Carnival…

Carnival, the cruise line that I vaguely remember from life in the 80s and 90s as advertising vacations aboard the “fun ship,” is planning to start cruising again on August 1st. I’m sure that some courageous souls will be tempted aboard these plague ships buy unbelievably discounted prices, but I’m not sure you could tempt me to on board with an offer of giving me the actual ship at the end of the cruise.

With at least one of the other large cruise lines already flirting with bankruptcy, it’s not surprising that Carnival is chomping at the bit to get back to business. I’ll be curious to see how many people take them up on the opportunity, though. Are there enough people still holding onto their vacation money in the face of 20% unemployment who also have a wildly under-developed sense of self-preservation to make the effort profitable? Watching the increasing reports of asshattery from around the country, at first blush, the answer is a definite maybe.

I don’t suppose you’ll ever go too far wrong trading on the stupidity of the average person – even, or maybe especially, when the penalties for stupid range from debilitating viral illness on up through death. Go ahead and enjoy the buffet and that sweet, sweet balcony room though.

On tracking the virus…

I’ve written before about the decline of personal privacy. We slap RFID tags on our vehicles to make paying tolls marginally less painful. We carry around a mobile tracking device in our pockets. Many of us live with home security cameras that can see all but the most private moments.

The tech industry’s move towards developing apps that use our phone’s onboard GPS to track proximity to potentially infected people may sound like an altruistic use of technology to improve public health. Outside of saying they’re working on this “neat new thing,” not much is being said about the implications that come along with using such a personal tracker. Without knowing what, if any, legal safeguards will be in place, details of what beyond proximity is being collected, how long it will be stored, who will have access to it, how it will be used, and what control I will have over what’s collected, I have to say it’ll be pass from me. 

I’ve signed over some degree of privacy to big tech already because I value the services they provide. At its heart, though, my cell phone is nothing more than a tool. I have no intention of taking life guidance from it – or from Apple or Google or any of the other firms racing into this space. 

I won’t be wearing a tinfoil hat anytime soon, but I feel like sooner rather than later I’ll find my phone living in a Faraday bag except for moments when I need to use the damned thing.

Rent strike…

I read an article this morning calling for a 90-day or longer “rent strike,” which seems to be a classed-up way of saying even if someone can afford to pay their rent, they’re not going to do it. The assumption of this movement is that property owners across the country should just absorb the cost of housing for people who can’t or won’t pay.

Until a few months ago I was the smallest of small time landlords – having one condo unit that I rented out. Over the years of owning the place I squirreled away enough operating funds that I was able to make repairs and hold two or three months cash reserve to tide over those months between the departure of one tenant and the arrival of the next. In my very best year, I cleared $1495. Most other years I was lucky to break even or be a few hundred dollars in the black when we did the final accounting. There were more than a few years when I had to augment the rental income with cash infusions from my “day job” to make sure all the bills got paid.

That’s all a long way of saying that expecting landlords across the country to carry the freight of a rent strike indefinitely is absurd. Even assuming the property owner has a “day job” what they’re suggesting would have driven me into the loving embrace of the bankruptcy court at about the ninety day mark. 

The big bad landlord these people want to screw over isn’t only the 10,000-unit holding company or Bank of America, it’s also the retiree who lives down the street or the working man across town who took a step on the property ladder by buying a trashed property and fixing it up. I’m well aware that blood from a stone isn’t a possibility, but the fact that social media is running amok with people who want to portray withholding all rent, especially by those who have the means to keep their obligations, as a heroic act of rebellion is just infuriating. 

I hate a thief…

Everyone has that one hot button issue that makes them grind their teeth, or at least grind them more than usual. I’ve mostly accepted that people are awful and they’re going to spend most of their time treating themselves, each other, and every creature they come into contact with awfully.

Knowing this about myself, I can say that the kind of “person” I despise more than almost any other is a thief – the kind of person who decides doing an honest day’s work is for suckers and that whatever someone else has should really be theirs, just because.

This weekend, six charges rolled into my account before I realized someone out there on the internet using my name and account number. It totals to about $320, not a huge hit in the grand scheme, although the amount doesn’t make any particular difference to me. Whether a dollar or ten thousand, it’s the simple fact that I put in the time that cash represents.

Credit card theft is nothing new. It’s been around since American Express pressed their first card, I’m sure. I talked to the bank at length this morning, filed the appropriate fraud report, and was told that they’ll get back to me once they’ve had a chance to review the situation. My assumption is that eventually the charges will be reversed and I’ll be made financially whole. It’s apparently such a common occurrence now that thy told me not to even bother filing a police report. That the bank just shrugs this sort of thing off fills me with a whole different flavor of rage.

The insult added to injury this time is that I’ve already received two of the items the thieves ordered. I’ve got shipping notifications on two of the others. So at least for the next couple of days, I’ll come home to periodic reminders on my doorstep that people are as awful as I think they are.

Business decisions are not violations of your rights. Usually…

Most of the Second Amendment advocates on social media are up in arms – no pun intended – about Walmart’s decision to deeply scale back its sales of ammunition. Now, it would be easy enough to pillory Walmart’s press release. “Short barrel rifle ammunition” and “large capacity clips” aren’t really a thing, after all, but getting details right is less important than getting the proper spin on your public relations story.

The short version of what I’m sure will be my unpopular take is that Walmart is, first and foremost, a business. It exists as a money making machine for its shareholders. The end. Somewhere in an Arkansas-based executive suite, they made a business decision that they could afford to lose some percentage of their sales by getting out of a segment of the retail ammunition business. Unless Walmart is being run by certified morons, it was a dispassionate decision made based on dollars and cents… and no, before someone asks, Walmart isn’t infringing on your Second Amendment rights.

It’s been a long time since Walmart was just a simple chain of southern variety stores, but they are still big business in rural communities across the country. They sell a metric shit ton of hunting equipment, outdoor supplies, and yes, ammunition and firearms. Because of their ubiquity in the marketplace, avoiding their reach completely feels unlikely… but a simple check of my last year’s expenses shows me that if I simply change where I get my canned goods, dry foods, and basic groceries, I can deprive them of upwards of $5,000 a year – a bit more if you figure in other household incidentals.

One person’s changed buying habits won’t make a lick of difference to Walmart, of course, but it will funnel money into other businesses, that are, perhaps, less willing to sell out a core demographic element of their business model. A few hundred or a few thousand people determined to do the same can make a tremendous difference in throwing cash towards businesses that support, or at the very least aren’t antagonistic towards their values and priorities.

Walmart has their own business calculus and so do I.

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.