An uneasy peace…

After the better part of three weeks, Amazon and I have arrived at an uneasy peace. They’ve stopped repeatedly trying to get me to pay for an item that’s already been paid for (and one that’s already been returned) and I’ve grudgingly accepted that Amazon has become an almost indispensable purveyor of “stuff” for my household.

The fact that it took a last gasp, hail Mary email to Jeff Bezos to grab a human being’s attention and get them to override the automatically generated email loop from hell I was trapped in still doesn’t leave me brimming with confidence.

I spent a fair amount of the last three weeks looking at and ordering from other online retailers, so I know there are alternatives to Amazon. What those alternatives don’t provide en block, are free shipping and access to the same exhaustive product list that Amazon does, so I found myself replacing one company with perhaps half a dozen in order to cover the same retail territory.

With that experience, I will admit that when Amazon is working well, they’re a hard act to beat… but when they freeze you out, they freeze you all the way out. I was, despite becoming increasingly aware of the inconvenience, prepared to stay frozen out indefinitely, but I’m glad it didn’t come to that in the end.

Amazon is never going to be a company I love, but in the end they are a company I can do business with – at least when it comes to ordering things that can stand to be badly packaged and beat to hell and back in transit. As it turns out, achieving peace in our time doesn’t mean I’m going to stop calling them out for that at every possible opportunity. You could have probably guessed that.

A tempting target…

Back in April, Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Maggie Hassan of New asked the GAO to launch a study on “risks that fossil fuel stocks currently present” to those invested in the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). The distinguished senators then go on to imply that the TSP should create funds that “incorporate climate change risk” as part of the 401-k style program’s offerings.

Part of the allure of the TSP is its remarkably small fee structure – it’s very cheap in comparison to many other funds. Fees are low, in part, because TSP is simple. It’s got five basic index funds and five “lifecycle funds” that automatically reallocate participant’s money based on target dates. It’s got an elegant simplicity that’s historically effective at creating wealth for its participants over their long careers.

Look, I accept that climate change is a real thing. I also don’t have any particular love of the energy sector – many leaders in the area are losing value. That’s my real issue with them, though. If we’re going to drop energy companies from a portfolio, do it because they’re not making us money – not because some holier-than-thou senator wants to score a few political points.

Congress never saw a big pot of money sitting around that it didn’t want to stick its whole hand into. With $500 billion in assets under management I can understand why the TSP is an awfully tempting target. That said, the very last thing I want to see is a good thing turned on its ear by driving TSP to respond to whatever political views happen to hold sway at any given moment. Treating retirement funds as just another political football is almost a guaranteed way to manage to take another slug of cash out of my pocket.

There are already fund options out there for just about any special interest that wants to play in the market – whether your “thing” is gender diversity, sustainable energy, human rights, or a laundry list of other causes. TSP should remain a broad-based set of fund options targeted at replicating the market overall and building wealth over time for the wide swath of federal employees. Catering to the few individuals who can’t seem to be satisfied with that just doesn’t make senses… unless of course you’re more interested in enforcing ideological purity than in making good financial decisions. Surely no member in the United States Senate could ever be accused of that.

A dark and rainy Friday…

As I was sitting here on a dark and rainy Friday morning seething quietly after cutting a check for a $1825 special assessment from my condo’s governing HOA, I realized it’s been a few days since I posted anything. What can I say, rage, it seems, beings out my inner soul as a writer – or maybe it’s just the catharsis I need after getting gang banged by a homeowners association board who must have been holding on to a shit ton of proxies when they voted.

I’m always curious about those who see rental income as a surefire pathway to wealth. Maybe it is under certain circumstances – if you’re local and can do many of the repairs yourself, if you paid cash and aren’t using at least a portion of the rent to make the note, or if you aren’t governed by an HOA that’s at least as good at spending other people’s money as the United States Congress. I’ve been renting out this condo since 2003 and I’ll admit that there have been a few good years – those years when nothing breaks and there’s no damage to be repaired. Those years are the rarity. Far more often it’s a break even proposition where you’re lucky to be about $500 into either the black or red by year’s end. Then, of course, there are those years where you end up pouring your own cash into the place hand over fist. No one talks about those years when they tell you what a great idea it is having a rental property.

At least the bastards got the bills out in time to use the whole damned mess as a 2018 deduction instead of having to wait an additional year to recoup a few pennies on the dollar. When your “bright slide” is consoling yourself that you have something to help offset the decreased federal deductibility of state and local taxes, you’ve really got to rethink the whole plan from start to finish.

This dark and rainy Friday is going to largely be about resisting the temptation to drive down there and nail a for sale sign to the door and being done with the whole bleeding mess.

Naw, we don’t need no logistics…

Hey, I know from experience that sometimes logistics can be hard. Getting an item from Point A to Point B in the right quantity at the right time can take a bit of work. When the chips are down and time is a factor, I’m glad I can count on the prowess of the United States Postal Service to let me down hard. 

My well-traveled package

But seriously, an item I ordered landed in Philadelphia last Saturday. In the four days since it has been transferred to Hyattsville, onward to Baltimore, from Baltimore to Washington (where it rattled around the Regional Destination Facility for 6 hours getting scanned repeatedly), back to Baltimore, and reverse coursed back to Washington where it has been sitting since 7:34 this morning. But I suppose I should be confident in the big bold promise of “Delivery by 29 November.”

I mean it’s not like the USPS has been charged with delivering mail and packages for well over 200 years now. Getting a little padded envelope from Philadelphia thirty miles down the road to Elkton is clearly one of the more logistically complex efforts every devised and executed by the mind of man. 

Thank the gods that the package in question absolutely does not contain medications that in any way are responsible for keeping me alive.

Sigh. Apparently, in mail, as in war, even the very simple things are so very hard to do.

Breaking up with Amazon…

I’ve always wanted to like Amazon. A million years ago they were a place where you could find all sorts of reading material that your small local bookshop didn’t carry or that they didn’t have much interest in getting for you. Time passes. Things evolve. Amazon is now all things to all people – literally where you can go to but everything including the kitchen sink, listen to streaming radio, or find a bit of in-house produced “prestige television.”

The more Amazon has grown, the larger their catalog of merchandise has become, the worse the overall experience of dealing with them is. Over the last 12 months I’ve received more damaged items and made more returns to them than I have in my entire time as an Amazon customer up to this point. It’s a pity, because Amazon is just so damned convenient. 

I won’t go so far as to say I’m parting company with Amazon – but I can go out of my way to make them a vendor of last resort. Even if that means a bit more inconvenience and expense for me, I’m just petty enough to put my money where my mouth is. I’ve cancelled my subscriptions and know that means spending extra time to find books coming from Powell’s, Barnes & Noble, or searched out from individual used book shops. It means either shlepping out to the local Petco for dog and cat food or finding more consistent online sellers. It means getting use to paying for 2-day shipping in some cases. 

Sure Amazon’s customer service is always quick with a refund or offering up a replacement, but being johnny on the spot with those things shouldn’t be the norm. If they’re not interested in delivering a product not beat to shit or spewed open inside the carton during shipment, they’re not interested in hanging on to at least this one customer. Sure, losing a couple thousand dollars a year in revenue isn’t going to break Amazon, but it’s the one voice I know capitalism understands when echoed by enough mouths… and all because the world’s greatest retailer can’t be bothered by a bit of proper product packaging.

Amazonia…

The internet is filled with opinions lamenting the decision to locate Amazon’s two new headquarters offices in New York and Northern Virginia. Opponents decry the local tax breaks used to lure in this whale of a business. They decry the traffic it will bring. They lament that the high paying jobs advertised as arriving with Amazon might not go to someone already in the local community. Lastly, they gnash their teeth at the very existence of such a corporate colossus.

The fact is, if New York and NoVA wanted to take a pass on Amazon, there are plenty of communities who would be happy to look past those issues to the virtue of having 50,000+ new jobs forming part of their tax base. They’d realize the sheer volume of other, smaller businesses that will crop up around such megalithic organizations as Google – the coffee shops, and restaurants, dry cleaners, and the inevitable technical support infrastructure that takes root to support big businesses while they focus on “core competency” that all create jobs and bring in taxes.

Look, I accept that bringing in a business like Amazon isn’t a silver bullet. Over eager local governments have a tendency to give away the store to draw in companies of that stature. To me, that says more about bad negotiating on the part of local government than it does a problem with having Google show up next door.

I’d be curious to know, of course, how many of these opinion leaders who rail against Amazon are happily using Alexa, or watching Prime videos, or enjoying their regular free 2-day shipping. Maybe none of them, but I suspect the number is far more than zero. The point is, if you have a problem with the deal Amazon worked out to locate their new headquarters complexes, your issue should be more with local government than with Amazon. I’m as big a critic as anyone when Amazon drops the ball, but in this case, all I see is a corporation following the best interests of the company and its shareholders… you know, doing exactly what a business is supposed to do.

Personally, I’m glad I don’t live anywhere within 50 miles of what is sure to be a traffic snarling nightmare. Dropping a massive distribution center ten miles from the house was more than adequate support from Amazon to help meet my consumer requirements. Where the locate or what they do with their fancy new three-headed corporate hydra is all fine with me just so long as they keep it in one of those fast growing urban centers I hear so much about and way the hell away from my nice quiet woods.