US Savings Rate: -0.5%

Decline of the American Empire?

I see it as a race to the finish - who can spend more? The Government, or the People?

Very sad.

Checks vs credit cards

Checks now clear within a matter of hours and can be accepted electronically. They are getting to the point of being electronic money. Credit cards take days to clear through a merchant account, and are expensive to process (1.5-3%).

Beyond the weak consumer protections, what exactly is the advantage of credit cards anymore?

Consumers can easily get money at much lower interest rates from a variety of sources. eTrade, for example, has a new account that you can balance transfer from a credit card every single month and is at 9% instead of 12%-30%.

For merchants, it seems like a real negative to have to pay the ridiculous percentage for processing. Walmart is even trying to become a bank to get around the processing fees, and I imagine their percentage is already very low.

Unfunded pension liability: I don't understand how they got it so wrong.

A story titled America's Pension Timebomb contains the following quote: "the transit authority, like many private and public employers, is watching its pension costs rocket as longer-living retirees increase in number." I think blaming the pension problem on unexpectedly longer employee lifespans is a bunch of shit. We haven't made any huge unexpected leap forward - lifespan has been growing at the same slow plodding pace.

A better explanation would be that there is a huge baby boomer generation that is about to retire, and that the next generation is much smaller. You have fewer workers paying for more non-workers. You have to make changes. It's just common sense.

At the first sign of a baby boom, this problem should have been crystal clear. I don't understand how it was missed. When you have a spike in the size of a generation, and the next generation is smaller, the idea that a reduction in the workforce coupled with a growth in retirees should have been crystal clear.

They could have done something to stop it; they could have raised the retirement age. They could have increased the amount of required contributions. They could have decreased benefits. It's simple math - we have pretty solid numbers on the number of years a person can be expected to live.

Instead, they let the problem linger, and passed it on to the next generation. And now we're all fucked. We're paying for the cushy retirement of the richest generation possibly of all time by taking away the retirement of the younger generations.

Danger pay? Thoughts on coal mining.

During the recent mining fiasco, I heard that a coal miner in West Virginia can take home $75,000. While it may not seem like huge money for a place like San Francisco or New York, the average median income for a FAMILY is only $40,827. Furthermore, 315,000 people (or almost 18% of the population) live below poverty level.

When you take into account that a financial advisor (quasi-stock broker) in West Virginia only makes $47,340 and a bank teller makes $18,760, you can start to see that $75,000 is a lot of money relative to the rest of the population.

This got me thinking. Why do coal miners make so much money? Obviously, this is a dangerous job. Deadly mining accidents are not uncommon, and miners also experience a wide variety of illness and injury from the work environment.

However, it doesn't seem like as a society we particularily reward jobs based on danger. For example, a Roofer in Phoenix, AZ doesn't make an exorbitant wage. Marines, even with combat pay, hardly make serious money considering the risk they go through daily. Police Officers, even in the tough parts of South Central Los Angeles, where gang activity is rampant, start at $51,114.

It seems to me that coal miners make what they do based on the urgent need for energy, and their ability to strike bringing the economy grinding to a halt. If they were not unionized, I strongly suspect they would make far less.

The variance in the quality of coffee is sort of surprising, when you think about it.

All coffee comes from roughly the same places. Sure, there is a some variance in quality. Some is good, some is excellent, some isn't fit for human consumption. But most coffee is sort of "average" quality.

From the raw beans, it gets roasted. Then it gets ground and made into coffee. These steps seem to be the part that really matters. From the starbucks "ultra-bitter blend" to the folgers tasteless blend, there seems to be no limit to the ways coffee flavor can be destroyed.

I've found that the water matters: when I use filtered water, it makes a big difference in the quality. I've found the temperature of the water matters: when I boil water on the stove or in a water heater, the coffee seems to be much better.

Tonight, I am drinking coffee made in french press. I don't know the brand. What I do know is that pretty much any fresh coffee bean properly ground and using the right temperature filtered water will taste a hell of a lot better than a great quality pre-ground coffee made with tap water using a inexpensive drip coffee maker.

You would think, considering that it is the main drink for most of America for hundreds of years, that we'd have figured it out by now. But all you need to do is stop by your local Starbucks to see how far we have to go.

"Up on the housetop, our sales tanked, ho ho ho goes the CEO"

Walmart, my favorite megaretailer, made the news again for a couple reasons.

First, they put a "funny song" on their phone bank in the style of "Up on the housetop" making fun of their poor holiday sales. They thought humor would be an effective way to lighten the mood. I can just visualize the look on the face of a fund manager who just took a good sized hit when they heard the song for the first time. I bet they laughed and laughed!

Second, their website linked "Planet of the Apes" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" to movies with African American themes. Either they got hax0rt, or a Walmart employee in IT is a racist dumbass.

Anyhow, I'm quite impressed by their effort to alienate both investors and customers AT THE SAME TIME.

Bill Gates sees IBM as his biggest competitor.

Story on Reuters.

IBM does "Services" now. They are moving away from hardware and software, and moving into knowledge. Microsoft makes mostly software and some hardware. They also do some services and technical training.

I don't see how they compete. DB2 vs MSFT SQL? Lotus Notes vs Office?

I see IBM as a competitor for the Big 4 accounting firms. I see Microsoft as a competitor against Google, Apple, Sony, and other "technology" companies.

I just don't get it.

Walmart pushing to enter banking industry.

In July 2005, Walmart "filed an application with the Utah Department of Financial Institutions and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to operate an industrial bank."

Walmart already has 1100 branches of other banks within it's stores. They claim they are just trying to save money on credit card charges. But it doesn't take a lot of imagination to see that Walmart is just trying to get their foot in the banking door before they kick it wide open.

It's a pretty scary thought. Walmart already dominates retail and is also the largest grocery store chain in the country. They have started doing wire transfers and money orders. Once they get the door open to retail banking, they become the one stop shop for all your needs: Deposit your paycheck, get a mortgage, buy diapers, pick up milk and eggs. Once the Monopoly ball gets rolling, it's pretty damned hard to stop.

The Luxor was mediocre at best.

Monday night, after a long night of driving, we decided to stop in Las Vegas. I was tired, it was pouring rain and the wind was howling. I had already tagged a few tumbleweeds the size of a large dog - and narrowly avoided a few that were about half the size of my car.

So, we stopped in Vegas and headed for Luxor. Now, I read a few reviews on Yahoo Travel, and it was rated #10, so I figured it couldn't be that bad. One thing seemed to be ever present in the reviews - "I had to wait in line for an hour to check in".

The valet was marked "Full", so off we went to the self park. The parking lot is way out back, and is pretty small for the size of the casino. I ended up parking way at the very end of the lot, by the freeway. From there you have to walk across the parking lot, take an elevator up a level, then walk across a long bridge to get into the casino. Then you have to go all the way through the casino in a circular fashion since the center is blocked. When you finally get to the registration desk, you are greeted by a giant line. It looked like the airport terminal on December 23rd. Just awful.

"Is it always like this?" I asked the lady at the check-in desk after a 20 minute wait in line.

"ALWAYS." She said, very flustered. It took her a good 10 minutes to type in all the registration information and direct us to the nearest inclinator.

The inclinator was totally fucked. You have to put in your card and hit a button so you can get to the right floor. It's about as user-friendly as a nuclear reactor control board.

The room was pretty weak. The shower was falling apart, the windows leaked and whistled, the beds were garbage, the TV was tiny. Oh, and it was almost impossible to see out the angled windows. It wasn't worth the $86 I ended up paying for the night. I can't imagine paying the $429 a night for the same room for the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show (CES).