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Posts Tagged ‘value’

After suffering through seven endless games of the NBA finals, I have never been so glad to see a trophy handed out. I understand the idea behind the popularity of sports, the opportunity for people to transcend political differences and language barriers and, at times, the human condition itself. But it seems to me that sports has become far too like a religion. And I don’t see how people get so wrapped up in a silly game.

Yeah, I said it, a silly game. Football, hockey, bowling, golf, water polo – pick your sport – it’s all supposed to be for fun, for recreation and entertainment. Kobe Bryant is, in fact, not the patron saint of basketball (and God forbid there should ever be such a thing) but you wouldn’t know it from watching his flock. People do everything but bow to him and ask his blessing. Sports are taken way too seriously. They are, quite bluntly, an opiate. They are an escape, a diversion from everyday life in the same manner as movies and TV.

And yet when I watch sports, I am only reminded of the everyday. Rampant advertising aside, most players seem much more interested in their checks than their performance, more interested in their off-field frivolities than the nature of the game. Movies and television can at least bare incredible truths and tell great stories. Who hasn’t seen part of Casablanca or been touched by the evening news? But what great truths do sports reveal? That people with money can do as they please? That people are replaceable, can be sold to the highest bidder, or, once past their peak, are no longer of value? That’s not a very nice legacy. Granted, there were amazing feats in the early days of organized sports in the U.S., from men like Babe Ruth and Roy Campanella, Jim Thorpe and Bronko Nagurski. But those days are long gone. And what remains? A tired, cheap display built on fabulously overpaid athletes of only mediocre talent.

I can almost hear the cries of blasphemy at those words. But who among all our major sports will be remembered in seventy or eighty years? What new, worthy show of goodness, or even of human endurance, have they brought to the world? It’s not even fun to watch anymore. A game that was supposed to last a little more than an hour now takes three to five, to make room for commercials and time-outs and fouls and a lot of nancying about without any real purpose. Most of the games have no real consequence, and the players are as uninterested and uninvested as high school seniors with spring fever.

What fun is that? What good is that? And contrary to popular belief, being six-foot-three and 350 pounds doesn’t automatically make you a good linebacker. Being seven feet shouldn’t bring NBA agents busting down your door. Those things have nothing to do with talent or determination or heart. And that’s what sports are really supposed to be about. Until those things work their way back into sports, count me out.

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There is a quote from H. L. Mencken that reads, “Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.” Since first reading it, I’ve been struck by those words and have remembered them. Every normal man must sometimes want to throw caution to the wind and be a pirate, it says, to slit throats with abandon and claim the spoils regardless of consequence. It is tempting. But I also read a deeper meaning in it. A rallying cry, a warning, a call-to-arms. There comes a time, these words say, when every man will have to take action, make a stand, and risk everything to fight for what they value or else lose it to another’s plundering.

I’ve never read that line in its original context. Those sentiments may not be remotely near what the author intended when writing it. But a learned man once told me that what we see on our own is more important than what we are told to see. You can be taught to see more, to see better, he said, but never fully trust what you are told. So Mr. Mencken will have to pardon my conclusions; they are mine alone.

Hoist the black flag, he said. Slit throats. To war, then, and to the victor goes the spoils. It strikes me that much of American society is already busy at pirating, or was until the Big Bust of 2008. Wanting a large payoff from a smaller, somewhat riskier investment seemed to be the prevailing modus operandi. Flip houses. Flip cars. Flip companies. Trust Bernie with your money. Cheat (but slyly) on your taxes. In fact, cheat at anything if you think you won’t get caught. Score as much credit as possible. Buy things you can’t afford with someone else’s money. Lie and steal from your government, your employer, your family, your fellow man. Anything for the almighty dollar.

If you were in construction, you threw together as many buildings as possible and waited for fat profits to roll in, and who cares about the structural integrity of those houses and business spaces. So what if the floor joists won’t last five years, and the basement leaks if so much as a dog takes a whizz two doors down, and the wallboard emits poisonous gas? Sorry, buddy, you were dumb enough to sail into my harbor and your throat just got slit. Thanks for the booty. Besides, that’s what homeowner’s insurance is for.

If you were in insurance you issued thousands of policies that were useless and refused to pay claims, slitting more throats and raking in treasure chests of booty. Your house burnt? Oh, so sorry, we won’t pay for anything damaged by smoke or water or heat or any wall left standing. Tell you what, we’ll give you this month’s mortgage payment plus an extra $50. We’re feeling very generous today. A hurricane you say? Your house flooded? Oh how awful. But no, sorry, we don’t pay off on damages from storm surge. Nope, it’s not a flood, it’s a wave, and we don’t cover that. Sorry. Don’t forget, your next payment is due in two weeks. Bye bye now.

And of course there were still the usual rackets of car sales, internet companies, Wall Street, and, well, anything run by the government. Anything to make another dollar, and the less honest the better. Hey, that’s the new American Dream: getting something for nothing. From the world’s largest corporation to grade schoolers, everyone’s playing pirate.

But someone somewhere is losing. Someone is watching their house or car or savings or future circle the drain when that newest chest is drug on board the winning ship and its golden contents are revealed. With a pirate on every side wondering how they can get their hands on it next.

So what does this have to do with Mencken’s quote? I think the deeper meaning behind it says you have to be your own pirate, be prepared to fight for anything you want, and if you really want it you can’t let others stand in your way. If keeping your job means someone else goes unemployed, so be it. If keeping your house means another family goes homeless, that’s something you’ll just have to face. It is, in a way, Darwin’s evolution in action. No one ever wrote a treatise on the survival of the nicest.

The sad fact of life on this planet is that not everyone will have what they want, and many will not have what they need. And to have anything at all, you will have to fight for it. We do not live in a global utopian society, and if you do not take it you will likely die waiting for it to be given to you.

That goes for liberty as much as for anything else. If you do not fight for your freedoms, you can hardly expect anyone to grace you with them out of the goodness of their heart. Governments, for instance, were not constructed out of goodness but out of fear and desire … even our own illustrious “city on a hill.” It’s nice to stand safely on the sidelines and speak of pacifism and conscientious objections, but in reality they don’t work. At some point, the theory breaks down. Even one man sitting alone in the middle of a garden will have to fight if he wants to eat, fight weeds and animals and drought and frost. Idealism has yet to feed a hungry belly.

I think Mencken’s words reveal that life is simply one fight after another, and if you want to do more than simply survive, you’ll have to do so at someone else’s expense. Is your life more important than someone else’s? Is someone else’s life more important than yours? How can anyone possibly know? So hoist your flag, brandish your sword and pistol, and let the blood run.

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Cash For Clunkers seems like a pretty good program. Bring in a not-so-great vehicle and get up to $4500 in credit toward a new vehicle, a value virtually no one would get from a traditional trade-in program. There are a few stipulations but nothing outlandish. And it’s helping both the consumer and the economy, right? What could my beef possibly be?

The long-term result. But even the short-term isn’t exactly pretty. Right now, this program is “helping” people buy cars that get “better” mileage than what they had. But $4500 isn’t a great discount on a new car and I don’t know whether most dealerships will allow it to be paired with other incentives or not. If not, buyers are getting screwed. Secondly, the mile-per-gallon average is grossly overestimated and has decreased the last five years or so. Which means buyers get less bang for their buck even when they try to make the best choice. On top of that, until an amendment to the program passed today, August 1, 2009, the cars being turned in were to have their engine blocks “killed” at the time they were traded (officials recommended water glass, a sealant and bonding agent, be run through the engine in place of oil; the damage would be total and irreparable) … except that, at the time of purchase, many buyers do not know if their old vehicle will be accepted into the program. Some dealers required buyers to sign waivers and release forms to indemnify the dealership against damages. Because if the old car wasn’t accepted, or if the new car didn’t meet your standards, or you decided you couldn’t really afford it, or if you needed to back out of the deal in any other way, your old car was already toast. Sorry, Charlie, you said you didn’t want it anymore.

And the long-term outlook is worse.

If you hadn’t noticed, used vehicles are going pretty cheap at the moment. They have been for about, oh, the last eight months or so … since the stock market fell and the country began to worry about ridiculously bloated banking corporations. My biggest beef with this program is how it will take thousands and thousands of perfectly decent used vehicles out of the market. Just how many? Well, using a bit of fuzzy math, I’m going to take the total Cash For Clunkers budget (including the new increase) of $2.95 billion and divide it by 4000, since some people will get a $3500 credit and some get $4500 … and for the sake of brevity I’m going to assume it’s a pretty even split. Okay, now if even 1 in 3 of all those vehicles being turned in were potentially re-salable (I think the average would be much higher than that, but I’ll play devil’s advocate and remain conservative in that respect) that means roughly 245,000 re-salable vehicles will be crushed or shredded by time the program ends.

Want to see a few examples of the “clunkers” being traded in? Here’s a random group provided by the owners themselves.

(Click here to view full-size.)

Yup, those look like total and complete piles of shit. I don’t know how the owners managed to get them to the dealerships for trade-in.

Sarcasm aside, that’s almost a quarter of a million perfectly good cars and trucks, including those above, permanently and irrevocably destroyed. How is that bad? Well, for some sellers it won’t be, because the price of un-crushed used cars will go up. But, ultimately, all those cars and trucks permanently removed from the market will have an effect on prices. What happens when demand remains constant (or increases) but supply diminishes? The price goes up. And that means higher costs for people who can’t afford new cars. It puts one more burden on an already overburdened class and will result in real clunkers getting driven for longer periods because owners can’t afford to replace them. It means greater hardships and fewer choices for low-income owners. And not only will the price of used cars increase, the price of many parts will increase because those hundreds of thousands of vehicles were crushed or shredded with their drive trains intact. (By law, the scrapyards are not allowed to part them out.) So millions of perfectly usable parts will be wasted, salvage operations face a shrinking pool of resources, and low-income car owners foot the bill.

Granted, Cash For Clunkers will probably get some junkers off the road and likely help a section of lower-middle class consumers sign on for a car they couldn’t otherwise afford. But it seems to me that the “cons” here outweigh the “pros.” By far.

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