Archive for March, 2009

a losing situation?

We live in interesting times. I was just reading about the U.S. Post Office and the fact that it lost $2.8 billion last year and is facing even larger losses this year, in spite of a rate increase and many measures they are taking to reduce costs.

This doesn’t come as much of a surprise to me. I don’t know about you, but I receive almost all of my bills – and pay them – on-line. Ninety-eight percent of the mail I do get goes straight into the recycling bin, which means that direct mailers (at least in my case) are wasting money. Indeed, in this economy direct mailers have been cutting back on their mailings and moving more and more to the Internet in order to reduce costs. With this increasing reliance on electronic media, it would seem that the postal service will need to be scaled way back and/or transformed into something totally different from what it is today.

That issue brought another to mind, and not a new one at that. The manufacturing base in our country has been dwindling for quite some time and seems destined to continue in that direction. We have been buying manufacturing capacity from overseas at bargain rates compared to those in the States. Company after company in the U.S. has either shut down, scaled back or reconfigured to compensate for the loss of business, just as the Post Office is doing.

Call me a pessimist if you wish, but I start to worry about this downsizing of American capacities. I am becoming more and more concerned over the possibility that we may need something that we have lost, and need it in a hurry. I can think of at least a couple of examples.

The transmission of electronic information is subject to disruption by solar flares, as well as being vulnerable to intentional electronic jamming by those who may wish to do the U.S. harm. If electronic media were to be knocked out for any length of time by some such situation it would mean that all correspondence would have to go back to hard copy again. Maybe this is really silly thinking and there is no way this could happen, but it sure seems like a possibility. How could the Post Office ramp up in a hurry to compensate for the loss of electronic communication if they had gutted their operation to downsize and reduce cost?

The other scenario, and a much scarier one, is the possibility of a large-scale war. If we were to find ourselves at war with China, not only would we have to try to scale up our manufacturing capabilities in a damn big hurry, but we would have to worry about all the manufacturing capacity we have already helped China develop. Is this a silly worry? Is there really any likelihood that this could be a problem? Why would we want to risk finding out?

I’m afraid I don’t have any good answers to these two problems. It seems unlikely that we will be changing our business model in this country anytime soon and that China, India and other low wage countries will continue to create manufacturing capacity at the expense of our capabilities. We will continue to reduce the amount of printed material that gets mailed, thus forcing a reduction in the size of the Post Office.

Perhaps this is as it should be. All things change, and I don’t deny it. New technologies provide new and often unforeseen ways of doing things. Still, with the destruction of one’s own country potentially coming by one’s own hand, it seems to make sense to step back and evaluate the wider implications of change. I hate to go on faith that everything will turn out okay in the end, but to tell the truth, I don’t know what else we can do about the situation.

world of warcraft

Ever play an online game? I’ve been playing World of Warcraft for quite a while now – almost four years – and really enjoy it. Maybe it’s just escapism, but so what? I can go to Azeroth or the Outlands and be the hero that I’ll never be in real life. Dying is no biggie either – just run back to your corpse and resurrect. Would that real life be so forgiving. Of course, I don’t age in World of Warcraft, nor do I suffer any permanent injuries from things that would seriously maim me on this side of the monitor, so resurrecting myself doesn’t mean coming back to life in a worthless, damaged, old body.

I haven’t done much playing with other people. For those who don’t know, you can group up with other people in a several different ways. The simplest is when you need to beat a character tougher than you to complete a quest. You can almost always find someone else who needs to finish the same quest or who is willing to help. I’ve done that before. I’ve often wondered if the fourteen-year-old I’m playing with would be freaked out if he/she knew I was a fifty-eight-year-old oldfart. Playing online and being identified only by the character you are playing is a great equalizer. We should all be able to deal with each other that way in real life. It would be interesting.

My son also plays, though he’s a much better and more involved player than I. It is nice to have some activity in common with him. I can call on him to help me out when I need it and rely on him to fill me in on some of the fine points of the game.

I play PvE, which is player versus environment, where you essentially play against the computer. You can also play PvP – player versus player – where in addition to playing against the computer you can attack other players. I’ve tried it, but I’m afraid it’s not my style of play. You can really get an adrenal rush playing PvP and to tell the truth, I don’t like it. I’ll leave that to the young bloods or to those who have a more aggressive nature than I.

The level of development that goes into a game like this is truly amazing. There is so much scenery and so many story lines that it’s hard to get bored with it. I’ve tried all sorts of character combinations but found my favorite – a Death Knight – in the latest version of the game. Sounds cool, doesn’t it? Even though I have hit the highest level with that character, there is still so much more to do. I could probably play this character for another year and still not exhaust the possibilities. However, my son suggested that he and I start new characters together and that sounds like fun.

So yeah, I’m a bit of a geek like that.

Zeus: A Journey Through Greece in the Footsteps of a God – Tom Stone

I was always fascinated with mythology when I was a young student, and this book helped expand my knowledge on the subject. More importantly, reading about an ancient and now pretty much abandoned god really made me think about current religion. How can gods come and go in fashion over the millennia? Why should the god(s) of current religion be considered any more valid that the ancient god(s)? Kind of makes you realize that they are all just creations of man’s imagination.

(Finished 3/21/09)

AIG bonuses

AIG is giving, or has given, roughly $165 million in bonuses to company executives, and all sorts of people are pissed off about it – from the average citizen on the street all the way up to the President. According to AIG, they have no choice in the matter. The payments are contractual obligations that must be paid. Boo-hoo, so sad, sorry, but that’s just the way it is, so stick it if you don’t like it.

I’m really tired of hearing all the bellyaching from the people who enabled this kind of behavior in the first place – the House of Representatives, the Senate, the President, various cabinet members, and, and, and . . . well, let’s face it – government! The only reason that AIG is able to reward those who have driven the company into the ground is because our government has not let them suffer the consequences of their actions.

When my son was young, I tried to teach him that there are consequences to actions. He probably got tired of me telling him that, “There’s nothing you have to do but die.” (And yes, those words would come back to haunt me occasionally.) What the phrase means is that we have the freedom to make choices, but that for every choice we make, we must be willing to accept the consequences. Apparently I was wrong, or at least the government doesn’t believe that.

If the government had left the market alone the problem would have been solved. Yes, there is no denying it, letting a company like AIG fail would have caused economic pain, but guess what? The bail-out of AIG out has caused, and continues to cause, its own kind of pain. If there were no bail-out, AIG would have been forced to restructure completely, perhaps even going into bankruptcy. What do you think would have happened with those contracts that required bonus payments in that event? I’m no lawyer, but I’m guessing they would have gone bye-bye in a real hurry. In a bankruptcy, pretty much all deals are off!

There are no guarantees that any of the companies given bail-out money will survive. Look at General Motors. They have already received massive funds, and yet they came back looking for more, even while stating that the additional funds will not assure that bankruptcy isn’t their future. Does anyone else think it’s pretty stupid to throw good money after bad? At what point do we turn off the life support and let the patient live or die?

This whole bail-out situation has been a boondoggle from day one – starting with President Bush and his crew at the end of his last term. Amazingly enough, Obama took the baton from George and decided to keep running the same ill-fated race. Perhaps sometime someone is going to wake up and say “no more,” but I am more than willing to bet that no one in government will admit that it was their fine work that got us into this fine mess in the first place, and I mean way before the bail-outs even began. But that’s another story.

Here in Illinois our governor has proposed a fifty percent hike in our state income tax. That sounds like a lot, but when described in terms of the actual rate, going from three percent to four and a half percent is only a one and a half percent increase. So what’s the big deal? Cripes, it’s just a little one and a half percent increase.

Well, let’s ask this question – how many people in Illinois are going to see even a one and a half percent increase in their pay this year – other than government workers, of course? Or we can ask how many people have been required to actually take a pay cut this year. Indeed, how many people have lost, or are going to lose, their jobs entirely this year? Does this perhaps put “only” a one and a half percent increase into perspective? Couple that one and a half percent increase with lost income, inflation, lost investment value, etc., etc. and suddenly it doesn’t sound like such a small amount.

The much more logical way of looking at this kind of increase is as I first stated it – a fifty percent increase in income tax! Oh, but Illinois has one of the lowest income tax rates in the area. True – but it also has some of the highest property taxes in the country and some local sales taxes are the highest in the country, not to mention localities that tax things that are taxed in very few other places.

Most irritating of all is the fact that when our state government finds itself in a pinch, the solution raised is always a tax increase. There is never any serious discussion about cutting costs. Anyone in business knows that if you are not making a profit (or even breaking even), the easiest way to fix that – and the way over which you have most control – is to reduce costs. As a business, while it would be grand to be able to say, “I’ll just go out and sell more,” you have no control over what your customer will decide. The state, on the other hand, only thinks about increasing its income, and they don’t have to worry about what their “customer” will decide – they don’t have a choice!

Unfortunately, this appears to be a fait accompli. Not even the Republicans are fighting this steam roller very much. Sure, they may put on a little dog and pony show, but in the end they want the money to spend just as much as the Democrats. As taxpayers in this state, we are doomed. It sure makes you think about moving.

Throughout the history of the United States our economy has had periods of economic turmoil, but there has never been such a time from which we did not recover. It is a cyclical thing, almost as though the citizens of this country cannot stand the thought of an ever-improving economy and have to punish themselves by sinking the ship every once in a while. Maybe it is part of our puritanical nature, or perhaps it is just plain, old, human nature, but regardless of the reason for the down cycles, there have always been followed by up cycles.

It is unfortunate that our government has felt a need to get involved in the current economic downturn in the mistaken idea that they can actually spend the problem away. Particularly unfortunate is that fact that not only will the economy recover regardless of what the government does, but when the recovery does come, government will pat itself on the back and congratulate themselves on “saving” the economy. It will also appear that way to the average person who is ignorant of our economic history. This will only serve to encourage more governmental involvement in our economy.

If you want to create a economic conditions that will involve a very, very long recovery, or one from which we may never recover, all our government has to do is keep going in the direction it is heading. Where is it going? You can look at Russia to figure that out. While we have not had a violent overthrow of our government such as they had, we most assuredly have had a revolutionary change in the political philosophy of our leaders. No longer are the efforts of the hard-working, responsible, independent citizens the answer to our economic problems. Instead, it is only the government that has the resources and ability to affect change, but with that change comes control.

As our government meddles in the economy and starts to micro-manage the companies that they are supposedly helping, can anyone not see a reflection of the huge, inefficient bureaucracy of the former Soviet Union? Indeed, our government wants to get into rationing now, too, in the name of the environment. What else would you call a program like the “cap and trade” system they are promoting – a system that will have no real effect on the environment but that will assure a massive governmental regulatory structure and massive spending on the part of businesses that will be required to comply with such regulations?

Government spending, on a scale we have never before seen, is what will bankrupt this country. Anyone who has gone through a bankruptcy knows that it is not a pleasant thing, and while a bankruptcy may solve things at the present moment, the effects of bankruptcy reverberate through many, many years. Russia went through that – is still going through it – when they finally came to the realization that their economy was dead because of their governmental controls. At what point will we realize that we are heading in that direction and reverse course? I fear that we will not.

inconsistency

The other day a friend asked me why I don’t blog more, as my blog entries are usually few and far between. That’s a fair question, though I would like to take this opportunity to point out that I actually do write an entry occasionally, as opposed to other bloggers who start out strong but die suddenly and permanently. Still, why do I deprive my readers of a more consistent supply of my wit and wisdom? There are a several reasons, but most of them are corollaries of the first – there is so much bad news on which I could be commenting that I am overwhelmed.

I don’t know about everyone else, but to me it seems that we are besieged daily with pronouncements of doom and gloom, along with announcement and enactment of governmental policies which seem aimed towards nothing less than total control of our lives by the government. American ideals of independence, personal responsibility, entrepreneurship, liberty, etcetera, etcetera, are all under such consistent and relentless attack that despair has raised its ugly head. To that, add conditions in my personal life and I’m ready to crawl into a hole somewhere and hope the world goes away.

I know that ain’t gonna happen, but the more depressing that reality becomes, the less I am able to face writing about it. Something usually has to be an additional head above the background noise of bad news for me to comment on it. That, or there is a special little grain of sand that has gotten under my saddle.

Of course, it is a huge assumption that I have any readers other than my one friend. Mostly this blog is just a place that lets me blow off steam and feel like I am contributing to improving my world by calling attention to the flaws, even if my words are just a tiny whisper in the roar of the Internet. So don’t expect a consistent outflow of comment and critique from me, but do drop by every other week or so to see if I’ve dropped any pearls of wisdom. Yeah, the odds are slim, but what have you got to lose?

a silenced voice

“Hello Americans. This is Paul Harvey. Stand by . . . for news!”

I guess we won’t be hearing those words from the original voice again. Paul Harvey passed away yesterday at the age of ninety. Not much of a surprise, I guess. Ninety isn’t a bad age to reach, and I can imagine that the death of his wife about a year ago took quite a bit of the wind out of his sails.

I wonder if I was a weird kid. In my teens, in addition to good old rock’n’roll, I looked forward to hearing Paul Harvey’s news presentations on the radio. His view of the world did not really fit with the ideas of my generation at that time, but it always resonated with me. Perhaps it was my Midwest upbringing that gave me common ground with Mr. Harvey. He always felt like the family friend who had great common sense, and a sense of humor.

While he would report “the news,” there was always something more. His commentary wasn’t done so much by a straight statement of his point of view as by the way he told a news story. When something was distasteful, or distressing, or sad, you knew it in the way that Paul Harvey read the story, or by the sigh at the end of the story. Balancing all the bad news was always some good news, something redeeming – an approach that is sadly missing in today’s news presentations.

Paul’s death saddens me not only because of the loss of a good, decent human being, and the loss to the members of his family, but because it feels like I have lost a bit of my past. The solid ground of my life seems to be shifting, leaving me a bit shaky and unsure of my footing. Much, if not most, of current culture is feeling more and more alien and irrelevant to my life. Indeed, America appears to be heading in a direction that I would think that Paul Harvey would also find distressing. I can imagine a sigh of resignation after practically every news story.

While the words will never come out of his mouth again, I can still hear them in my head –

“Paul Harvey . . . Good Day!”