wait until the guys at work see this!" he crowed.  It was pretty stripped and started at $45,000 - again, no rebates.  They decided they had to have this monster truck.  I pointed out that it got less than half the gas mileage of the sedan, and the monthly payments would be twice as much.   But they would hear none of it.  It was new truck, or walk.

So I ran their credit - it was a shambles.   In addition to a lot of late payments, they had two accounts sent to collection.  One was for a utility bill, and the other for a cable TV bill.   "Oh, that's when we moved," the husband said, "I forgot to call and cancel the service, and those dicks at the cable company just wouldn't let it go!" 

I gave them the bad news.  With their credit rating in the low 600's, we could only offer them "subprime" rates, which would be rather steep - on the order of 15% or more.   The pickup truck would cost about $1000 a month in payments for at least six years.   I mentioned that if they could call the cable company and the utility company and pay off those bills (which were rather trivial) and ask them to remove the negative data from their credit report, I could get them a much better rate - saving at least $100 a month in interest, maybe more.  It would take a month or two to get the bad data off their report, however.

But they ignored this suggestion.  They wanted that truck tonight, or they were going across the street to the other Japanese car dealer.   So I put together the deal and presented it to my manager.  We couldn't give them but $500 in trade for their clapped-out junker, and that was being generous (we padded the purchase price by $500 to cover the fact it would be sent to auction and yield little, if anything).  My boss had seen this sort of deal many times before.  And he was able to get the loan approved, thanks to all the subprime lenders out there competing for this business these days - forgetting all about the massive defaults in subprime mortgage lending of just a decade ago.

So I gave them the "good" news - they were approved for the loan.  I filled out the paperwork and took them to the "closing" room.  Our closer is pretty good.  Or bad, depending on your point of view.   He sold them an extended warranty, undercoating, paint protector, and even the floor mats that already came with the truck.   When he got done, he had added nearly $8000 to the purchase price.   They signed anyway.  Heck, it was only a hundred or so more a month, right?

We put temp tags on the truck and pushed their junker into the back lot.  They drove off into the night, happy as clams, not having had to make any sort of payment - yet - on the vehicle.   But I knew how it would play out.  They would not be able to make the massive payments on this rig - much less the insurance payments.  And in a few months, the repo man would come take it away, and their credit rating would really be ruined now.  They likely would end up in bankruptcy court.  They would be forced to fish even further down the food chain for their next car - and be forced to do so for many years to come. 

I tried to warn them.  I tried to steer them to the path of the straight and narrow - to buy something they could afford, at a decent price, with decent financing terms, that got decent mileage.  But like lemmings, they ran right off the cliff, because they wanted - nay, felt they deserved - what everyone else had, a monster gas-guzzler status symbol that cost nearly as much as their home, perhaps more.

I woke up from this dream and realized that you could be the most ethical businessperson these days, and it wouldn't really make a difference.  We all like to rag on the car dealer, the mattress store, the sleazy personal injury lawyer, or the rip-off cable company.  But the reality is, these folks merely cater to our whims, and often our whims are the lowest common denominator.  Since enough people seek out and accept shitty deals, these sellers need not offer better ones.  And even if you offered better deals, many people would simply refuse to take them.   And history - particularly recent history - illustrates this.

We do have choices in life, and often what we blame on other people is really the result of our own poor choices.  Poor in every sense of the word - bad choices that affect our finances in a negative way, made by people who don't have two nickels to rub together. Blaming the car salesman for putting you in a bad car deal (or worse yet, a lease) is just externalizing.  They offered you a deal you accepted.  You could have left your pen at home.   And the same is true for Cable TV - you could just decide, as many are now doing, to just not have it.   We have been cable-free for more than a decade now, and let me tell you, it is not only tolerable, but better than having cable.   Odd, but not consuming is oftentimes better than consuming.

I am not sure what the point of this was, but it was a weird dream, and I think I learned something from it.  The next time I see a car salesman, maybe I will take a little more pity on him.

Monday, April 23, 2018

How Externalization and Victim Politics Will Cost the Democrats

Is it a good idea to wait for a politician to solve your personal problems?  You'll be in for a long wait!

On National People's Radio this morning, one of our comrade announcers was interviewing someone (no doubt hawking some book or something) and he said something that made me puke up my morning tea:
"People in places like Flint, Michigan and Gary, Indiana have been forgotten.   The politicians have forgotten about these people and simply don't care about them!"
It is not an exact quote (I cannot find the article on the NPR website, or Sputnik, or on Russia Today).  But it was the gist of it.

And it startled me that in today's world, people still believe it is the job of the Federal Government to "rescue" impoverished places, instead of just encouraging people to move to less impoverished places.   When the soil gave out (early on) in the Appalachian mountains, the smarter settlers picked  up their stakes and moved Westward.  They didn't sit around and mope and wonder when the government was going to come bail out their depleted farms - as if farming rocks was some sort of inalienable right.   The best thing for them - and the country - would be to not farm places where the soil is thin.

Similarly, propping up rust-belt towns with decaying factories and decaying populations - and often with corrupt local governments - isn't a good idea for the residents or the country.   And often it is local politicians who want these "bailouts" so they don't have to confront hard truths about their city, town, or county, and also confront the rampant corruption that was what drove industry away from such locales in the first place.

The choice of Flint, Michigan for the author's whiny quote was an obvious one.   Flint has been the whipping-boy for the left since Michael Moore made the move Roger and Me back in 1989.   Yes, 1989 - which illustrates how entrenched these problems with rustbelt towns are, and how hard they are to solve.

And before you send flames, I lived in Flint Michigan in the 1970's, so please, don't bullshit me about that town.   It was a shithole back then.  I know the dirt about it - and the best thing Flint could buy these days is a really large bulldozer.   Sometimes just starting over is the best option.   Places like Flint are never going to turn into some sort of Shangri-La, no matter how much government money you throw at them.  Flint's "water crises" was a self-inflicted wound, yet somehow the Federal Government is the bad guy here, for not handing out free water in perpetuity.

But Gary, Indiana?  Odd choice - beause in nearby Elkhart, Indiana, jobs are a-plenty in the booming RV business.   You don't have to move far to find a job in that "rustbelt" area.   But you do have to move - or face a seriously long commute.   Alas, the poor being poor, choose the latter - driving two hours each way for an eight-hour job.   But that's why they're poor.

Moving on to better feeding grounds is just an obvious choice.   Why stick around in an area where there are limited opportunities?  Worse yet, why stick around in such an area and wait for a politician to fix things?  Because it ain't gonna happen - probably not in your lifetime.   Move on and move up.  Our ancestors did it (how do you think they ended up here?  Even the Indians migrated from Asia!).  Our parents did it.  I did it.

But that doesn't fit the liberal democratic world-view.  In their view, we are all victims, and the government should step in and "fix" things.   But as they say in the 12-step programs, you have to hit rock bottom before you can recover.  And places like Flint, Michigan need to hit rock-bottom and then build themselves back up.  Once land becomes cheap enough and people become willing to work (as opposed to being on forms of welfare) the area will pick up.  Companies will move there because the cost of land and facilities are cheap, and because there is a ready-and-willing workforce of people who can work for cheap because the cost of living is low.

And that right there is why places like Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, Georgia, and the Carolinas are attracting new modern factories, and why places like New York, Michigan, Connecticut, and other "rust belt" States are seeing an exodus.   High taxes and an attitude of "let's milk the local factory for all it's worth" have driven away businesses.   Since people pay so much to live there (property taxes alone are murder, but State income and sales taxes are not far behind!) they cannot work for cheap.  And of course, corruption in local politics means that no only will you not get a tax break for moving your factory there, you will likely have to pay bribes - either to the local politicians or to the local mafia/union for "labor peace".

But the problem is, since so many people believe government intervention is the answer, they vote for higher taxes and higher welfare benefits.   As a result, you end up with places like Oswego, New York, where property taxes are skyrocketing because so many people are on welfare.   Pretty soon, people stop working and go on the dole, simply because it is easier.

But it is a funny thing, even the people who ostensibly "benefit" from social welfare programs know deep down that these programs are a dead-end.   They are given a pittance but never given the chance to get ahead.  They don't want handouts, they want honest government, lower taxes, and the chance to earn a living from their labor.

And that is what Trump tapped into, in places like Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Wisconsin.   The Left may paint the red-hatted Trumpeters as closet (or not-so-closet) racists and xenophobes - and indeed, many are.   But it was Trump's message about getting the rust-belt working again that resonated with those voters.

And in spite of Trump's best efforts to wreck the economy, folks are going back to work in many of these rust-belt towns - reinforcing the message that Trump's ideas are "working".  The boom in RV sales (to be followed shortly by a bust - it is a cyclical business) is keeping the lights on, day and night, in Elkhart and other locales.  To Trump supporters working there, the President's policies are clearly working (in their minds) and are a stark contrast to the crash and slow growth that occurred during Obama's tenure.

Again, appearances trump reality.  No pun intended. You are right - Obama didn't cause the recession, it happened before his election.  But tell that to a guy in a red MAGA hat.   He simply will choose not to believe it.   "Alternative facts" are all the rage right now.  Again, pun not intended.

So here we are, months away from mid-term elections. A sea change has occurred in American electoral politics - the idea of big government giving out handouts simply isn't resonating with voters.  And what are the Democrats selling?  More of the same-old, same-old, which is well past it's "sell by" date -  Look to the government for answers, wait in line for your handout.

One reason I was forced into early retirement was because of these policies.  Obamacare has subsidized my health insurance to the tune of $16,000  $20,000  $24,000 per year - far more than the few hundred a month I was paying on my pre-Obamacare policy.  And each year, the cost of these plans has skyrocketed to the point where I simply could not afford them, if I had to pay for them out of my own pocket.

If I went back to work, and made more than $69,000 or thereabouts, I would have to cough up twenty-four grand to pay for Obamacare.  I did the math on this and realized that not only was it cheaper to just retire early (and avoid the risk and liability of working - oh, and also all that work) but that I really didn't have a choice.  It was go on the dole, or pay through the nose.  Unless I could work full-time at some big mega-firm and make $250,000 a year, it made no sense to work.

I'm no idiot.  When the government starts handing out free money, I will get in line like everyone else, with a wheelbarrow.   But I realize too, that such a system is not sustainable in the long-run, nor is it an optimal outcome for the individual or the State.

And that is the same conundrum, on a smaller scale, that affects the poor in many rust-belt States - or even in the Sun Belt.   When companies were forced to raise the minimum wage, many employees asked for reductions in hours, so they would not lose their food stamp allotment (based on annual income, just like Obamacare subsidies) and other government handouts.   If you are working part-time as a single parent, you might have a plethora of subsidies, from ADC, to SNAP, to Section-8 or other subsidized housing, to daycare subsidies, and the like.   Start making more money and you lose that.

It is simple math, but anyone can do it.  And it never ceases to amaze me how supposedly "uneducated" people figure this stuff out.   Word gets around on how to game the system, or at least optimize your outcomes.   And of course, the folks running these agencies are all-too-happy to let you know how you can collect - it's their job to hand out money.

But is also seems that many of the people who are nominal beneficiaries of these systems are realizing that handouts and bailouts are not necessarily the answer.   Confronting hard truths is a better choice.   Self-actualization beats victim behavior.   Externalizing never solves your personal problems.

Someone please tell that to the Democrats, before they lose even more elections!

Saturday, April 21, 2018

The Failures of Barack Obama

Is it too soon for history to judge the last President?

Barack Obama is retired now, for the most part, and the legacy of his eight years as President is becoming a little clearer with each passing day.   I think it will be remembered as a mixed legacy.  He tried to do the right thing, he thought, but often the end results were less than optimal.  Of course, it didn't help that for six of the eight years he had in office, he had an intransigent GOP-dominated Congress thwarting his every move - and even court nominees.

I think Obama made a lot of blatant mistakes, however - mostly trying to appeal to an ideology rather than being pragmatic and compromising.   "Politics is the art of the possible" Otto von Bismark once said (hmmm....).   And often Obama settled for what he thought was right, rather than what could have gotten done.

Anyway, here is a short list, in no particular order, of things I think Obama got wrong:


1.  Clock Boy:   You may not remember this, but back in 2015, a young Muslim boy brought a disassembled alarm clock to school in a pencil case.   I happen to own a similar pencil case and similar alarm clock and readily recognized the components.  Others have similarly reconstructed his "clock" as well.   He claimed to have "made" it, but in fact, he simply disassembled a standard large-display alarm clock and put the components in a pencil box, and brought it to school.  The kid was hardly a genius.

Nevertheless, the media seized upon this incident.   He was asked to put the clock away, and after the alarm went off, a teacher became alarmed (sorry about the pun) and sent him to the principal, perhaps thinking it was some sort of bomb.   The media cried "racism" and "Islamophobia" and the whole thing got blown (again, sorry) out of proportion.

Ordinarily, this should have been a local matter, but Obama thought he had better step in and fix things, inviting the boy and his family to the White House and inspecting the supposed "invention" and calling it neat.   The family threatened to move overseas, and briefly did - only to realize that "freedom" in many Arab countries is somewhat illusory.

Why was this a mistake on Obama's part?  It illustrates his instinct to inject himself - and the presidency - into local and trivial matters, in order to make points with people.   If he had stepped back and thought about it, he would have realized that this kid did not "invent" anything, any more than I did when I disassembled my Mother's vacuum cleaner when I was six years old.   Taking things apart and stuffing them in a pencil case is not creating.   But Obama would later be famous for being quoted (out of context) "You didn't create that!" - which was a bit of irony.

Obama getting involved in this local issue is almost as embarrassing as Trump weighing in on every event of the day (as reported by Fox 'n Friends) with his poorly-worded tweets.   In a word, unpresidential.


2.  The Beer Summit:  Once again, Obama injected himself and the presidency into what should have been a local matter.   A black man was arrested by the Police in murky circumstances.  A black professor was trying to break in to his own home, as he lost the key or something.   Neighbors called the police (as you would hope they would do, seeing two people busting down the door on your home) and the professor was arrested.  When the dust settled and it turned out he owned the house, of course he was let go.  But the media ran with it and cried "racism" because that sells clicks and eyeballs, of course.

It would have blown over, but Obama decided that this was a presidential matter and invited both the arresting officer and the professor to the White House for a "beer summit" to patch things up.   This appalled me as much as the "clock boy" incident.  A president should be presidential, and not inject himself into every local issue that makes headlines on Yahoo or CNN.

I am not sure the "beer summit" solved anything, either.  It just made Obama look foolish and reactionary.


3.  Obamacare:   Obamacare is the reason I retired early.   I had two choices to make.  I could keep working, but make sure my income was below $69,900 a year, so I would not lose my Obamacare subsidy.  If I went a dollar over this amount, I would have to pay a whopping $24,000 in premiums.

Or.... I could retire and get free health care - courtesy of Uncle Sugar and your tax dollars.   If I kept working, making, say $50,000 a year, the ratio of my income to expenses would be about 1:1 - and I would have lost half my subsidy.   It made more sense to simply stop working.

And it worked.  In the past, my Federal income tax bill was usually in the low five figures.  Today, it is about $575 a year.   Thanks Obama!

Oh, but wait, someone has to pay for this and that someone is you.  Moreover, the cost of Obamacare keeps rising exponentially.   Originally, it was about $12,000 a year - still a staggering amount and nearly double what I was paying before.  But every year, it has gone up by healthy double-digit percentages.   Today, without the subsidy, I simply could not afford health insurance.    And I am hardly poor - but need to make myself look poor to afford health insurance.

It is a crazy game.  Someone is making an awful lot of money in this deal, but no one seems concerned about this.  Is the the doctors?  The hospitals?  The pharmaceutical companies? The insurance companies?  Who?  All are crying poverty, but my doctor has a new Porsche, and the hospital keeps adding new wings.   All that money is going somewhere -  to the medical-industrial complex.   We have created a monster, fueled by cash.  Obamacare tells the medical industry, "just send us the bill" and so they do.

The problem is, the system cannot be sustained for long.   Eventually, the GOP will dismantle it, piece by piece.   I may have to go back to work, or I may be on Medicare by then.   Or maybe I will be on WalMart Care when they take over.  Who knows?

Obamacare was a rushed job, and it has problems with it.  And the GOP wants it to fail, so there is no incentive to fix it - only to sabotage it.

I think a less ambitious plan would have been a better choice.   Dramatic overhauls of laws are never a good thing - they always have unintended consequences.


4.  Arab Spring:   Despite the cries of "Benghazi! Benghazi! Benghazi!" by the far-right, it is not clear that there was any sort of conspiracy or coverup of what transpired in that Libyan city.    Rather it was just gross incompetence and wishful thinking at work.

Granted, Obama inherited two wars that were not of his making.  And he managed to nurture both along for eight years and had them to the next President.   It seems now that our presence in Iraq and Afghanistan will be as permanent as Israeli "occupation" of the West Bank.  It is the new status quo.

The problem with Iraq is that it fueled revolutionary fervor across the Middle East.  If brutal dictators like Saddam Hussein could be overthrown, what about Muammar Gaddafi or Hosni Mubarak?  And in short order, those dictators were overthrown and the end result was chaos.   We were content to sit by and let these leaders fall, but were not willing to step in to help with the cleanup.

It is, in a way, similar to our failure to help Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union.  In the power vacuum that ensued, Oligarchs took power and the king of them all, is now king of Russia - forever.   A creature of our own making - or our own inaction.


5.  Hillary and Trump:   There was no love lost between Hillary and Obama.   And while she did serve as Secretary of State for Obama, it doesn't seem that Obama really went all-out to insure that she would win the election.   Obama waffled in his support for Hillary, keeping his options open if Bernie (who is not even a Democrat!) won the nomination.

As a result, support for Hillary was tepid.   Turnout among black voters was, well, mild to say the least.   And with a little help from Russia's Internet Research Agency, it was possible to get people to think negative things about "Killary" in the black community.

I think too late, Obama realized that his lack of vibrant support for Hillary could cause her to lose the election.   And perhaps this was his payback to her.    All I know is, Obama is partially responsible for Donald Trump being president today.


6.  Rule By Executive Order:   Frustrated by a Congress that was unwilling to act or compromise, Obama issued a lot of executive orders to try to get things done.  This came across as dictatorial in nature, and also further eroded our government structure by putting more and more power into the presidency.

But the big problem with executive orders is that they can be undone with the stoke of a pen, by the next executive - as we are now seeing.  And since so many orders were issued in the waning days of his administration, they could be overturned by Congress as well.  It is a shitty way to do business, really.

For example, Obama vetoed the Keystone XL pipeline.   Of course, the pipeline was rapidly completed within a year of him leaving office.   Was anything accomplished here, really?   I mean, other than delay and additional cost added to a project.

* * * 

I think Obama had his heart in the right place - or he thought he did, anyway.  A lot of liberals feel this way - that they want what is right for "the people" and anyone who sees things otherwise is just plain evil.  Moreover, they feel their way will persevere in the end, because they are right, and righteousness always prevails.   Oddly enough, Republicans feel the same way about their ideas.

The problem with the Obama administration was that it was too far to the left - too far for most of the American people.   As a result, in the mid-term elections, the Democrats lost their hold on Congress, and then struggled for six years with a President who was outnumbered by the legislative branch.   We can expect to see the same thing happen this fall.

Radical change is never a good idea.   And maybe that is why our system has these mid-term elections, to act as a brake on radical change.   Maybe the best thing about the Obama administration was that he was not able to accomplish all that he wanted to.

And maybe, too, this will be the best thing about the Trump administration as well.

Short Changed!

People will short-change store clerks and bar tenders - but bar tenders and store clerks may attempt to short-change you as well!

We were out bicycling yesterday and we stopped at the convenience store for a treat.  Ordinarily, I would have used a credit card, but I thought, "why not pay cash for a small purchase like this?" and it was an interesting experience.   The total came to $8.28 (!!!) and I handed her a ten.   The cash register had one of those machines that dispenses coin change, and she said, gesturing to the coin tray as money rolled out, "there's your change!"

I just stared at her.  I was due $1.72 in change, and the coinage came to only 72 cents, of course.

She glanced at me and said, "Oh, I guess I owe you a dollar as well!" and she opened the register and handed me a dollar bill.

It was an interesting exchange.  The place was noisy and crowded (a busload of children had just unloaded out front - what was I thinking?).   And she could claim she made an "innocent mistake" if called out on it.   But if I failed to notice, and just took the loose change, well, she could pocket a buck.   And if she could do that a few times an hour, she could effectively double her hourly wage, and of course, all of that "bonus" is tax-free, of course.

It is not the first time someone has attempted to short-change me - or actually short-changed me.  And I am sure there were other times when I was short-changed and failed to notice it.   Probably many times, in fact.   Bars are prime places for this sort of thing, as patrons are drunk and don't count their change or remember what they spent.   You wake up the next morning with a hangover and an empty wallet and wonder where it all went.   I stopped doing that nonsense fairly quickly.  Others never learn.

One of the most common scenarios I've seen is a simple one.  You hand someone a $20 and they give you change for a $10.   You point out that you handed them a $20, and they go, "oh, my bad!" and make the correct change.   Obviously this is a better deal than some petty dollar scam, as they net $10 on the transaction.

Mark taught me, and I always follow this when paying by cash, to announce in a clear voice what bill you are presenting.   "That will be $5.75!" the clerk announces, and I reply, "Out of a $20" as I hand her the bill, face up, in full view of the security camera.  It makes it harder for them to argue that you handed them a ten later on.

And fortunately, most stores have security cameras - focused on the cashier, not you.   Because while robberies and the like are not uncommon, it is far more common for the person behind the counter to be the one stealing.   Either they are not recording cash transactions, or are short-changing the customers.

Of course, one way to avoid this problem is to use a credit or debit card - there is no change involved.  But even then, I have seen servers play games with numbers.   Often they will present a bill that is not itemized, but merely the total on the charge receipt.   This makes it hard to figure out what it is they are charging you for.  But I am not sure whether they can personally profit from this, as charged bills don't generate cash they can take out of the till.

But speaking of which, I never did get a receipt from that store clerk, and in retrospect, I am not sure how the total came to $8.28 even at inflated tourist prices here.   Next time, I will be more careful - but of course, stopping at the convenience store isn't something I do very often.

It is funny, but I just don't use cash very much anymore.   Some folks go to an ATM every day, it seems, taking out small amounts of cash for spending.   I go maybe once every few months (one bank we do business with will lock out  your ATM card if it is not used every three months - a pain in the ass, as you have to reset the card at the bank and have a new PIN issued!) to get some spending cash.

And when that lady handed me that change, I realized what a PITA it is to have coinage clinking around in your pocket.  Coins I will have to take home, sort, and roll up and eventually take to the bank to deposit - because I am never going to remember to take the coins with me to spend, as I don't use cash anymore.

The video above illustrates how grifters can short-change store clerks and bar tenders with clever manipulation.  If you get a job that involves handling money with the public, just watch out for these folks who want to do deals like this "I want to get rid of some dollar bills" or some such nonsense.   It usually is just a means of confusing the cashier and setting up one of these short-change deals.   As the guy illustrates in the video, do each transaction separately, and avoid handing money back and forth.   Mark reports that someone tried this on him once at the store, and he was able to shut it down by keeping each transaction separate - and refusing to make change for the customer ("we're not a bank!" he told him).

I suppose it is a small-time con, short-changing people.  But oddly enough, people often get more pissed off about small things like this, than they do in losing hundreds or thousands of dollars in con-job investments or raw deals on leased cars.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Does College Really Matter?

Once you graduate from college, it becomes less and less relevant as you age, particularly in today's society.

I was at the local bar happy hour by the beach.  The locals go there because the drinks and appetizers are cheap, and it is a fun way to catch up with what is going on and what your friends are doing.  I was wearing an old "Syracuse" zip-up hoodie, and I guess it was during March Madness or something, and someone gave me a hard time about it - as if I was a Syracuse fan, and not someone who bought a sweatshirt 20 years ago when visiting there.

I ran into some others who were also alumni - from decades earlier than me (my college career spanned 1978 to 1992 - 14 years) and they wanted to know if I knew so-and-so on a college campus of 26,000 undergraduate students, from a decade before I was born.   No, I didn't know old Fred.  Sorry.

What was interesting to me, though, was how the person I talked to really identified themselves by the college they went to 60 years ago.   It seemed odd to me, as college for me was an experience that spanned more than a decade, but I don't think it defined my life.  I literally can't remember the names of anyone I went to school with, other than one or two people, perhaps.   I was too busy studying to get too involved in socializing.

Others here on the island fly their college flag in front of their house, and have a college sticker on their car.  They have made an identity for themselves based on what school they went to.  And I guess some folks need that - some pigeon-hole to put themselves into, as left to their own devices, they cannot figure out their own identity.  So they latch onto college as a means of drowning out the deafening silence in their lives.

College - that was 30 years ago.   So why would it be important to me now?  More of my existence on this planet has been post-college than pre-college.  I have learned so much more since then - my neural network has been programmed again and again by experiences that dwarf what I learned in school.  And what I learned in school wasn't facts and figures, but ways of thinking - and maybe that has stuck with me more than anything.

But the funny thing is, once you leave college, it becomes less and less important in your life.   In your career, you job experiences trump college experiences, which is why recent college grads with no work experience have a hard time finding that first job.  Once you have that first job, that job is the key to your resume, and college is a distant second.   Ten years go by, and you find that your "Education" part of your resume is more and more abbreviated.   You list only the school you went to, year you graduated, and what degree you got.   No one cares if you were in honor society or on the dean's list when you are 40 or 50 years old.   They care about how much money you can make for their company, and why you left your last job.   Yea, you should have the credentials and all, but beyond that, who cares?   Performance trumps Alma Mater every time.

Sure, when you are young, and your resume is pretty thin in the work department, your college education is all you have to tout on your resume.   So all that shit about honors and whatnot makes sense - you have to show you were able to buckle down and work.   But a few years out, putting that stuff on your resume is about as embarrassing as saying you were an Eagle Scout.

Which brings us to High School.   When you are young, you are told that high school is important, and that any transgressions will go on your "permanent record".   That is, of course, bullshit.   Good SAT scores and reasonable grades will get you into most colleges (which are more worried about your ability to pay than anything else).   You might list your high school degree and honors and whatnot on your resume when you are in your teens, and maybe even when you graduate from college.  But beyond that, it is just embarrassing.  Yea, you went to high school.  We get that - the fact you have a college degree sort of gives that away.   No, we don't give a rat's ass about your 10th grade science project getting "honorable mention" at the State Fair or whatever.   It just is irrelevant.

And so is college, once you are 10-20 years out.   No one really gives a rat's ass, and the college you went to back then is totally different than the college that exists today - all the professors who taught you are retired or dead.   It is a different place - something you realize when you go back 20 years later and come away with nothing more than a sweatshirt hoodie.

It is funny, but the folks at Syracuse used to call me and ask for money.   And they still send me an alumni magazine now and then.   I glance at it and toss it away.  It really isn't relevant to my life now.  It was just a place I once was, getting a credential I needed - and paid dearly for.  I had some fun, made some friends, but we've all moved on with life, and today, we are different people with little in common, other than a shared experience from decades past.

Others try to find meaning in all of that.  Not me.   My Dad, when my Mother died, went out of his way to look up all his "college buddies" from 1946 at MIT (he transferred to the management school when he flunked thermodynamics.  I simply took it three times until I passed it with an "A").   He traveled cross-country, sleeping on the couches in the houses of his old college "buddies" - their wives no doubt whispering in the next room, "Who is he, again?  And when is he going to leave?"

I think his experience was like the college visit scene from About Schmidt - where Schmidt goes back to the University of Nebraska, and bores some young college kids at his frat about his work as an Insurance actuary.   It is really irrelevant to them, and college at this point was irrelevant to him.   It's like the scene where he goes back to his childhood home and finds a tire store.

And yes, we've gone back to our childhood homes before and laughed about that scene - expecting to find a tire store, but instead finding only a house without a lot of emotional impact or in fact, any sort of closure or whatever.  There is little profit in the past, other than to learn from it.

And the same is true of college.  Get your degree and get out.  Just as High School is not an end in and of itself, but a means to an end - something those stupid kids who shot up Columbine High School simply didn't get.   Don't like High School?  Most people don't.   Graduate and leave.   Most people do!

And while college is generally a better experience than High School, obsessing about it decades later is, to me, kind of sad.

Should You Join a Fraternity? (Revisited)

Fraternities are a lot like Twitter - you never hear anything good come of them.

A recent article in the news about one of my alma maters, Syracuse University, discusses an incident at Theta Tau, the "Engineering" fraternity, where members were caught on tape pledging to hate blacks, Jews, and other minorities.  This struck me as odd for an Engineering fraternity, as in the Engineering business, you are going to run into a lot of people who hail from China, India, the Middle-East, Indonesia, and so forth.   It is a very international community.   Hating minorities will surely narrow your job prospects.

Most of the "high tech" companies these days are located in places like San Francisco and the bay area, or Austin or Boulder - all hotbeds of enlightenment, and not room for white supremacists.   I suspect the folks at "Theta Tau" might find that their Engineering careers are over before they even started.  Who in their right mind is going to hire them now?

Granted, the Engineering field has been largely dominated by men, and blacks are still very under-represented,  But it is hardly an all-white male bastion anymore.  Being racist is, well, just stupid.

So what was the point of joining this fraternity?   The members are now utterly fucked.  This story will stick around on the Internet forever, and when they apply for jobs in their chosen field of study, they will find the story will follow them.  Even if an employer fails to figure it out, some fellow employee will no doubt connect the dots.   And once you are known as the "white supremacist" Engineer, well, people will distance themselves from you.  No one likes creepy.

The problem isn't just this fraternity, but all fraternities.  And I think the problem is systemic, institutional, and impossible to fix.  The very nature of fraternities (and sororities) engenders these kinds of incidents (and far worse).  No one comes out ahead by joining a frat.

You never hear about good things fraternities are doing, because by and large, they don't do many.  Oh, sure, some frats will have a fundraiser here and there for some cause.  But for the most part, it is a bunch of 20-something dudes who swill lite beer and drive fart-muffler cars.   Joining a frat becomes all about partying and selfishness (and not the good kind!) in short order.

I discussed fraternities before, and came to the conclusion they were over-rated if not in fact dangerous to the individual.  Young men, left to their own devices, in a group, can get into a lot of trouble.  Get a group of young guys together, and they get nervous and egg each other on into doing odious things.   It is odd, too, in this day and age, that people willingly segregate themselves into single-gender housing.   You finally have a chance to leave home and move in with your girlfriend, but decide instead to hang out with 20 other drunken young men.   Sounds awfully gay to me.

And in fact, fraternities were dying on the vine in the mid-1970's.   After the "peace and love" era of the 1960's, it was seen as more "adult" to get an apartment, move in with your girlfriend than to join a frat.   Fraternities were seen as old-fashioned and stupid - representing the sort of white privilege of the past - sort of like the stuck-up "Omega Theta Pi" fraternity mocked in Animal House.

The sort of mumbo-jumbo nonsense that was mocked in the movie "Animal House"

The problem with that movie was that it re-ignited the fraternity movement.  Even as the movie parodied the "normal" fraternities, it also presented an image of a frat as a drunken party-house where everyone had a good time.   Fraternities might have died out by 1985 if not for that movie.  By the early 1980's, fraternities were back - and this time less of a bastion of white male privilege, but as a place to hang out and get utterly drunk out of your mind.   Bad things happened fairly quickly.

We read about it in the paper.  Pledges dying in fraternity initiation rites - which were less about homoerotic paddling ceremonies than they were about binge-drinking or even forced consumption of alcohol.  Young coeds being drugged and raped - sometimes gang-raped.   Racist incidents during parties or pledging, all captured on the ubiquitous smart phone, for the world to see.

And it doesn't matter if you were not involved.  When your chapter makes national headlines and the University shuts down your "house," you are tainted as much as the actual perpetrators.   Suddenly, having a fraternity ring doesn't seem like an "in" to business connections (if it ever was one) than a mark of shame.

Sure, maybe these sort of things happened in the "good old days" as well.  A pledge dies after drinking too much and his parents are told he "fell in the shower."   University Deans are more than happy to help sweep it all under the rug, of course.  And rape?   Back in the 1950's, it just wasn't reported, and even if it was, rarely prosecuted.   And again, Universities back then were more than willing to cover things up to preserve the "good name" of the school.

But today, we have the smartphone recording every incident in life, and the permanent archive of the Internet to preserve these things for all eternity.   Did we do stupid, regrettable things while in college?   Sure we did.   But back then, there were no cell phones, and no one carried around a Betamax tape recorder because it weighed over 50 pounds.   And there was no internet to upload things to, and no "viral" videos, or archives of data that could be retrieved with the click of a mouse.

It is true, kids have it harder today.  You make one mistake, and it could ruin you for life.   Well, maybe not for life, but it can derail your career for a few years, at the very least.   So joining a frat has a huge downside, if someone at the frat is caught doing very bad things.  Guilt by association will follow you around for the rest of your days.

But surely, there has to be an upside, right?   Joining a frat marks you as one of the elite - the cream of the crop, the sort of person from the "right" family.   And it provides you with connections later in life.  Give your new boss the secret fraternity handshake or casually show him your frat ring, and for sure you will be promoted, right?   Because in today's business world, connections mean more than absolute talent, right?

I am not so sure.  The environment today is just the opposite.  In the hard-nosed business world we live in, performance means more than who you know.   Social connections might help you get your foot in the door, but if you are not up to snuff, you'll be shown that door before long.  And the idea of privilege has fallen from favor in many sectors of the economy.   In fact, asserting such privilege may be a turn-off to prospective employers.

And then there is the distraction.   A college education is very expensive today.  And your grades and performance are looked at more closely than ever.   Do you really want to screw up a $100,000 investment by drowning yourself in beer parties?   That is exactly what happened to a friend of mine, who, upon leaving home for Engineering school, joined a frat and discovered his new friend, alcohol.  He dropped out in his second semester.

The drinking age - another aspect of the problem.   Fraternities are not known for teaching their members responsible social drinking. They don't sit around having cocktails and having sophisticated discussions, but rather swill kegs of lite beer and shout "Whazzzup!" at each other.   Since the drinking age was raised to 21, many are entering college with no drinking experience.  Worse yet, since most undergraduates cannot legally drink, the fraternity has become the speakeasy of the new age.   Fraternities are finding they are quite popular with the students, whenever they throw a kegger during pledge week.   And this has lead to a lot of the troubles.

From a personal standpoint, you have to ask yourself whether this is something that is going to profit you personally.   Are you going to get better grades and have an "in" with your first job interview as a result of joining a frat?   I suspect the answer is "No" to both questions.   Is there a significant risk you may be caught up in some scandal as a result of being affiliated with the frat?   I think yes.   And is there a significant risk you may end up spending too much time on socializing and too little on studying and hurt your college career as a result?  I think the answer is a resounding "Yes" to that.

So from a cost-benefit analysis, I think it fails the test.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Obsessing About Religion

People have been willing to kill one another in the name of peace for millennia.  When will it ever end?  Only when people wise up - which is to say, never.

A reader writes, in response to my last posting, that it is acceptable to wish ill-health and death on Barbara Bush, because of all the people in Iraq who died as a result of the Bush-lead invasion.   It is an interesting argument, but ironically, proves my point.

While the Iraq invasion was a strategic mistake and we did kill thousands of people there during the war, far more were killed and continue to be killed, all across the Arab world.... by other Arabs.   Yes, they may burn our flag and call us the "great satan" (or at least Iran does) but in fact, they spend less time fighting the US of A than they do each other.   We are just an annoyance that gets in the way of their cross-religious slaughter.  The image above is of a car-bombing in Iraq - not aimed at US forces, but aimed at Sunnis by Shiites.

Yes, the old Sunni-Shia rift has been a meat grinder for generations.   And it has been an effective tool for various governments (including our own) to manipulate people to do things against their own self-interest, such as strapping on a suicide vest.   It is all-too-easy to recruit young people online and convince them they will be "martyrs" for their branch of Islam if they will only just kill themselves - and maybe a few other people in the process.  This does little to advance the cause of the individual, or indeed the people or the religion he (or she) is nominally dying for.  It does, however, help the causes of governments and other people in power.

Islam isn't alone in this - although in recent times, they have been the most effective.   The Catholic v. Protestant divide in Christianity has been exploited by political powers for hundreds of years - and thousands have been slaughtered as a result.   It is only in recent decades that the "troubles" in Northern Ireland - the last gasp of this religious warfare - has tamped down.   But even then, it threatens to explode any minute now, as each side starts posturing again.

Our reader argues that a widow in Iraq whose husband was killed during the Iraq war, would want to kill either of the Bush Presidents or Barbara Bush, and that this would be "understandable" given the circumstances.   But oddly enough, if you look at history, the opposite is often true.  We dropped a nuclear bomb on Japan, and they are one of our strongest allies.  We flattened Berlin, and yet Germany stands by our side.  We dropped more bombs on Vietnam than in all of World War II, and yet Americans are welcome there and we have good relations with that country.  Of course, those wars weren't about religion - but the religion of nationalism.

Again, we get back to do-or-die politics.   Nazism brainwashed an entire generation of Germans to fight to the death for a "cause".   When they lost that war, some die-hard Nazis still held out and murdered those who cooperated with the occupying forces - at least for a time.   But I suspect that a lot more Germans felt betrayed by the false God of Nazism than they did by U.S. forces.   They realized that their real enemy was from within - which is why today, it is verboten to display Nazi symbols or give speeches promoting fascist values in Germany (but ironically, legal in the US).

The bloodletting that is going on today across the Arab world is not in response to any US-lead invasion, but is part of a power struggle between various countries and power centers.  The Iranians want to take control, and will use their version of Islam to convince people that they should die for a cause that is not their own - by fighting and killing their fellow Arabs.   Meanwhile, our Saudi friends want a different outcome - and use a different brand of Islam to program people to kill their own kind.

Maybe the Iraq invasion was the trigger for all of this - although from the quick rate of surrender of the Iraqi forces, it doesn't seem many in Iraq had an ideological allegiance to Saddam Hussein.  They weren't willing to die for his cause, it seems.  But once the dust settled, most people wanted to get back to life as normal.  And we naively thought they would embrace democracy.   But given a chance, such as in Egypt, people in that part of the world often vote for dictatorship.   And then outside forces, such as Iran, started to try to manipulate things.   We were in over our heads, in a situation that was not so simple or black-and-white.   We assumed that people in Iraq would act in their own best interests, and embrace a new government free of the tyranny and secret police of the old government (a government that we also installed).

But we were wrong.   Too many people are easily persuaded, particularly these days, to give up their own lives for a "cause" while neglecting what is in their own best interests.  And no, it isn't because many of these folks have "nothing left to lose"- many suicide bombers and ISIS fighters come from fairly wealthy (by world standards) backgrounds, and have many opportunities available to them.  The Boston Marathon bombers were hardly starving, but rather had a fairly well-off middle-class existence in the wealthiest country in the world.  They were convinced otherwise - by online websites.

Which brings us full circle back to the original point - it profits you not to become obsessed about politics.  It makes you a toxic person to be around, it turns away friends and business contacts who may have been helpful to you later on.  It turns away potential spouses - because no one likes creepy.

"But Bob!" you say, "What about causes worth fighting and dying for?  What about the American Revolution?   The Civil War?  World War II?   Aren't those instances where it would be better to sacrifice your life for the greater good?"

Perhaps.   But all I can say is, you had better vet these causes carefully before you forfeit your life, either literally, or by wasting it away by obsessing about politics.

As for the revolutionary war, I guess you'd have a point.   If we had not fought the British in 1776, we would have ended up like.... Canada.   Um, I guess that isn't a good point.   Alternative history is hard to parse, but if Canada is any example, I guess we would have ended up as a quasi-independent country eventually.  Or did the American revolution force Britain to give Canada more sovereignty?  Would we have expanded Westward with the Louisiana purchase if still under British rule?  It is hard to say.

The Brits outlawed slavery years before we did - and even enforced a blockade along the African coast to tamp down the slave trade.   It is possible the entire Civil War may have been avoided if we had remained a member of the British Commonwealth.   Possible!   Or maybe that is why the Southern States were eager to join the "revolution" -  to preserve their "peculiar institution."  Who knows?

What historians can agree on, though, is that the American revolution was fought to preserve economic interests - often that of the landed gentry and the upper classes.   If they could get some farmers to join in on the grounds of "patriotism" so much the better.   And the same is true of the Civil War - they dragooned thousands of dirt-poor white-trash Southern farmers to fight for a cause - slavery - that was not their cause, as most never owned slaves.   Oh, and the Civil War was all about slavery - so let's not even go down that road.  Nice try, though.

Of course, we honor and cherish our heroes - brave souls who gave their all for their country.   But you talk to a lot of returning veterans - from World War II onward, and you find they have no such romantic views about war or sacrifice.  Maybe they have seen the horrors firsthand, and seen friends die in order to obtain an objective that, the next day, was irrelevant.   Or maybe they are just tired of the idea of going to war and dying simply because a bunch of other people have gotten it into their head that killing people is the only way to resolve a dispute.  It is hard to say.

All I can say is, I am not sure I would be willing to sacrifice my life for the current crop of politics.  I am not willing to go to war or die for the likes of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or indeed, Barack Obama.  Nor am I willing to obsess about any of them - to the detriment of my own mental, physical, and fiscal health.

Maybe - and this is a crazy idea, I know - if fewer people obsessed about politics and religion and didn't make it a life-or-death matter, than maybe we'd have less wars in the world.  Every time someone straps on a suicide vest - literally or metaphorically - the world is a slightly darker place.

As as for Barbara Bush, may she rest in peace.   No doubt she and I would not have gotten along.   But I could at least be civil to her!

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Obsessing About Politics

People take politics too seriously.  When you wish ill-will on a sick old woman, it is time to step back and take stock of where you are going.

In two recent items in the news, news celebrities were taken to task for insulting comments they made about a young man from Parkland High School who is advocating for gun control.  These celebrity newscasters, among others, have gone beyond really debating the pros and cons of gun control, but have made it their job to personally attack this young man and say horrible and sometimes vicious things about him - suggesting violence or even death.

Sadly, this is the level of discourse in our country today with regard to politics.  People on both sides of the political spectrum take politics far too seriously.  And oddly enough, their political viewpoints are rather shallow - the "hooray for our side, too bad for the other guy!" kind of mentality that is only ankle-deep in thought.

It was reported in the news that Barbara Bush is seriously ill and is refusing further treatment.  It is likely that she will pass away soon.  A friend of mine who is on the far left said, when she heard this news, "Good!  She deserves to die!"  I was a bit taken aback by this as it seems rather harsh. Whatever the faults of her husband or her son as Presidents were,  I'm not sure that they are transferable to the elder Mrs. Bush.

Indeed, I don't think it would be proper to be wishing ill-health or death upon even either of the Bush Presidents.  Regardless of how you feel about their political views in their actions in office, I don't think wishing death upon them is appropriate.

But it is not a Left or Right thing.  Ted Nugent made headlines (and got a visit from the Secret Service) after he went on a rant and threatened to machine-gun President Obama and Hillary Clinton to death.   This is not deep political thought - just partisan nonsense.  Dangerous partisan nonsense.

Today, however, it seems this is the new norm.  Politics has become a contact sport.  And in contact sports it is an all-out effort to win at all cost, regardless of the damage to your opponents.

There was a time in this country when people had political opinions but didn't take them so seriously.  People would talk about politics and they would vote and there was about the extent of it.  They wouldn't hate their neighbor for having different political views, much less wanting to cause them harm or taking joy in their misfortunes.

Somewhere along the line - by design - we have been coached into this mentality where we not only disagree with our fellow citizens, but wish them ill will if they disagree with our political opinions. It's not enough that we want them to lose elections, but we want them to crawl into the grave and die.

And sadly, a few deranged minds act upon this mentality and take potshots at elected officials, sometimes scoring direct hits.  When we create an environment where politics are so highly charged and we view our opponents not as human beings but as mere objects, this is the inevitable outcome.

I'm quite certain that if I were to sit down with Barbara Bush, I would have a nice conversation with her, provided we didn't talk too much about politics.  But even then, I think we could have a civil discussion and I could respect her viewpoints and she likely would respect mine.  I may disagree with her, but I don't hate her for being who she is or having the experiences that she's had in her life that lead her to have the opinions that she does have.

Because that's all political opinions are - a result of our experiences and values that we develop as human beings.  And often these are based on our upbringing, our education, where we live, and who we interact with.  We may think our political opinions are deeply held personal values, but it is quite startling how people can change their mind about politics - often 180 degree turns, and often on more than one occasion.

The hippie that wants to burn down the system in 1968 and says "stick it to the man!" ends up becoming a yuppie in 1980 and votes for Ronald Reagan.  It is the same person with two diametrically opposed views.  And neither their views nor the person are abhorrent but rather quite normal.  Does the hippie of 1968 really want to murder the yuppie he becomes in 1980 or vice-versa?  I think not.  Yet today, people think nothing of wishing death on those who disagree with them - even if they may have disagreed with the themselves of a few short years ago.

We should debate the views, but not the person.  We need to stop turning politics into a series of personal attacks.  Because personal attacks don't address the underlying issues. And if the issues stand on their own, they don't need to rely on personal attacks.  One sure way to tell if someone is wrong in a political debate is if they resort to personal attacks.  Because that means they have nothing really to say to defend their viewpoint.

From a personal perspective, taking such extreme political views and obsessing about politics in general does absolutely nothing for your own personal bottom line.  It does not make you wealthier, or happier, or more productive.   On the contrary, it distracts you (again, by design) from your own life and your own business.  It alienates you from co-workers, friends, spouses, and potential clients and employers.  And such simmering anger can make you unhappy, mentally imbalanced, and even affect your physical health.

It's just bad for you, so don't do it.  All you are doing is giving up your own life to be a pawn in someone else's game.

* * *

HINT:  If you are talking with someone who has rabid political views diametrically opposed to your own, don't try to argue with them - it simply won't work, and you will just make an enemy out of a friend.   What I try to do is say, "Well, you might be right about that!" and change the subject.  They think you are agreeing with them, when in fact, you aren't.  Trying to "convert" people to your political point-of-view, I have learned, the hard way, is pointless.

The only thing more pointless, is getting into a political discussion with someone who agrees with you.

Monday, April 16, 2018

The Devil Came Down To Georgia



The devil came down to Georgia in the form of ICE raids.

We drove into town today to get a massage.  As I noted in an earlier posting a massage can be very good for your health and helping straighten out your joints and bones and relaxing your muscles.

Afterwards we thought we drop by our favorite Mexican restaurant, La Salsa, to have some tacos al pastore and maybe a couple of cold Dos Equis beers.  But when we got there, the parking lot was empty.  I went to the restaurant and pulled on the door handle and founded firmly locked.  I went next door to the Tienda - the small Mexican market that does wire transfers and sells various sundries - but that was also locked.  What was really strange was that the park benches normally up in front of both businesses were placed inside, on their sides.  Apparently they were going to be closed for some time but also apparently closed in a real hurry.

I asked the neighboring businesspeople what happened to the restaurant, but they had no idea what was going on.  I had a sneaking suspicion - and an increasing dread - as to what was happening.  If I want to find out anything that's going on in the Mexican community in our town, I knew who to call - Pope Juan.

Our friend Juan works for the local Catholic Diocese.  He has his hand on the pulse of everything that's going on in the Latino community in Southeast Georgia.  We texted him and he responded that there's been a major ICE raid on our town and that things are "pretty bad."

I got to thinking about our favorite waiter at the restaurant.  We called him Clark Kent because he wore thick glasses like Superman's alter ego.  He was a handsome young lad who came here as a child - one of those "dreamers" that you hear about.  He hardly spoke any Spanish as he was raised in America.  And in fact our attempts at Spanglish fell on deaf ears as he was more proficient in English.

I worried about him and the other employees of the restaurant.  Would they be sent back to their own country?  Where was that Home Country exactly?  If they were sent back to El Salvador or some other crime-ridden country, it could be a death sentence.  Not only that, with all of their contacts and family in the United States, what would they do in a country that was foreign to them?  Our friend Clark barely spoke Spanish - how would he survive in a country where he had no family, no contacts, and could barely speak the lingo?

The irony, to me, was that we have a training center here in Brunswick call the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, which  people refer to as "Flea-tech" or "Fletsie."  And every day, during the lunch hour, the FLETC trainees would come to this Mexican restaurant for lunch - many of them wearing ICE uniforms.  I wonder how many of the same people were involved in this roundup were arresting the very same people who are serving them tacos the day before.

Now granted, some of the folks they're rounding up came to United States illegally.  They did not have their proper citizenship papers or residency permits.  And under the law, they have no recourse other than to be sent back to their home country.  But it seems like there's something wrong when somebody is here for 10, 15, or 20 years only to be sent back at that later date.  Why, suddenly, do we feel these folks are a threat and need to be deported?

Under the law (actually, equity), we have concepts known as laches and estoppel as well as in real estate law something called "squatter's rights."   Basically, if you have legal rights to something and you "sit on your hands" for a decade or more, you are deemed to have voided your rights.

For example, if you get into a contract dispute with someone and you write them a letter telling them they are in violation of the contract and they need to cease and desist at once, and then you fail to follow up on that for a decade or more, your rights to sue might be voided.  The opponent could argue that your silence was an asset to their breach of the contract and your failure to take action over a long period of time voided their right to sue later on.  People have a right to rely on things being settled.

Similarly, if you occupy a dwelling or property openly and notoriously for a decade or more, in many states you may end up owning that propertyI wrote a blog entry on this before and noted that it's very hard to do.  If you occupy a house, pay the property taxes, and put your name on the mailbox make everybody aware that you live there, after 20 years the homeowner can't come back and say, "Hey, you have to leave! I own this place!"   He had 20 years to throw you out and he can't claim ignorance of the matter if your occupancy was open and notorious.

It seems to me that these legal concepts are analogous to the immigration situation.  We have allowed people to cross the border with a wink and a nod and have hired them in our economy to do essential jobs that no one else will take.  We haven't deported these people or in fact made any effort to track them down until now.  They have lived here openly and notoriously, often paying taxes at the jobs they work at.  And they have acted in reliance on the silence of the government as an asset to their living here.

Now, decades later, we say, "Gee, you're breaking the law!  You have to leave!" even though we've known about this for years and years and taken no action - and in fact benefited from their hard work in our society.

There's something else that disturbs me about this, at an emotional level as well. The idea of policemen rounding up people and hauling them off to detention camps - for-profit prisons run by friends of the President in fact - and holding them there for months at a time before shipping them off to these foreign countries seems somewhat Orwellian. Or perhaps even Naziesque.

When we have raids like this where the police swoop down and start hauling people away en mass, it makes me wonder how long it will be before they start hauling me away as well.

The devil has come down to Georgia.  And he walks the Earth in an ICE uniform.

I wonder if the folks from the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center will have the balls to show up at this restaurant ever again.

What Is Attorney-Client Privilege? Not What You Think!

Many people misunderstand Attorney-Client privilege - even attorneys - and Presidents!

What is Attorney-Client privilege?  Simply stated, it is a right that may be asserted by a client to exclude evidence at trial, on the grounds that the evidence comprises confidential information communicated between a client and his attorney.  It is not the ability to keep things "secret" but rather to have them held inadmissible in court as evidence.  It cannot be used to further a criminal enterprise, nor can it be asserted by an attorney to shield himself from criminal liability.

Thus, for example, the FBI can raid the offices of your lawyer, if they suspect he is a corrupt lawyer or doing something illegal.  If attorney-client privilege prevented this, being a lawyer would be a license to unlimited criminality - or at least more than it is already.   You can't break the law and hide behind "privilege".   Oh, yea, I know, they do this all the time on television.   That's television, not reality.  Stop watching television!  It is rotting your mind!

Now, in some matters, it may be possible to keep documents "secret" up to a point, by claiming attorney-client privilege.   For example, in a civil suit, maybe there are some documents that include letters or memos to and from your attorney, that you claim privilege to.  During the "discovery" phase, your opponent makes a document request for a certain document.  You demur, claiming attorney-client privilege.  Your opponent challenges this in a hearing in court.  The judge may ask to see the document and review it in camera to determine whether it truly is privileged or not.   If he does not believe so, then the document may be provided to your opponent and perhaps admitted as evidence.

For example, during a patent case I was working on, we found a memo from the opponent's attorney saying that the Patent may be invalid because they filed it too late.  A disgruntled former employee of the company had a carbon copy of the memo.   For some reason, it was not on the opponent's privilege list - they claimed not to have a copy in their files!   We were aware of the document and it could have torpedoed their case as it was an admission that the patent was filed too late.   But, the opponent claimed the memo was protected by attorney-client privilege, and thus was inadmissible as evidence.  We had a hearing, and the judge reviewed the memo and agreed with our opponent.  If we were to prove the patent was invalid, we would have to do so through other means.  This did not mean the memo was kept secret form us or that we instantly forgot that it existed.  Of course, we could not disclose the contents to others.

The idea that you can keep things "secret" using privilege is thus flawed.   At the very least, a judge can review these documents, and your grounds for claiming privilege have to be pretty strong.   It is not a blanket proscription - you can't just take all the corporate records of your criminal enterprise, ship them to your attorney's office and claim "privilege."

My criminal law professor, Professor Starrs, used to tell us this, with regard to privilege.  "I tell my client, 'before you say anything, that if you tell me you are guilty, I will then fight to get you the most lenient sentence.  But if you don't tell me one way or another, then I will fight to make the prosecution prove its case.   Now, is there anything you want to tell me?'"   And usually, his clients would shut up at that point, rather than confess to him their crime.  As a lawyer, he could not argue his client was "innocent" when he knew him to be guilty.   But if he didn't know.... such is the fine line of legal ethics - at least for some lawyers.  Others simply don't care.

In other words, he can't be an accomplice to the crime, if he knows that a crime  has been committed or an ongoing criminal enterprise is functioning.   Obviously, other lawyers have different ethical standards than Professor Starrs.

But the idea that you can use a lawyer as a means of shielding your activities from public view or from the view of the police or the courts, is flawed.   You cannot avoid prosecution from crimes simply by claiming attorney-client privilege, if you and your attorney are in fact, partners in crime.

But again, a lot of people misunderstand this.