Monthly Archives: October 2010

goblins and ghosts and links, oh my

goblin
Halloween is an ugly mix of fun and, well, ugliness. Kids love the costumes, of course, and adore the candy.  I don’t like the candy – I don’t care for sugar in the first place but the horrendous, chemical-laden packets of sugar/high fructose corn syrup are truly appalling.  I like the costumes, but I don’t like what I view as an increasing “horror-ization” of Halloween – trying to add gore to the mix.  And honestly (put on the grumpy old man voice in your mind) I hate the final straggling remnants of the door-to-door trick-or-treating ritual.  Every year it’s fewer and fewer kids, but you still have to prepare, deal with the intrusion, etc.  Can we just declare that dead and gone?  Our kids went to two different “hosted” trick-or-treat events, where there were candy stations, music, games, etc.  It was much more fun than begging door to door.

Anyway, end the grumpiness.  Hope you had a happy Halloween!

“Bernanke printed over a trillion dollars out of thin air, then used that money to buy, among other things, mortgage-backed securities (MBS) and Treasury Bonds. In other words, the government was printing money to a) lend to itself and b) prop up the housing market, with Wall Street stepping in to take a big cut.” That happened – and it’s happening again, soon. When everyone’s complaining about high taxes they should stop and redirect their anger towards this move, which fundamentally weakens the US economy and makes the dollar worth less – far more dangerous than a 3% tax hike.

what’s in my wallet

my-wallet_thumb.jpg

With apologies (or not) to the unending stream of Capital One credit card commercials, some members of The Money Writers network that I’m a part of decided on a project:  to show you…well… what’s in our wallets. We haven’t seen each other’s posts before writing our own, so I imagine we’ll learn something.  Maybe you will too, and at the end of the post feel free to share anything interesting you keep in your wallet (or purse or money clip or whatever).

So here’s my wallet:

my wallet

Originally I planned to pull all of my cards out and blur out the identifying information, but that ended up looking like a big blurry mess, so that’s what it looks like unfolded.  So what’s in it?

Pocket A:  The non-essentials

These are the items I like to keep, but none of them are that critical.  Here I keep my library card, a grocery store loyalty shopper card (which I seldom use, since I go more often to another store), my Florida discount prescription card and my voter registration card.  The voter registration card is a surprisingly widely accepted form of identification here; any time I’m asked for two forms of identification I’d usually provide this (since I don’t carry my passport around).

Pocket B:  The identifying information

These are the important items.  My health insurance card, my driver’s license and my AAA card.  I don’t know if I could get by presenting my driver’s license instead of my AAA card, but the AAA card is so useful for so many reasons (discounts and so on), let alone the actual car breakdown/accident services, that I consider it a “must.”

Pocket C:  The credit/debit cards

Unfortunately this one keeps growing despite my best efforts.  I’ve got an Amex Blue Cash card which has been our “family” card for years.  I use that whenever possible, but I do keep an amazon.com Visa card for the rare institution that doesn’t accept Amex, or times I need to keep a purchase hidden from Bubelah (and not like you might be thinking – since we both see the Amex bill, and the Visa is mine alone, it’s useful when it’s gift-giving time).

Now that we’ve switched to a high-deductible plan with an associated Health Savings Account (HSA) we had to add a debit card for that account, in addition to the ATM/debit card we use with our primary checking account.  I also carry a very seldom (physically) used business Amex card for my consulting business.  The business expenses are few and far between, though, and most of them tend to be online, anyway.

The cash flap

I usually carry about $100 or less; in recent years I’ve found cash is almost never necessary, but I still feel weird walking around without it.  I also keep a few receipts in there that haven’t managed to make their way into my inbox prior to filing.  I keep a couple of business cards, but that’s another item I find myself handing out less and less; I’ve considered just carrying some blank white cards with my name printed on them, and then scribbling down whatever contact information I need to give a particular person.  Some people don’t need your website; others do.  It’s either carry blanks or get five different variations.

So what’s missing from my wallet?

I used to carry around various loyalty program cards in my wallet – Marriott Rewards, Continental, Where Ya Bean? coffee and so on.  I found that so few of those cards ever came out of the wallet that the annoyance of carrying them around far outweighed the benefit of having them on hand.  Once phones were developed with “note” capabilities the need to have the numbers physically on hand disappeared.

An observation

With the rapid advancement in, and acceptance of, smart phones and similar devices, I imagine we’re only a decade (or less) away from being wallet-less.  Of course that applies mainly to (a) people with income high enough to afford smart phones and (b) people technologically comfortable enough to use them.  I doubt I’ll ever travel without a credit card and a couple of $20 bills tucked in a money clip, just in case I come across a non “smartkey” (or whatever it will be called) area; but before long I’d imagine things like loyalty cards will be replaced by phones sending Bluetooth signals or something.  What does it mean?  Probably nothing – maybe an increase in the type of advertising as seen in “Minority Report,” in which billboards scan your retina, determine who you are and then display an ad appropriate to you:  “Steve, get your New York Jets Super Bowl 45 memorabilia!”  Does that matter?  Not really – advertising is a fact of life in the Western world, unless you want to live in a van down by the river.

Other Money Writer posts in the “What’s in My Wallet” project

For the other Money Writer posts, check out:

updates, summer in October and links

This week I suddenly decided to update a few things here at brip blap. I’ve added a much more complex Facebook page, for starters, which you can see at facebook.com/bripblap.  I also added a new page here – greatest hits. I’ve got a Media Mentions page over on the Facebook site – a similar page is about 90% ready for this site.  And of course you can probably see (if you’re visiting the site and not reading through RSS or email) that I’ve changed up the layout a lot, including a “like on Facebook” thing-y on the right.

I’m also planning on getting up a coaching/consulting link here in the near future. I asked this question at Facebook, too, but I’ll repeat it here – is there anything about the site design that needs to be updated (good or bad)? Feel free to contact me directly, or leave a comment.

It’s been easy to feel enthusiastic, despite a woeful market for my “main” consulting specialties (audit and finance). That’s probably what inspired me to spend some time working on the “behind the scenes” part of the blog.  The weather has been nice – that’s an understatement – and this is the time of year that living in Florida really pays off.  When everyone else north of us starts to don jackets and coats occasionally, we’re still in shorts and t-shirts.  I know in 50 years it’s going to be 155 degrees in the shade (and our house will be underwater thanks to rising ocean levels) but right now it’s nice having a relatively hot autumn.

I linked to a few sites a bit off the beaten blog-reading path for me this week.

  • Whose permission are you waiting for to start your escape? :  I know in my case if I have any permission required to move away from my primary consulting work, it’s entirely internal.  I imagine most people who are “stuck” in lines of work they don’t care for that much may claim it’s the mortgage or the kids’ college funds or the car payment or whatever, but at the end of the day you have to give yourself permission.
  • The Road Less Talked About: Building a Business Empire, not an Income Stream:  I’ve just recently started reading Maren’s blog and in this post she’s talking about the anti-4-hour workweek (to put it in a nutshell).
  • Strategies for Minimalist Freedom Success: How to Make Difficult Decisions:  I am an experienced practitioner of paralysis by analysis.  This post made me think about the way I approach some of the difficult decisions I need to make.
  • I Made a Mistake and Checked Zillow.com Today:  If you aren’t planning on selling your home/investment property, a trip to Zillow is almost always wince-worthy.
  • Should You Save For Long Term Goals While Still In College? :  Honestly I think the main goal while in college should be avoiding debt.  Saving is a nice bonus, but unless you’re on a full scholarship AND work a part-time job, it’s going to be tough to find that extra money.  Not impossible – but tough.

And a few more:

repeated violent blows to the head

I don’t often link to contemporary news stories, but this one was worth a mention. Now, it’s a sports-related story, so bear with me.  It’s about sports, but not a game summary or anything like that.  As you may (or may not know) the National Football League has put a lot of emphasis (or paid a lot of lip service, at least) to injury-related issues.  The sports (and even non-sports) media spent a lot of time talking about concussions and head injuries earlier in the season.  One big news item arose when the  autopsy of a college football player who committed suicide, Owen Thomas from UPenn, revealed that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition common in older football players.  That condition also occurs in boxers, and the cause is simple:  repeated violent blows to the head.

More recently this season, the league and media have started to pay more attention to the brutality of tackles in the game. Two football players, one pro and one in college, were paralyzed in one weekend.  The pro player recovered; as I write this, the college player remains paralyzed from the neck down.  The NFL saw a series of absolutely mind-numbing hits which caused a great deal of consternation, and the league promises to crack down.  That’s what led me to this thought-provoking article by Joe Posnanski in Sports Illustrated.  One excerpt stayed with me:

So where are we now? There’s a real momentum to stop the most bloodthirsty of hits. We do, many of us, most of us even, worry that the game is getting too scary, too painful, that it’s hard to maintain our suspension of disbelief. We want the NFL to do something about the injuries. But … what? We still want the NFL to be about pain. We want both those things, same time. And are we really willing — in that place deep down, in what Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men called “places you don’t talk about at parties” — really willing as fans to give up pain to stop injuries?

I like that Nicholson quote, as well. The movie is fairly dull, but the famous interrogation of Nicholson by Tom Cruise – the “you can’t handle the truth!” scene – is very good:

Nicholson’s rant is a bit on the “you are with us or against us” side that I find unappealing. But his point is valid, and applies to many parts of our lives. We don’t want to see how our meat is “processed.”  We don’t want to experience prison life.  We don’t even want to know how our wars are run.  We may read exposes about Abu Ghraib, but after a brief spell of (well-deserved) collective national disgust (or, in certain quarters, glee) the news returned to the Kardashians.

But what brought this all together for me is the fact that we have to be conscious of almost everything in our lives in order to live deliberately by a set of values. Some actions are clearly negative:  smoking, for example.  Some are negative if not pursued in moderation:  eating, drinking, working hard, religious fervor, political fervor and so on.  But if you sit back and focus on more subtle activities and habits, you may realize they have a negative impact on you, too.

Now, I love football. I have never played football at any level other than after school on the high school field with a group of buddies.  I played a non-team sport throughout high school (tennis).  I was tall at a young age – a picture of me from tennis camp (maybe 8th or 9th grade?) has me towering over the other boys – I don’t think one head reached as high as my shoulder.  My size and tennis conditioning made me a constant target of pressure from the high school football coach:  every year, when getting my physical for tennis, he’d be there, telling me I could start, I could have an instant impact.  My parents never signed the permission forms, though, fearing exactly the type of violence I wrote about above.  I never played a team sport until, burned out on tennis, I joined the lacrosse team in college.

But despite never playing, I remain an avid fan (this blog actually ranks very high in searches for the New York Jets, ironically). But for the first time in a long time I started thinking about football, past my enjoyment of it. I don’t watch the news, although I do read some online occasionally.  So the violence of war and crime come at me mostly in the form of words.  But with football I bring a lot of violence into my mind.  A great deal of enjoyment comes with that violence, too.  I love a brutal tackle as much as the next person.  You can’t love football without loving the violence that finishes every single play (with the exception of out-of-bounds, but even there you often see brutal hits).  The sport shoves a great deal of violent imagery and language into my head.

I doubt I will stop watching football tomorrow, but for the first time I thought about it. I doubt I will quit many of my somewhat-bad habits even when confronted with the negatives (for example, meat eating).  I still have plenty of downright bad habits to confront before I focus on those:  temper, laziness, lack of focus and so on.  But in confronting those bad habits – like temper, for example – it is valuable for me to understand that things like the underlying violence in a sport that brings me joy may actually be building up habits that don’t – like my temper.   This observation – prompted by a Sports Illustrated article, of all things – made me think about a fully conscious and designed life for the first time.

would you emigrate?

statue of liberty

Bubelah and I were talking this evening about the mind-process required to emigrate. It’s not just a one-time step, either. You make a decision, for example, to leave your city; then your region; then your country. But after that comes the whole horrifying (or exciting) next process: leaving the city in the region in the country you emigrated to. It’s possibly a never-ending process.

To give some context, in the area I’m familiar with: a lot of people living in Russia leave their small towns and move to Moscow. Moscow’s the cultural, political and economic center of one of the world’s largest countries, so it’s a destination in and of itself. But a few hardy souls either leave directly from their small town or keep moving on from Moscow. If they are Jewish, they might head on out to Israel. They might head to New York, though, with its sizable Russian population. While emigrating to New York is a huge step, it’s ultimately a halfway step.

In New York, for example, you can live in a Russian neighborhood. You can have a Russian landlord, shop at Russian groceries, attend Russian churches or synagogues, eat at Russian restaurants and watch Russian TV on Dish or DirectTV. Your neighbors will be Russian, you’ll be able to buy books and newspapers at the Russian bookstores, and you can even buy Russian cartoon character toys at the Russian version of Wal-Mart. Life changes, for sure: you’re still in America, and the climate and the politics and maybe – occasionally – someone on the subway next to you will be different. But you can still lead a Russian-centric life.

After that first step, though, some immigrants take the leap and spread outwards in their adopted country. Moving to Chicago is a big step; lots of Ukrainians and Polish people, but fewer Russians. Moving to DC? Some Russians, but not concentrated like New York. And then there are the true pioneers, so to speak: the ones who move to Nashville or Kansas City or Jacksonville.  The community disappears, and the immigrant is left alone – resistance (to assimilation, so to speak) is futile.

Before you think that’s easy, imagine this: living in a city where not only your language but your culture, your attitude towards life, is not only unique but may be misunderstood or even hated. I experienced this once in my life, when I was on an extended business trip for a couple of months to Vladivostok, in eastern Siberia. At the time, it was a recently opened “military city.” It had only been open to non-Soviets/Russians for a year when I arrived. There were a small number of Japanese and Korean inhabitants, but a tiny scattering of Americans – according to one of the Russian citizens at the bank I worked at, maybe less than 20.

It’s intimidating. Imagine going to a place where nobody understands your language. That’s tough. But I understood Russian, I can still tell you it’s tough when nobody understands your culture. They can’t understand you, but more importantly they can’t understand how you think.  If you let yourself be open to this experience, it can be exhilarating; if you don’t, it can be terrifying.

It’s an amazing experience either way, of course, and it applies even to people who never leave their own country. If you work as an entrepreneur, how can you make employees understand you? If you’re a lifelong corporate employee, how can you explain your life to an academic – or a friend who works at a not-for-profit. Can someone who does freelance writing for a living understand an accounts payable clerk at a Fortune 500 company?

That’s what emigration means. Learning to understand, and making people learn to understand you. The process of learning is a struggle. I lived it (briefly, in Russia), and although I think I managed to dip a toe into a new culture, I never got all wet – because I knew I could leave. What would it take for you to make that plunge, and move into a new country/life/culture – and give up the old? Would it be love? Money? The challenge? Or even, as in many immigrants’ cases, the necessity? I don’t know if I could ever do it again unless I had to, but it was tough – and I admire people who can do it and succeed, to any level.

the chocolate diet

Will people buy idiotic junk that they think will help them lose weight/attract a man/make money/get government money? You don’t have to spend much time flipping channels to see the answer to that.  People want a quick answer.  Want to talk to someone about boring old saving for the future, or buy the latest get-rich-now book at Barnes and Noble?  Want to get coaching from a stuffy old CPA, or a “life coach” who doesn’t have a college education but claims to be a millionaire (what are the odds you’ll get a bank statement to review)?  I think we know the answer there.  Just look at politicians and pop culture and you’ll see what sells – NO PAIN WEIGHT LOSS.  No money down real estate investing.  Etc.

Everyone who’s fat knows deep down that “eat less, exercise more” is all they need to know. Everyone who’s poor knows that spend less, make more is all they need to know.  Do you need Dave Ramsey to tell you to quit putting your cable TV bill on your 19% interest rate credit card every month?  Apparently.  Do you need Dr. Oz to tell you that carrots are healthier than chips?  Do you need some talking head on a “business channel” on TV to tell you that getting rich is possible – but not guaranteed –  for everyone? I would submit that deep down someone who stopped reading books after they finished college (or high school), watches 5 hours of TV a night and complains about the fat cats in Washington stealing their tax dollars knows that the problem is that they won’t get off the couch to get more education, start a business, etc. They’d rather hope that someone can sell them a “get rich now” package and zip right past the annoying hard work.

Everyone wants to know that they can eat chocolate AND lose weight – or spend a lot, work a little and be rich.  Everyone wants to find the chocolate diet.

All that having been said, who’s getting richer? Robert Kiyosaki, selling his rehashing of the same 5 or 6 principles in 85 different formats?  Or Larry Q. CPA, advising people to take their money out of the Super Power Mutual Fund and putting it into boring Vanguard index funds?

The answer is obvious. Everyone wants to learn about the chocolate diet.  It’s the same with money – people would rather waste money hearing that they too can be Donald Trump, rather than having it pointed out to them that Donald Trump was already the son of a millionaire when he began his first day of work, and that their best bet is to quit buying Wii games, eat some bag lunches and pay off their Visa balance.

I know it’s difficult to hear. I’ve hoped to find a secret formula for years – both for weight loss and personal finance – but the answer is always simple:  hard work and sacrifice lead to success.  Sure, some trucker in West Virginia might win the lotto, and some dude eats Subway sandwiches every day for a year and loses 100 pounds.  Fine.  Exceptions prove the rule:  even the luckiest rich people and the genetically-gifted pretty people make sacrifices and work at what they do.

I always remember a quote, although I can’t remember the source.  I think it was a talk show, and someone was complaining about never having time to work out.  The host said something like “did you watch Seinfeld this week?  Well, then you had time to jog in place for 30 minutes.” The point is simple:  I complain about not having enough time to get to everything I’d like to, but then again I can debate the small points of Mad Men with you – I haven’t missed an episode yet, and I have a Netflix subscription that is being used.  Success isn’t born watching cable TV, just as weight loss doesn’t begin while snacking on chocolate.  Saying it is easy.  Living it is hard.

is capitalism the answer, or the problem? (and links)

I think most people like to think of themselves and their political/economic/religious beliefs as being unique. My own opinion is that nobody with much intelligence would say something along the lines of “I believe 100% in the political philosophy of Sean Hannity/Keith Olberman/Barack Obama/Sara Palin/(insert name of random politician.”  In the same way, I doubt – or at least hope – that most people would not blindly assume that all aspects of the capitalist system are completely right, every time.  If they were, there would be no need, for example, for auditors – because the market would simply punish companies that falsified their financial results, right?  We should be able to understand that any belief system probably has, and probably SHOULD have, some exceptions for each individual.

So I found this little lecture quite interesting. It’s a Marxist take on the recent financial crisis.  I am not a Marxist, nor a communist.  I like to consider myself actually to fall on the conservative side of economics – I do believe in minimal government interference in capital markets, which is clearly not what is occurring in the US these days.  I also believe, however, in things such as an extremely strong and well-regulated audit industry which polices those markets.  That’s not just because I’m an auditor, but simply because I’d rather have someone with an economic reason to identify and expose wrongdoing than simply a requirement to do so.  But I do have some beliefs that don’t fall into the capitalist mindset – I think Marx nailed it when talking about speculation, for example.  I’m not sure how you fix that, but clearly the current system isn’t working that well in the US – our sickly combination of capitalism (out-of-control financial institutions) and half-hearted socialism (health care and Social Security and a host of half-measures which only partially address the underlying issues).

Well, watch the video.  If nothing else, the animation is quite good.

And again, a few links – once again, I haven’t spent much time reading blogs this week and consequently it’s a short list.

The Perfect Salary for Happiness

Maybe you’ve already heard. But for those who need a recap, a recent Wall Street Journal article has brought the nations’ attention to some buzz-generating findings from a Gallup survey about the economy. Princeton economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman have interpreted Americans’ responses to the survey and have found that there is a threshold, above which, money no longer contributes to “day-to-day contentment.”

The magic number: yearly earnings of $75,000.

That’s right. The emotional well-being of one who makes less than $75,000 a year rises with all gains in income, but for those who earn more, there is no change. Thus, this survey suggests there is a ceiling at which money no longer adds to daily happiness. However, there was no plateau found with regards to what the researchers called “overall life assessment,” or “broader satisfaction with one’s place in the world.” It’s still apparently true that the more money one earns, the better they feel about life in general.

What it says about us

This income plateau concept makes for some pretty interesting social commentary. Essentially, the survey seems to indicate that money, after a certain point, matters only in the larger scheme of things. Once one reaches a certain point where bills, rent, and mouths to feed are no longer an issue, then money does not add or subtract to or from one’s daily contentment.

But doesn’t that fly in face of our consumer mindset? What about the prevalent (predominant) culture of the impulse buy? The world in which weekends are spent perusing dinette sets at Pottery Barn or trying on clothes at Macy’s rather than spending time with our loved ones or going for a walk on a sunny day. Advertisements tell us to buy, Buy, BUY to look better, fit in, and feel better about ourselves. So logically if you have more money you can buy more things and feel more of that instantaneous buyer’s rush, you’ll be happier in the short-term, correct?

Well, apparently, wrong. The study reveals what the Don Drapers of the world don’t want you to know. Buying things can’t ultimately make you feel better. It may provide a quick jolt of pleasure in owning something new, but that fleeting feeling barely registers a blip on that day’s happy radar.

What you can’t put a price tag on

In this humble writer’s opinion, day to day happiness is the result of living comfortably, of taking care of the things necessary to living for one’s self and one’s loved ones and taking care of them well, such as living in a decent enough house in a safe neighborhood, without too much worry for the future. Luxuries like fancy clothes, sports cars, and McMansions – on a daily basis, do not matter so much.

But take some time and reflect on your own priorities. What matters more – happiness in the moment or happiness in the larger scheme of things? Do the findings of Deaton and Kahneman illustrate that money does not buy happiness? Do you live like it does?

Joseph Gustav enjoys musing on topics related to the economy and employment as a guest blogger for Pounding the Pavement and Guide to Career Education.

cloudy days, and links

We’ve had a cloudy week in Florida:  it’s been cold and gloomy, suffering from the trace remnants of the tropical storm.  That – plus a visit from relatives – conspired to reduce my writing time to almost nothing.

I did attend a birthday party for a friend of my son’s on Saturday at the dreaded Chuck E. Cheese’s.  We had told my son that no CEC existed in our city; until the birthday party he had assumed we were simply a backwards, uncivilized corner of the world.  But since we got the invitation – for one of his best friends – we had to go.  So we went.

My kids go to a Waldorf-inspired school.  It’s focused on art, singing, creativity, etc.  TV, computers and electronica in general are all strictly forbidden.  We cheat, of course – at home we do watch TV, and I do let the kids play www.poissonrouge.com and similar sites.  But when I get dropped into an environment like CEC I realize that there is a tidal wave of electronic media overpowering our kids today.  A level of electronic stimulation almost unimaginable to Gen Xers like myself exists.  I don’t know what the long term effect of such heavy duty electronic stimulation will be…but wow.

Links

I have to be honest – I didn’t get around to reading much on the internet over the past few days, so I don’t have much of a roundup to promote.  But, such as it is, here you go: