Saturday, February 25, 2012

Pump prices don’t have to give you gas

This week’s sign the apocalypse is firmly set upon us was the story of rising gas prices, the one and only story seemingly capable of getting our focus off of the New York Knicks’ Jeremy Lin. Reading the papers (remember them?) and watching news programming, you would have thought that the very essence of American life was being forcibly pried from our hands, sealed and locked in a steel oil barrel, and dumped deep in the Pacific with all the other toxic unmentionables.

My favorite stories were the “searches” of the local news crews, where they drove around town looking for the least expensive places to buy gas. Come on, is the suggestion really there that I should drive out of my way to save a few pennies on the gallon when filling my tank? Seriously?

When gas prices rise by a few pennies, we seem to lose all rational thought. If prices increase by a dollar, forget thought at all, much less rational thought. It’s all base instinct and outrage.

A dollar?

Take a deep breath and let that mull in the back of your mind for a minute - a dollar.

Reminds me of my parents a decade ago, who drove from Kansas to visit my sister in Boston. Their plans were to drive back via Canada, a place they had always wanted to see, but had never found the occasion. Fuel prices increased in the weeks preceding the holiday, leading them to cancel the Canadian portion of their trip and returning home the most direct – and inexpensive – route. To this day, they still haven’t seen Canada, and while hardly a huge loss (c’mon, it’s Canada, for chrissakes), for what, savings of $70?

I’ve spent more than $70 dollars this month on wine alone, and keep in mind February is a short month and I buy very cheap wine.

How many people change vacation plans over $70? Probably not many, and I’m certain my parents, in a form of rather selective memory, would say they wouldn’t either. Ah, but mask the inquiry in another question – How many people have knee-jerk reactions to rising gas prices? Answer: apparently everyone.

Do you think our gasoline prices are high? It’s a question that’s worth exploring relative to gasoline prices around the world. Are you ready for this? Sit down. Prices for gasoline in Europe are about double that of the United States.

Gasoline usage in this country is ridiculous, and probably based in our collective culture. The latest statistics available are from 2005, but they are staggering – Americans are the world’s largest consumer of gasoline and burn an average of 386 million US gallons (1.46 gigalitres for you metric-obsessed) of gasoline each day.

Sometimes, numbers are so big it’s best to draw comparisons through an illustrative metaphor. Take each of those 386 million US gallons used daily and put them into 55 gallon oil barrels. If you stack each of those over 7 million barrels end-to-end, you will roughly have the height of our indignant outrage over fuel prices.

Americans love their space. That’s why our ancestors moved here and stole all this land. Land represents liberty, at least our liberty, and freedom is represented by our ability to travel the land. In the “old days,” that was by horse, and it was taken so seriously that the penalty for horse theft was … death. Yes, stealing a horse was dealt with more severely than sometimes killing a human. The equivalent today would be the death penalty for grand theft auto. Now, we wouldn’t do that, would we?

No, of course not – car theft penalties in California (where we love our cars) for first time offenders are one to four years imprisonment and a fine. However, relative analysis is always important. Would it surprise you that the penalty for felony car theft is more stringent than felony domestic abuse (three months to three years imprisonment)? Yes, you just might serve more time for stealing a $950 car than for beating your spouse.

I won’t go so far as to say we Americans love our cars more than our spouses, but the raw data could, possibly, lead an objective mind toward some rather troublesome hypotheses.

Okay, back to that dollar from above. Remember that solitary dollar? Let’s assume the worse of the predictions for the summer come true and gas prices increase about 25%, or a dollar a gallon. Filling your 15 gallon tank every two weeks means another $15 every two weeks, or a whole $390 a year.

Is it okay to take the suicide watch off yet? Can we turn some collective attention to anything more pressing?

I know! How about attention to saving fuel and money? Maybe there’s even a way to save so much we actually make money?

Redirect public outcry and make decisions to cut driving by 10 to 25%. At the low end, you’ll incur less of an increase in your total costs. At the high end, you won’t incur any additional costs at all. Moreover, you’ll save maintenance costs for your automobile, including longer periods between oil and filter changes in the short-term, and longer periods between purchasing tires over the long-term.

Cutting driving takes only a little imagination and some good old fashioned persistence. Determine if you can work from home occasionally, thereby eliminating some commuting. Group your errands into one trip from home instead of several. Trade your car trip for a bike ride or a walk whenever possible, and on those occasions you have to drive, try to walk between stops instead of moving your car from stop to stop.

Saving money from limiting your fuel consumption is one thing. How about profiting from other’s consumption of fuel? Give up the thoughts of investing in retail fuel stations, for believe it or not, they don’t make much money off selling gasoline. Their margins come through over-priced convenience items like soda and chips. Rather, you want to find a way to invest in “Big Oil.”

Oh, c’mon now, 99 percenter, get off your high horse. Big oil is not the devil and it is not evil, as selling consumers the oil they consume – what they voluntarily buy - is no more evil than NBC Universal televising brain-dead programming to consumers who want to view that. Remember, no one forces consumers to buy fuel at the pump. The very essence of business is providing value to customers, where value is defined as a simple function of delivering goods or services at a price which consumers are willing to pay. High fuel prices don’t really matter if you don’t pay them, just like the high price of a Honus Wagner baseball card doesn’t matter if you don’t buy one.

“Big Oil” might be best exemplified by Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XON). It currently trades at $87.34 a share, at the high end of its 52-week range of $67.03 to $88.13. At its current price, the dividend yield is 2.2% ($1.88 per share annual dividend divided by share price of $87.34). If you have any money in a passbook savings account or short-term CDs – any money – take a note at the dividend yield, for it is much, much higher than the interest the bank is giving you every quarter.

Americans, it’s time to stop crying and complaining, for nothing is more un-American than that. First off, know the price you pay at the pump is half of what your Italian cousin pays, and while he probably eats better than you do, also revel in the fact you don’t live in his economy or under his government. Then, with your new rational, logical and wider perspective, cut the miles you drive and take the money saved on gasoline and invest in Exxon Mobil or another large international energy (read: “oil”) conglomerate.

More importantly, get on to something more important.

Of course, it’s entirely possible I’m full of gas as it’s just this guy’s opinion.

Pump me up on Twitter @RayHartjen

Saturday, February 11, 2012

All a-Twitter over North Korea

Yesterday, social media networks were a-buzz over the “reported” assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, with the first mentions occurring on the Chinese microblogging site Weibo, its flames fanned rather unnecessarily by a seemingly large number of Twitter’s close to 500 million users. It’s always dangerous relying on the internet – particularly social media sites – for news, as it’s incredibly easy for false information to spread.

It’s the old FabergĂ© shampoo commercial revisited.  I told two friends, and they told two friends, and so on, and so on … .  It’s easy and so very tempting to read reports as fact when, in fact, they’re often fiction, and even more so with Twitter’s 140-character limit making it difficult for the best of writers to communicate both a single cogent point and cite a reliable source.

Of course, in the case of on Kim Jong-un, we still don’t know for certain the reports are false, as the famously tight-lipped North Korean government has issued forth neither a statement nor even a word or picture to prove reports true or false.  The U.S. intelligence agencies are even in the dark, although after an exhaustive ten-year hunt for Osama bin-Laden led us to find him living comfortably in what passes as a Pakistani bedroom community, one shouldn’t assume their networks are any more reliable than Weibo or Twitter.

Uh oh, I hope I didn’t just reveal the CIA’s and NSA’s most prized intelligence gathering assets.  Just to be safe, I won’t answer the door today.  Or, rather in no effort to beat the rush, just won’t open the door ten years from now. 

As you’ll remember, Kim Jong-un ascended to the title of North Korea’s “supreme leader” upon the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, who was also referred to by his communications staffers, if not his country’s citizens, as “dear leader,” “our father,” and “the general,” all of which are, of course, significant improvements on Libya’s former dictator Muammar Gaddafi.  After all, in the close-knit world of tyrannical dictators, generals, et al. carry so much more credence and credibility than colonels. 

In December, Kim Jong-il’s death created its own little Twitter firestorm, as rumors quickly spread the rapper Lil’ Kim had died.  You hadn’t heard?  While I wish, I’m afraid I kid you not.  One of the illustrious knuckleheads was former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, whose tweet can only further sully a reputation rife with indictments and convictions of corruption, extortion, bribery and fraud.  Kwame, if you thought your road back to elected public office was one filled with pot holes, hair pin turns, and dangerous cliffs, just wait until voters find out you care one shake of a lamb’s tail about Lil’ Kim. 

The saving grace in yesterday’s North Korean-based stories was the reporting that after a super-quick building period of just 25 years, the Ryugyong Hotel is finally ready to open its doors in the capital of Pyongyang.  Even ardent students of North Korea, both of them, might not be familiar with this hotel, for it is often edited out of North Korea’s official photographs of the city.  Made almost entirely out of concrete and looking like something you might find scaled down at Space Mountain in Disneyland, the hotel will open only 23 years behind schedule, first as an office building, then as a – get this – a hotel for tourists.

You read correctly, tourists.  Don’t you remember the 70Chinese tourists let into the country in November?  With its first tour bus of tourists in generations, North Korea has now moved just behind Chernobyl, and just ahead of hell, in the rankings of the world’s most desirable tourist locations, and for good reasons, including:
  •  42% of the country’s 24 million inhabitants do not have access to improved sanitation facilities
  •  but they do have access to a whopping 1.18 million telephone lines and 430,000 mobile cellular phones
  •  the country’s GDP of $40 billion is about the same as Apple’s annual net profit
  •  no, none, zero independent media and all radios and televisions are pre-tuned to four government stations
  •  couple its political isolation with the fact only 22.4% of its land is arable and just 1.66% dedicated to permanent crops, and it’s clearly visible why persistent famine exists

But, I guess there’s another way to look at things – there’s only one way to go, and it’s the way up, which gets me to mulling over the possibilities.  Maybe Kim Jong-un will leave behind his family’s legacy of tyranny and push to move North Korea to a free, open, and potentially prosperous society.  Or, if we’re too late and he has already met his premature demise as speculated so much yesterday, maybe his replacement will be an open, democratically elected government instead of another sour-puss chump in a cheap suit. 

Far-fetched possibilities?  Yes, perhaps.  But nowhere near as far-fetched as the idea of Pyongyang dragging in tourists and their wallets to jump start its military-based economy, and we don’t have to spend 25 years building an above ground concrete bunker to speculate.

Of course, it’s just this guy’s opinion, and I suppose I could be wrong.

Tweet me a visa @RayHartjen

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Facebook’s IPO pokes back

This week’s sign the apocalypse is near comes from the front page of the business/tech section and not from the usual suspect, the news section. Well, unless you live in Silicon Valley, then it’s often both, as is in this particular case. You see, Facebook’s inevitable IPO is quickly approaching, and many onlookers see it as the first volley in a whole new tech bubble. The tech community hasn’t had its collective panties in this much of a bunch since 1999.

While numbers are difficult to project in this “quiet period” in front of the stock offering, strong buzz on the street says we can expect $10 billion to be instantly raised, bringing the total valuation of the company to about $100 billion.

$100 billion.

That’s a lot of acres in Farmville, pokes to old high school friends, and status updates ranging from boring to boorish.

Facebook’s celebrity entrepreneur Mark Zuckerberg has been hesitant to go public in the past, and for pretty good reason. First, who wants to invite the scrutiny of Wall Street and its expectations? Moreover, who wants to share so much money when it could be all mine, mine, all mine (insert maniacal, evil laugh here)?

Of course, employees what some of those riches too, and speculation abounds as to that being the root of this week’s activities, and for good reason. When Facebook stock starts trading publically, fully one-third of Facebook’s 3,000 employees stand to become instant millionaires. At the same time, we’ll see a double-digit increase in number of the world’s billionaires.

Millionaires and billionaires, $10 billion and $100 billion. Before long, we start talking about some real money, huh?

Who knows what happens to the stock after it goes public. It will certainly be interesting to see its revenue streams fully disclosed, as well as its sure-to-be-staggering profitability. Who’s to say it’s not a $100 billion dollar company. But, what does that mean, anyway.

As a comparison, as of today the top of the corporate valuation mountain sees Apple and its market capitalization of $425 billion, with Exxon Mobil trailing along with a paltry $401 billion (note: market capitalization is simply the number of shares outstanding multiplied by the share price, and is a true representation of a company’s valuation, or worth). What’s notable is that both Apple and Exxon make something tangible and have lots of assets. Exxon alone carries almost $200 billion in Property, Plant, and Equipment on its Balance Sheet.

Compare that to Facebook, already 1/4th the size of the biggest of corporate titans. From outside, looking in, what exactly is it? 3,000 employees sitting at 3,000 desks, with a piece of real estate in cyberspace that is exactly like everyone else’s piece of cyberspace real estate, only much more visited. More visited to the tune of 800 million active users, with over 400 million of those hitting the site every single day, sharing 900 million objects that other Facebook users interact with.

Damn! And I thought the dollar amounts were big.

So, that’s what it has become. Our Facebook addiction has really grown into quite the beast, as well as a monkey on some of our backs. It’s not just a time-suck that destroys our relationships with the real people who live and work with us every day while we superficially keep up with the “friends” we haven’t actually seen or spoken to in decades, it’s actually the fuel that drives the engine that is destined very soon to be one of the most valuable companies on Earth.

It’s enough to make one stop playing Mafia Wars just long enough to ponder the next technology apple that will be piled on the technology apple cart, for that’s just what we do – pile on the apple cart. Soon, very soon, the valley will be rife once again with unshaven, T-shirt and jeans clad techies and entrepreneurs, all riding Razors and Segways to work, raising money on the shakiest of business plans - and sometimes just a catchy name, logo, or mascot - pandering to the get-really-rich dreams of the American and international venture capitalist.

Don’t believe me?

Three words.

Pets. Dot. Com.

Like we didn’t see that one spiraling down the toilet from day one. Well, I mean we would have if we had bothered to think about the folly of buying heavy bags of dog food and having it shipped to us instead of just stopping by the store and buying it cheaper and taking it home that same day, when our dog was hungry.

Facebook is truly an international cultural phenomenon and a true Americana example of entrepreneurism and risk taking, and who am I to begrudge that, even if I am just a wee bit jealous and can’t help but think, “Why didn’t I think of it, and why didn’t I think of it first, and if I did think of it first, why didn’t I do something about it?” No doubt, it’s here to stay, and stay in a big, big way.

But, what of the pretenders that follow, the other apples on the apple cart? One thing history illustrates is that apples tumble from upended apple carts, and they not always Apple, if you know what I mean. Do you have your shrewd investing eye, and wallet, on technology stocks? While there can be more than one, there usually is only a select few. Buyer beware the rest, particularly those not in first, for eventually someone holds the bag and it’s filled with you-know-what.

Of course, I guess I could be wrong, as it’s just this guy’s opinion.

If you can’t find me on Facebook, hit me on Twitter @RayHartjen.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

A Fair Shot Heard ‘Round the World

State of the Union addresses have never been my thing, from the artificial standing ovation that eventually spreads to both sides of the aisle to the shameless, pompous politicking of not only the President, but of the many after speech commentaries provided by politicians for and against, as well as the almost infinite number of TV talking heads that think they’re smarter than us. Keith Olbermann or Bill O’Reilly, anyone? Child, please.

As a kid, I used to tell my parents that if a network had the stones to put entertainment programming on against the State of the Union, they would kill in the ratings. Sure, such a move would severely hamper the reputation of a network’s news division, but since when does the news pay the bills at a network?

President Obama’s address on Tuesday night didn’t disappoint my low expectations. He certainly got my attention, although perhaps not in the manner that his team of speech writers might have intended. “We can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.”

Cue record scratching.

What was that? (Hit rewind on DVR)

Fair shot?

Have we collectively sunk so low as to where we’re bemoaning needing a “fair shot?” Seriously, since when do Americans sit back and cry about wanting a fair shot? This country was built by people who proactively took the shots and called the shots. That’s why most of us moved here, and more of us do every single day.

Our American heroes, both real and fictionalized, are ones who overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles and persevered, fighting through, and eventually accomplishing goals and fulfilling dreams. From Walter Mitty to John Wayne, from Henry Ford to Warren Buffet, from Famous Amos to maybe you, we’re a country about go-getters and action, accountability and responsibility. For the love of God, we didn’t collectively sit through six Sylvester Stallone portraits of Rocky for nothing, did we?

Now, this isn’t a Republican versus Democratic in an election year rant, although full disclosure will have me tell you I didn’t vote for our current president last time around. Full disclosure will also suggest that doesn’t mean I won’t vote for him this time around, for there’s ample time to decide who’s best prepared to lead our country to where it needs to go, and at this point in time I am very open minded and undecided. But, this I’m certain of: we don’t need any talk about “fair shots.”

You get no more fair shot in this world than in America. If you don’t believe it, get yourself some luggage, perhaps a U-Haul or something, and get out and try it someplace else. Just do yourself the favor of not burning your bridges, because you most likely will be coming back.
America has been, and continues to be, the land of opportunity. Only, there is one requirement to seize upon all the potential out there waiting for you. It’s simple. Go grab it. Get off your lazy, pampered, self-entitled ass and work hard.

Sorry to break it to you, but Andy Warhol was wrong. Everyone is not going to be famous for fifteen minutes. You won’t have a camera crew follow you around like you’re a second-coming of the Kardashians. You won’t answer the door one day and open it to a letter informing you that you just inherited $100 million from a long-lost relative.

Success is predicated on smart, hard work. Now, “occupying” some place is certainly hard work – who wants to live in a cardboard box in the middle of winter, relieving yourself in the bushes, and searching daily for an AC outlet? But, it’s not smart. Instead of using your iPad - poor, pitiful, hopeless disenchanted 99%-er, with your glorified toys and 4G necessity of a phone – to poke your network of not-so-friendly friends into joining a pointless protest, how about using it to network for a … wait for it … a job? One that pays you for your work. Use those same skills of organization and communication and put them to work in a productive manner.

Making your own shot, calling your own shots, and making success happen will allow you to one day pay taxes to accommodate the next generation of even more self-righteous, self-entitled knuckleheads who embark on costly protests of the mean, hard, un-fair life of Americans.

President Obama, if you want to earn my vote, you need to change your messaging, and actually just slightly. I don’t want to give anyone a “fair shot,” for I don’t want to further a habit of giving. Give a knucklehead a fish, feed the knucklehead for a day; teach the knucklehead to fish, feed the knucklehead for a lifetime. Forget talk about giving a “fair shot.” Rather, let’s equip our citizens with the tools and go-get-‘em attitude to take advantage of the plentiful shots, opportunities, that are so readily available, there for the taking save for a little work ethic and determination.

And for those you waiting for your “fair shot,” please, grow up and take a little responsibility. Don’t be afraid to scrap your knuckles and strain your back. Go find your passion, reach your potential, and live your life. It’s not going to be given to you by a benevolent, paternalistic government. Rather, it’s already there, like a buried treasure. It’s up to you to pick up the shovel and find it.

I’m waiting to take you best shot on Twitter @RayHartjen

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Crossing the border with Borderline Personality Disorder

The other day I read with interest an article on Miami Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall, a talented football player with a penchant for on- and off-field issues. His antics aren’t exactly “news,” as they seem common place for the divas that play wide receiver in the National Football League – surly attitude with the media, a “me first” disposition, arguments with coaches about how many “looks” he gets each game, and the increasingly occasional legal run-in, including domestic disputes with significant others; in Marshall’s case actually getting stabbed by his wife.

Yes, the typical ho-hum, every day story of an over-paid, pampered athlete, save one noticeable addition. You see, recently, Marshall announced he has been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.


“Borderline” personality disorder? By name alone, it’s defined as not being a full-fledged personality disorder, or maybe not a personality disorder at all, just creeping up towards disorder, but staying tantalizingly just south of the border. “Borderline” connotes an uncertainty, a maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, and seems like the ultimate clincial hedging of bets.

There’s no “borderline” in science, outside of hypotheses being put to the test and either proven or disproven. How ridiculous would “borderline pregnant” be? Or, maybe borderline diabetic? Borderline heart disease any better?

Child, please.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD for those who think it actually exists) could possibly be the ultimate 20th/21st century creation designed to make people feel comfortable by shirking responsibility, blaming something, anything, even if made up on the spot, for their boorish, anti-social, uncivilized behavior. It is the euphemistic way of saying, “I’m a douche bag with no personal accountability.”

In clinical terms, “disorder” and “disease” are often used interchangeably by doctors, of which I’m not one, of course, although my hand writing and proclivities toward inflated self-worth and egotism make me qualified, if not actually board certified in many states. Neither term implies underlying causes, although “disease” implies permanence, invariance, and non-subjectivity; hence, therefore, Borderline Personality Disorder, not disease.

Disorder is the new wave term of recent popularity. Disorders relieve sufferers of the stigma of having a disease, as if having a disease made one a member of the untouchable caste. WikiAnswers will tell you that “disorders” are often used for illnesses where the origin, duration, or physiological basis is relatively unknown.

Okay, to be fair, what do I know about medicine, other than what I’ve learned from watching “House” and learning terms like “lumbar puncture?” I might not know much of medicine, but I do know about branding, and BPD’s biggest problem is branding.

The National Education Alliance Borderline Personality Disorder (NEABPD) – uh, see what I mean about a “branding problem” – is tasked with educating the public on the “disorder’ and advancing both diagnoses and treatments. In the words of the NEABPD, Borderline Personality Disorder was officially recognized by the psychiatric community in 1980 and is more than two decades behind in research, treatment options, and family psycho-education compared to other major psychiatric disorders.

You know, real disorders.

According to the organization, BDP affects up to 5.9% of adults (14 million Americans), is more common than schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and is prevalent in 20% of inpatients at psychiatric hospitals and 10% of outpatients. Brandon Marshall himself cites research that 35% of male prison inmates suffer from it.

If the NEABDP really wants to raise the profile of BDP, might I suggest first changing the name – you got to do something about the “borderline” part. For anybody not looking for an excuse for his or her behavior, the name suggests a reach at best, a sham at worst. I mean, c’mon, if BDP was a real disorder that affected the psychological well-being of individuals, wouldn’t we have given it a way better name, something with credibility and appropriate severity, not something that just begs people to discount as a bunch of rubbish?

Moreover, aside from the branding opportunity, there’s the need for a public relations campaign to dig out of the hole BDP’s national celebrity spokesperson, Mr. Marshall, relentlessly shovels, for him and his fellow afflicted. A skeptical, cynical society – okay, forget society, it might just be me – will be prone to dismiss a diagnosis of BDP as an easy out for social misfits like Marshall to make excuses for their behavior, the safety net of “it’s not my fault, I have a medical condition, or least a disorder, or, rather, perhaps a ‘borderline’ disorder” ready-made excuse.

Brandon, regardless of whether you have BDP or not, don’t think it’s a waiver freeing you from responsibility. Excuses are like asses; not only does everyone have one, but also using the former is being the latter. What you do, your behavior, is who you are, and it’s as simple as that. The eleven calls Douglas County (Colorado) deputies made to you home between January 2006 and July 2008 gives us hints as to your character. Your five arrests and driving without a license incident, all since 2004, tell even more.

True, the world is not always black and white. But, it’s a lot more darker and lighter gray than our society often cares to admit. No “borderline” about it.

Of course, as you know, I’m often mistaken; that’s just this guy’s opinion.

Diagnose my many disorders on Twitter @RayHartjen.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Guilty of guilty pleasures

It used to be through all the trials and tribulations life brought, the collective American psyche was calmed with one reassuring thought - the next generation would be better off than the current. From the first settlers at Plymouth Rock to Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation” and beyond, it was proven true, as the mean and median standard of living grew, and America became the land where dreams came true.

No longer. Modern day America has lost that once soothing antidote and is now faced with the very real possibility that the next generation will actually be worse off than its predecessors. Those who are parents, try sleeping well after reading that.

Yesterday, Standard & Poor’s downgraded its rating of the United States’ credit to that of AA+. It’s the first time ever that the U.S.’s credit rating has not been AAA. Some knuckleheads might think, “Hey, AA+ isn’t bad.” Let me remind them that AA+ is the same rating Spain has. Now, don’t get me wrong, for I love Spain. It’s a beautiful country with beautiful people, with the exception, perhaps, of some of the mouth breathers around Bilboa. But, as great a place as Spain is, its economy has it teetering on becoming the Greece of Western Europe. Oh, wait a second, I suppose the title of “the Greece of Western Europe” is rightfully taken by Ireland. So, maybe Spain can aspire to be Ireland South.

Nonetheless, I digress.

S&P’s rating came one day after the Dow cratered, losing 512 points on Thursday and wiping out all the gains of the year thus far, the worse one day showing since the global economic crisis of 2008. So, what prompted all the bad economic news? Believe it or not, it was the “good news” of our federal legislative leaders coming to an agreement on a debt ceiling. As S&P stated in its report, “The political brinkmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America’s governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective and less predictable than what we previously believed.”

In our culture, we certainly love our heroes. But more so than admiring heroes, we practically live to stick it to our villains, and love to attach blame whenever we can. We’re finger pointers – if not always directly at someone/some group, then the finger is straight upright in self-righteous defiance.

Economists, or at least most of them, will tell you that deficit spending by government is a good economic stimulus and an engine for growth, but only when done somewhat in moderation. Now, you don’t need me to tell you that the United States has never been particularly adept at moderation.


In anything.

As citizens, we should be wary of pointing fingers of blame toward politicians. We need to remember the politicians in Washington are just like us, if maybe a bit more stupid and morally bankrupt, and certainly more conniving and shirking of personal accountability. Remember, we vote them into office, for crying out loud.

You see, as we point a finger toward Washington D.C., we neglect to see the three other fingers of our hands pointing backward to us. How can we blame the President, the Senate, and Congress for not being able to make tough choices and curtail spending when we can’t seem to do the same ourselves?

Behold, we collectively pledge our allegiance to the United States of Consumers.

Now, consumerism can be good, and it can bring a certain degree of comfort. That’s okay if we happen to consume the things we in turn make. Our problems stem in both sides of the equation – we consume much, much too much and we make … well, do we make anything at all anymore?

Take a look around at all your stuff. Is any of it made in America? If it is, say like a shitty car, do you secretly, or not so secretly as the case may be, harbor desires for a nicer competitive product made overseas?

Deficit spending is easy and a self-fulfilling prophecy when we don’t make anything anymore. Most Americans are “paper pushers,” but, guess what, there’s not even paper anymore. We’re really just email senders and receivers. About the only thing we do really well is check in on Foursquare when we go shopping. Oh, and serve each other over priced meals and drinks.

One simple statistic to show us just how messed up our country is. It’s $100,000. That’s the pay some barely functional retard named Snooki gets per episode of Jersey Shore. Why? Because 10.7 million other barely functional retards in the US actually watch each episode, what when they’re not busy keeping up with whoever the f&*$ the Kardashians are.

I feel depressed and more than a bit dirty just typing that paragraph.

I know, I know. Some of you Jersey Shore, Kardashian-loving lunatics are thinking we all deserve a guilty pleasure.

My one word retort: Starbucks.

Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX) is a $27.5 billion company built upon nothing but guilty pleasures. Yes, dear reader, a $4 coffee is a guilty pleasure a-plenty, and many Americans have their “guilty pleasure” quota box pleasure checked off by 9:30 am. By the way, Starbucks is only a $27.5 billion company because it shed over $3 billion in market capitalization as the financial markets shook last week. Anyway you cut $27.5 billion, that’s a lot of guilty pleasure.

More guilty pleasures? How about TVs? It used to be TVs were passed down from generation to generation, literally written into last wills and testaments. Now, we have industries, foreign of course, built on providing us new TVs to buy every four and half years. I would dare say all of us know of at least one neighbor or friend, if not ourselves, that has a TV in the garage.

If you have more than one TV for every person in the household – that’s a guilty pleasure.

Cars. Ever see a home foreclosed but a relatively new luxury car or sports sedan in the driveway? Guilty pleasure.

More cars than licensed drivers in the house? Guilty pleasure.

Think I skipped over the foreclosed home? Not so fast, my friends. Since 2007, news stories of strawberry pickers taking out, and defaulting on, jumbo mortgages have become rather commonplace.

Not all defaulted loans result in foreclosures. We’re seeing some rather new phenomena as evidenced with some southern California fires. Remember in decades past there would be news footage of homeowners sitting on their houses fighting the encroaching flames with garden hoses? We tend not to see such video footage anymore. I would like to think it’s because we have gotten a whole heck of a lot smarter. But, come on, you know the skeptics and realists of us are thinking homeowners want their upside down homes burned to the ground, alleviating their financial problems. 

Come to think off it, fires might provide all of us reason to take a deeper, introspective look at how we live and what is really important. With brush fires in California, we often have warnings, and those warnings result in evacuations. Homeowners grab what they can and then flee toward safety.

Quick, you have 30 minutes to take what’s important and leave – what do you take? All that other stuff you are willing to leave behind, do you need it? Do you even want it?

Why do you have it?

We can’t blame D.C. lawmakers for everything, for they are simply we. In a land of plenty, we want even more, damned be the costs and the consideration for what we can afford or what might have to be paid later, by others. U.S. consumers – all 300 million of us – had a collective $2.4 trillion of debt in 2010. Let’s just assume that figure has risen over the past 8 months.

A little look at the news and a quick read of the financial section of the newspaper should be required reading for all citizens. But, we’ll need to do it on our smart phone or tablet, so we can do it on the run to back-to-school shopping, or better yet Black Friday after Thanksgiving – nothing like standing in long lines to spend money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need. It’s the great American way in our United States of Consumers.

Then again, I could be wrong – it’s just this guy’s opinion.

Tweet me between visits to Starbucks @RayHartjen

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The first three strikes should have been an out

Moammar Gadhafi’s son was killed by a NATO missile yesterday, along with three grandchildren, furthering his own personal tragedies as the entrenched strongman of Libya. You might recall that he lost another son in the 80’s, at the hands of a U.S.-led airstrike.
You’d wonder how much of it would be enough, right? Seemingly forever, the crazed madman has been the pimple on the backside of everybody in the geopolitical community, the burr under the proverbial saddle. Even Libya’s friends don’t like or trust him, and nearly everyone this side of Kim Jong-il would rather see him step down, if not for a jail cell or a hangman’s noose, at the very least a secluded country exile estate in the middle of nowhere.

That’s what 30 years of state-sponsored terrorism will get you – seclusion and isolation, and no friends to turn to when your subjects – er, citizens – begin their rebellion.

That it’s taken this long to have him on his heels and scrambling to maintain control is a wonder. It’s not like the entire world couldn't realize something was amiss from the very start. The clues were overpowering.

First off, the name, naturally.

Ol’ Moammar burst on the scene as Gadhafi, Gaddafi, Qaddafi, Khadafy, and Khadafi. Never before had more people been more confused, save the first world-wide telecast of the World Cup soccer tournament, when viewers wondered aloud if the Dutch and Holland were different teams than the Netherlands. And, of course, that was just his surname. Forget that Moammar can also be Muammar. Or that it’s perfectly fine, apparently, to put an “al” in front of any of the last names, ala al-Gadhafi.

Frankly, it’s poor branding. Who cares that the root of the problem lies in the translation of Arabic? You got to use what the customers use, or in this case, the rest of the world. A good PR team, probably executed on his rise to power, would have settled on one spelling. A great PR team would have settled on just one lasting, iconic name. It worked for Elvis and Madonna, and in politics, it’s worked recently in the U.S. for W, Bill, and Barack. You hear, you know. A bad name dooms the regime form the start.

Aside from the name, there’s a bigger problem. When you’re the dictator, the ultimate ruler, what title do you bestow on yourself? For me, I’m going with Your Highness, Extreme Excellency, etc. Even the demure title of President is cool. But, Colonel? Please, you can’t get global respect among your tyrannical peers with the title of Colonel.

For crying out loud, Colonel Klink was a Colonel, and he didn’t know what the fuck was going on in the tunnels underneath him.

Think about it - Moammar has officers in his own army that out rank him.  Well, at least technically.  He doesn't seem the sort to not get his way, and a bullet, as it has for centuries, continues to be one heck of a persuader.

The third strike the global community seemingly missed was his fashion sense, those words being used in the most liberal of all possible meanings, I'm afraid. Moammar, really? Now, the fatigues on occasion, while awfully Fidel-esque in general terms, are a little pussified with some unnecessary color and bling. However, it is a uniform, and there’s something about that, so I’ll cut you some slack on that account.

But, the Vegas/Barney pajamas - c’mon man. The last time we saw something like that was Reuben in the Clooney/Pitt remake of “Ocean’s Eleven.” Oh, Moammar, it should be pointed out that Elliot Gould’s character, and his wardrobe, was a parody; you know, for laughs.

So, when you break it down to its core elements, the worldwide community should have known that Moammar was a troubled guy who not only needed to go, but probably need not ascend to power in the first place. Now, he’s dug in deeper than a tick on a Tennessee bloodhound, and is giving no indication of leaving gracefully.

The people of Libya will continue to suffer; Gadhafi himself will continue to suffer. But, the end will come, and it will likely come soon. Afterwards, we can only hope the UN passes a resolution and makes the “three strikes” inrrefutable doctrine; a criteria for instant dismissal of a country's leader.
Of course, that’s just this guy’s opinion.
Tweet me @RayHartjen