Monday, April 15, 2019

The Tiger Bet

Those of you who have read my blog over years know that I always make predictions each December for the coming year. Starting in December 2011, one of my annual predictions was that Tiger Woods would not win another major. After three straight years of being correct, I got bored with the Tiger Woods slam-dunk prediction. It was just too easy. Tiger Woods would never win another major. So I stopped even mentioning him. Predicting that he even had a chance would have been akin to predicting that Donald Trump would become President. And there you have it… always expect the unexpected.

The 2019 Masters was one of the greatest sporting events I’ve ever watched. I recorded it and my wife and I watched it in the evening, going to great lengths to avoid knowing the outcome each day. My wife has always predicted that Tiger would win another major and when he was in contention after two days, I still predicted he would fail. So we made a bet. If Tiger won the 2019 Masters, I would take my wife to Spain this year. She upped the ante and convinced me to throw in Italy. Modesty prevents me from saying what I would get if Tiger failed to win the Masters. I certainly felt that that the odds were in my favor and it was a good bet.

I’ve never been a huge Tiger fan. I certainly respected his game, but he just seemed like someone with whom I’d never want to play a round of golf. The fans thought he was bigger than the game. He seemed to agree with them and acted like it. He was just “that guy” and that’s not the guy I tend to root for. Granted, he was the best golfer I ever saw, period EOD. Better even that Jack Nicklaus. But, I tended to always root for the other guy…even if they weren’t from the good old U.S.A. Anyone but Tiger, #ABT.

Tiger was a golfing machine and, for me, that was the real problem. Golf is too hard for anyone to play that well. However, when his personal life went off the rails and his body started breaking down, he became human. And when Tiger Woods became human, I became a fan. For sure, some people turned on Tiger and ripped him for being such an awful person. The injuries and the collapse of his golf game were just part of Karma coming to collect. Good-bye Tiger and good riddance.

Even though I became a fan, I never thought he would win another major. He might win another tournament or two, maybe. But, to win a major against a field of great young golfers from all over the world, guys who could hit the ball higher and farther than Tiger ever could, even in his prime, much less now? No, Tiger would never win another major. Bad knee, bad back, bad thoughts…too much competition...too much to overcome.

But, on Palm Sunday in April in the year 2019, Tiger Woods found some magic, or maybe it was more a case of the magic finding Tiger. If there was a course where Tiger had a chance of winning another major it was Augusta. Jack did it back in ’86 when most thought his major win days were over. But, it’s a course where experience can be the great equalizer. Tiger hung around while younger, better golfers couldn’t keep the ball out the water on Number 12. Where the pressure cracked everyone but the old Tiger who still found enough game to be one shot better than anyone else when it all ended early on a Sunday as the clouds rolled in and the rain began to fall.

Later that evening my wife and I spent some time joking about the correct way to pronounce Barcelona, concluding with me betting her that my way was the best, most correct. She laughed and said it sounded more like the way Daffy Duck would pronounce it.

I replied, “Bet I’m right and furthermore Tiger Woods has won his last major.”

She just smiled and said, “Wanna bet on it?”

Thursday, April 11, 2019

What's The Question?

“How do I achieve success and happiness?”. That was the question asked by one of the students.

My little church is part of a campus ministry at a local junior college. If you’ve seen the Netflix documentary Last Chance U about football players, then think of our little JUCO as First Chance U for these kids. A chance to get a couple of years on the cheap before going off to a nearby state university or maybe just a two-year degree in the culinary arts and then a good job at one of the Indian casinos across the river. Or a nursing degree with a ticket to a better life down in the Metroplex.

Some local churches are part of a Tuesday night rotation where do-gooders and bible-thumpers show up for supper with the students. The churches bring pizza, hamburgers and hotdogs or that holiest of holies, Chick-Fi-Let. The kids consume mass quantities. For some it’s grab and go, some stay and eat while studying their smart phones. A few act as if they are paying attention while someone tries to tell them why their church is cool and just knowing Jesus makes life better. Try it, you’ll like it, that sort of thing.

If I sound cynical about such “ministries” it’s because I am. Kids come for free food and leave. No strings attached. Over the years, churches haven’t seen much fruit from all of this effort. But I am told that a couple of kids have become Christians, making a profession of faith and being baptized. That being the case, then it is worth it.

And if it’s worth it, it’s worth doing better. So I suggested that we ask the kids to submit questions (anonymously). I sort of put our pastor on the spot. So now he has to prepare for these suppers and respond to some tough questions about God, good and evil, heaven and hell or just life in general.

I haven’t been going to these events because I thought they were a waste of time plus I don’t want to be the resident Granddad. I also have a tendency to commit 100% or not at all, and I knew that if I got involved, I would take it all too seriously and too personally. Some of these kids would end up breaking my heart or I would break theirs. Valid excuses or me just being chicken---t?

But since the questions were my idea, I decided that I better show up, at least once, and survey the damage. It was interesting and some of the kids actually listened and responded to the answers. When the pastor got to the “success and happiness” question he gave a solid response including the true joys of being a Christian and what really matters in the grand eternal scheme of things. That’s what he gets paid to say.

However, there is such a thing as giving the right answer to the wrong question. If I had been answering the question I would have started by asking this question: “What do you mean by ‘success and happiness’?” If success and happiness for you means financial success and the happiness money can buy (because money actually can buy happiness of a certain sort for a period of time); then that requires a different answer. If success and happiness means getting to do just what you want to do for a living and having as much personal freedom as possible, even if it means sacrificing wealth and security and perhaps even relationships, then it’s a different answer.

Words have meaning and they mean different things to different people. Success and happiness? What that means to 19 or 20 year olds living on campus at a little old Texas JUCO is a mystery to me and probably a mystery to most of them. And what it means to them today isn’t what it will likely mean a year from now, or five years from now, or twenty-five years from now.

At some point in life, if one is lucky enough or blessed enough, one learns that success and happiness are not all they are cracked up to be. We are all going to die and someone else will end up playing with our toys. There’s nothing wrong with success and happiness as long as you know what those words truly mean. And if you know what they mean, live like it. I’ve always known that true success and happiness had more to do with the soul and eternity than ones net worth. But, that never stopped me from counting my chips and figuring that “more” was better than “less”. These days I’m not so sure.

As we draw near the end of the Lenten season and prepare for Easter, I think about the questions Jesus asked. He always asked the right questions and often answered a question with a question. If He were asked “How do I achieve success and happiness?”, I think His response would have been something like this:

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” –Mark 8:36

Sunday, March 31, 2019

It’s Like a Driver Shortage…Only Different

A recent report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics concludes that there really isn’t a shortage of truck drivers, at least as long as we give the labor market time to adjust.

From the report:
"As a whole, the market for truck drivers appears to work as well as any other blue-collar labor market, and while it tends to be 'tight,' it imposes no constraints on entry into (or exit from) the occupation," the report said. "There is thus no reason to think that, given sufficient time, driver supply should fail to respond to price signals in the standard way."

"Economists would not regard high turnover rates and the associated problems of recruiting and retaining drivers in this part of trucking as a long-term shortage. Nor would they call these conditions a 'broken market,' except to the extent that one might use that term for a secondary labor market segment, since the high turnover that marks such a segment is an indicator that the jobs in it are unattractive to many potential employees."

The American Trucking Association (ATA) has taken exception to this report noting that other than during the 2008-09 recession, the industry is facing an on-going, severe and increasing shortage of drivers, especially in the over-the-road, long-haul segment.

I tend to think that both positions are correct depending on your assumptions and perspectives. The BLS economists are correct when they say “given sufficient time” the driver supply should respond to price signals in the standard way. Likewise, the industry is correct when they say the real world has been experiencing a shortage of truck drivers for years and it is getting worse. The real questions are how much time is sufficient for the driver supply to respond to price signals and what do those signals need to be in order to have the desired effect?

The problem is that NO ONE KNOWS THE ANSWERS because, like most things in life, it’s complicated. We like to tell ourselves that the best answers are simple ones. That problems can be broken down into a few root causes and addressed in a systematic fashion. And, often this is the correct approach. Sometimes we do make things more complicated than necessary. Most of us would agree, if there is a simple answer that works, that’s usually the best one, or at least the best one to start with. The trucking industry has been taking this approach for years. Increase pay. Provide better equipment. Get drivers home more often. Be nicer to drivers, have a cook-out and tell them how important they are. Essentially, do a better job of recruiting and retaining drivers than your competition. But don’t expect to solve the problem because the job is what it is and there’s only so much money in moving a load of freight from point A to point B.

There is money and then there is a thing called utility. And this is where it gets complicated. When the economist says that the driver supply “should respond to price signals” they are absolutely correct. And so will the demand for services. Both buyer and seller have their price signals. And it doesn’t have much to do with what those signals used to be or what someone thinks they should be. It has to do with value (utility) relative to other alternatives. Am I willing to drive a truck, under a given set of circumstances, for a certain amount of money? Or would I prefer to exchange my labor, under a different set of circumstances for the same money, or more, or even less. And as a buyer of that labor, whether I’m making something, distributing it or just selling it; what are my alternatives given that the ultimate consumer is only willing to pay so much for the final product?

Thousands of decisions and transactions go into everything we purchase and everything we get paid to do in order to have the economic wherewithal to make those purchases. And everyone, on both sides of every decision and transaction is asking the same question…WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME. Everyone is living on their own utility curve.

It would appear that labor has decided that driving a truck for the market price, even a rapidly increasing market price, is not a rational choice. And, in a world where quality labor is in demand and has plenty of options, I think it’s unlikely that we will reach a “price signal” within the next decade which will trigger an increase in the supply of truck drivers. The more likely pathway to supply and demand equilibrium will be reducing the demand for truck drivers. Some combination of technological innovation (autonomous vehicles), regulatory changes (longer/heavier vehicles) and redesigned supply chains could ultimately reduce the number of “driver miles” required by our economy. In the meantime, truck drivers are in a seller’s market.

Considering that we’ve been playing around with the wheel for almost 10,000 years, what’s another decade or two? “Given sufficient time” this “tight” driver market will be corrected. Not to worry. You see, it’s like a driver shortage…only different.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

The "IT" Factor

I must confess that I watch shows like American Idol, The Voice and America’s Got Talent. I record them and then fast forward through commercials and the inane banter that goes on between the judges. It’s always interesting how certain contestants, who are at best marginally talented, emerge as contenders simply because they have “IT”. One talent show even alludes to “IT” as the “X” factor. Same thing. And if those who have “IT” also have talent, they are likely to win, even if they are not actually the most talented.

“IT” is difficult to define, but we know “IT” when we see “IT”. Paul Newman had “IT”. Robert Redford not so much. Johnny Cash had “IT”. Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly had “IT”. Perry Como, Andy Williams…great singers, popular and successful…but they didn’t have” IT”. Buck Owens…No. Willie Nelson…Yes. Marilyn Monroe had “IT”. Lady Gaga has “IT” Tom Brokaw has, or once had “IT”. Brian Williams never did and we knew it. Walter Cronkite had “IT”. Dan Rather, not really. Joe Namath had “IT”. Bart Starr didn’t have “IT” and didn’t need it. Brett Favre had IT. Troy Aikman did not, but that’s ok. I’m not convinced that Tom Brady, as great as he is, has “IT”. Patrick Mahomes definitely has “IT”. Michael Jordan had IT. LeBron James just as good a ballplayer, maybe better, does not have “ IT”.

When it comes to Presidential races “IT” matters. Even when neither candidate has much of “IT”, the one who has less of “IT” generally loses. Hillary are you listening? God gave Bill Clinton all of “IT”, Hillary almost none. And Trump had just enough of “IT” to pull a few more electoral votes over the finish line.

“IT” matters even more when the country is divided and restless, especially when the divide isn’t clear in the middle. Those on the far left and far right are going to vote their respective parties. That’s probably 30 percent on both ends or 60% of the total which could represent 75-80% of those who actually turn out to vote. It’s those in the middle who make the difference and that’s where “IT” matters. “IT” brings out those who would not take the time to vote otherwise. “IT “ can move those who are truly “independent” to vote one way or the other. There aren’t that many true independents who can be swayed. But at the margin every vote counts and “IT” can make the difference.

Ronald Reagan had “IT”. As already noted, Bill Clinton has “IT”. Barack Obama has “IT” and got an extra boost from his wife Michelle, who also has “IT”. JFK had “IT”. FDR had “IT”. Teddy Roosevelt might have been the first President with the ”IT” factor and the media coverage for “IT” to make a difference. Lincoln only had “IT “ in retrospect. At the time, no one much thought he had “ IT” Andrew Jackson probably had “ IT”, but in those days the impact of “IT” was limited.

You want to know who’s going to be the next President of the United States. Watch for “ IT”. If the Democrats put up a candidate who doesn’t have “IT”, Trump has a chance to win. It they put someone like Beto O’Rourke out there, Trump loses. Policy positions and experience don’t mean much when “ IT” becomes the deciding factor. And in today’s world, “IT” wins the close races more often than not.

Gonna use my arms
Gonna use my legs
Gonna use my style
Gonna use my sidestep
Gonna use my fingers
Gonna use my, my, my imagination

'Cause I'm gonna make you see
There's nobody else here
No one like me
I'm special, so special
I gotta have some of your attention give it to me.

-Lyrics from the song Brass In Pocket by the Pretenders

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Money Changes Everything…Almost

Money changes everything
I said money, money changes everything
You think you know what you're doin'
We don't pull the strings
It's all in the past now
Money changes everything.
-Lyrics from the song ‘Money Changes Everything’ by Cyndi Lauper

By now you’ve heard about the college admissions scandal. Rich people paying college administrators, testing services and coaches in order to get their little darlings into the elite school of their choice. The list of bribe paying parents includes notable entertainers and business leaders.

This is bad and it is big, but it’s not new. People with money get special treatment. That’s just how it works. And people with money get used to it. Eventually it becomes an entitlement. I am rich, I deserve it. Whether it’s flying around in a private jet, staying in a suite on the top floor where price line peasants dare not to tread or just getting a grand table with a view in the hottest new restaurant while everyone else has to wait for over a year to get a bad table in a small space by the kitchen door. Or making a big donation to a university to insure that a child or grandchild gains admission. Not a bribe, just a generous gesture of support for higher education.

And when your child wants to go to a certain school, there has to be a way to make that happen. It only takes money. Money along with some people who are willing to bend and, if need be, break the rules in order to accomplish outcomes for which the wealthy are willing to pay handsomely. Thus, we have the Great College Admissions Scandal of 2019.

Wealth means power and power can be used for the greater good or just the greater good of me and mine. So whether it’s their child, their political party, their business or just their alma mater's football team; people tend to use their wealth and power to gain advantage. What the Great College Admissions Scandal reveals is just how desperate and audacious some people have become in order to get what they want. It also demonstrates what happens in a society when the classical virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and courage are no longer taught.

The scale of this abuse of wealth and power is striking. A business was created that catered to this growing demand for ways to game the college admissions process. The silver lining around the Great College Admissions Scandal of 2019 is that it may just force universities to consider their real purpose and to establish admission standards that are not for sale. Lux et Veritas.

A bribe is seen as a charm by the one who gives it;
they think success will come at every turn. - Proverbs 17:8

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Dogs Bark…and The Caravan Moves On

Jussie Smollett made news. Way too much news in my opinion. So here I am adding more words to the already worn out story.

Although he denies that he orchestrated a hoax to gain publicity and portray himself as the victim of an attack by racist, homophobic, MAGA-cap-wearing Trumpers; the body of evidence would say otherwise. A few of his supporters are even claiming a conspiracy and cover-up by the Chicago Police Department. He is certainly innocent until proven guilty, but it sure doesn’t look good for Jussie.

What’s really interesting to me is the commentary swirling around those on “The Left” who were so quick in “rushing to judgment” when the news of this incident first broke. Those on “The Right” are having great fun replaying clips and showing tweets from those politicians, journalists and entertainers who were quick to condemn the assault and use it as another example of how awful life is in this country for victim groups, i.e. people of color, LGBTs, women, the poor, …etc.

So why do those on “The Left” always assume the worst and “rush to judgment” when one of their own claims to have been victimized by someone or something associated with “The Right”. Why not take a deep breath and allow just a little time for facts and evidence to be brought forth? It’s real simple, they cannot afford to wait. If you want to lose your preferred seating in the entertainment world, mainstream media or progressive political movement; just stay silent when something like the Jussie Smollett story breaks.

It really comes down to risk vs. reward. If you are a high profile progressive, or want to become one, you must speak out immediately and get on the record condemning any event with even a hint of being a “hate crime”. Sure, if it turns out to be bogus, you are going to take some shots from the those on “The Right”. But, you’ll get very little criticism from your progressive brothers and sisters. However, if you don’t speak out loudly and early on and, in fact, it really does turn out to be a true hate crime event, you are very much at risk of losing your progressive “cred”.

So those who immediately jumped on the Jussie hate crime victim bandwagon acted quite rationally and will do the same thing the next time something happens that just might turn out to be a hate crime (or not). And if it turns out to be a hoax, those on The Right, will do exactly what they are expected to do. They will drag out another “progressives rush to judgment ” horse and beat it to death. Both sides will do what they are expected to do (and paid to do). And we will watch and listen. Now that might just qualify as being irrational.

“The Democrats planned to fiddle while Rome burned. The Republicans were going to burn Rome, then fiddle.” – P.J O’Rourke

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Life Is Not Fair...and The Earth Is Not Flat

“If you want more of something, subsidize it; if you want less of something, tax it” - Ronald Reagan

In the aftermath of Amazon’s decision to pull the plug on their plans to locate HQ2 in Long Island City, NY; we find ourselves once again debating the pros and cons of government subsidies to business and industry. Progressives are getting the blame (or the credit, depending on your opinion of such deals) for opposing, threatening and finally convincing Amazon that the best business decision would be to just walk away.

Frankly, in my opinion the Long Island City decision never made sense for Amazon from the get go. Subsidies notwithstanding, because Amazon was going to get all sorts of concessions and financial incentives no matter where they ended up; my gut tells me that the Long Island City choice was not all that popular with Amazon’s senior leadership, but was a Bezos big splash move. The devil is always in the details and when one of those devils turned out to be major opposition from “The Left”, it gave Amazon an easy out. I expect they were toasting each other in Seattle and heaving great sighs of relief over the bullet they just dodged. Trying to pull something like this off in the NYC metro area was a really bad idea. What were they thinking?

But, all that said, it still leaves the question around these huge subsidies local and state governments dole out to lure businesses. In the Amazon case, it really was go big or go home and this was a big deal. Most of the “subsidies” were contingent upon job creation. But there was a substantial amount of upfront money going to Amazon. The Left, occupying the moral high ground, demanded that these funds be used to make immediate improvements and upgrades to subway systems and community services for the benefit of those who live there now. Not for rich people who didn’t need it and would, in all likelihood, ultimately end up driving the poor and oppressed out of the area all together with their high paying jobs and the inevitable gentrification of surrounding neighborhoods.

The business community along with most of the mainstream politicians (both Democrats and Republicans), looked at the big picture and the long-term economic impact. Frankly, it is a no brainer. This was a great deal for NYC and would be a great deal for any place. Is it going to cause disruption? Yes. Will there be winners and losers? Yes. Will those who have money to invest or skills and talents that are in high demand mostly win? Yes. Will those who have little money or limited skills and talent mostly lose? Maybe.

And this brings us to the cultural battle that is raging in this country. One side wants not only equal opportunity, but equal outcomes. And if one group is doing better than another group, it is just not fair. Someone is being oppressed. Someone else has an unfair advantage or privilege. The “have-nots” are such, not by their choice or by chance, but because there was a “thumb on the scales” in favor of the “haves”. This injustice must be corrected.

The other side says it’s not about groups, but about individuals. While all are created equal, all are not equal when it comes to ability, ambition and energy. People are different. And life is not fair. Some people start out with more advantages than others. The playing field is not level. The earth is not flat. Get over it and get on with your life. No one owes you anything, but most people will help you if you are willing to help yourself.

If we want more jobs and more wealth for more people, and ultimately more tax revenue, then maybe, sometimes, it makes sense to subsidize a business. But if all you do is tax it, you will get less and less over the long run.

Thus, David slew Goliath on the banks of the East River in the year Two Thousand and Nineteen. And the rich and privileged fled, leaving the land to the oppressed who served the god of social justice and equitable redistribution of wealth to which they were entitled. Can I get an Amen?