Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Glory Days of the Land Yachts

                  No, the car shown above is not mine.  No member of my family has ever owned a car quite that elaborate.  This 1925 Packard Phaeton, probably worth over a million dollars today, sits in a small museum near Independence, Iowa.  But during the 1950s and early 1960s, my brothers and I owned a series of at least a dozen huge old luxury cars from the 1930s and 1940s.  I briefly owned a 1933 Chrysler Town Car, my eldest brother owned a 1935 Chrysler Air Flow Sedan and later two immaculate ’39 Packards, and my other brother owned a 1941 Buick limousine.                   And I owned a couple of beautiful ’47 Packards.  Were we wealthy?  No—quite the opposite.  All of these cars were owned while we were students in high school or college, working low-wage part time jobs, and living on very little money. We simply lived in a time period when anyone could afford a used car. Even high school kids with part time jobs could afford cars—though perhaps only infrequently affording the fuel to drive them. 
                  During the 1920s, an age of excess, the newly rich flaunted their wealth by driving elaborate luxury cars.  When the depression hit at the beginning of the 1930s, the moderately affluent scaled back their pretensions and bought Fords and Chevys, both to save money on the original purchase price, and also to save on fuel expense.  Most of the old “land yachts” got only 6-8 miles per gallon, whereas a Ford or a Chevy could yield 16-18. And with 25% unemployment, most working people bought no new cars at all throughout the 1930s.  But the very rich--the investors who were not wiped out by the crash of ’29, along with movie stars and gangsters--continued to buy large cars.  So the wide range of car sizes of the ‘20s persisted through the ‘30s.
                  And then came the war--and gasoline rationing.  In the ‘30s, the owners of Fords had envied the owners of Packards, but by 1942 it was the other way around.  When most people were allowed a maximum of 4 gallons per week, a Ford owner, if he drove at the legal wartime speed limit of 35 mph, could make his 4 gallons last almost 75 miles.  But the owner of a luxury car with a big straight-eight engine was lucky if he got 30.  Imagine a banker, with his car sitting at home with an empty gas tank, walking to work--and then having his poorer neighbor splash mud on him as he roared past in his Ford.  Some luxury car owners, doctors for instance, had critical jobs and were allowed more gas. But others might bitterly regret the day they ever purchased those behemoths. 
                  In early 1942, all production of American automobiles stopped and did not resume till 1946. And though cars were produced in large numbers in ’47 and ’48 (They were just re-issues of the same models that had been produced before the war) there was still a shortage and a long waiting list.  The 1949 models, which were a brand new design, were supposed to allow supply to catch up with demand and end the shortage.  But the Korean War broke out in 1950 and caused another steel shortage, so the shortage did not really end till the Korean War was over.  In fact, Henry J. Kaiser, who owned his own steel company, got into the car business and sold new cars, mostly from ’49 thru ’51.  He offered a very plain though serviceable car that claimed little advantage other than availability.  The sales slogan was, “Buy a Kaiser or a Frasier--you can drive it right away!”
                  But after the Korean War, the shortage ended and new cars were available.  And most people who could afford a car at all could afford a new one. During the war they had all worked overtime, but with nothing to buy, they had saved their money.  And now they could finally spend that fruit jar full of greenbacks and realize the dream of owning a new car.  So existing cars, all of which had been kept in perfect condition during the years when cars were unavailable, were dumped on the market at once.  They dumped not only the pre-war cars but eventually the ’46 thru ’48 models that looked like pre-war cars, even though some of them were not very old and in perfect condition.  In 1958, I bought a ’48 Dodge that had 40,000 miles on it and was in immaculate condition, and I paid $40.00.   But we don’t value highly what we obtain cheaply.   I drove it like a race car and ruined it in less than a year. But then I sold it to a salvage yard for $20.00 and bought another car for about $40.00.   For several years, the economic penalty for ruining a perfectly good car was about a day’s wages.  It was surreal!
                  As the glut of used cars hit the market, none were scraped as long as they were drivable. The car industry had discovered a new market—children.  By children, I mean high school kids.  At that time, you could get a driver’s permit at age 14.  The law did not require you to carry any insurance, and few people did.  So from 3:30 PM every day until midnight, American streets were filled with teenagers driving up and down Main Street, squealing tires and shouting lewd suggestions to the young ladies.
But while buying a car on a newsboy’s income was easy, buying gasoline was not.  Usually, each car was stuffed with 6 to 8 kids, who would pool their resources to buy gas. And, in those days, a lot of gas was stolen.  Few teenagers did not know the taste of that mouthful of gas you accidently get when trying to siphon gas in the dark.
                  But not all old cars lost their value. Fords and Chevys always sold for a price that bore some relationship to their original cost---Cadillacs did not. Most teenagers, myself included, had wise parents who advised them that heavy cars were to be avoided no matter how cheaply they could be had.  Even if gas rationing did not return, just the cost of buying gas for the monster would soon equal several times its price. But my brothers and I were not the kind to accept the advice of a parent.  I did not have a car till I graduated from high school—my parents forbade it.  By then they had calculated that my elder brothers had earned enough money in high school to have paid their way through Harvard—had the money gone to the bank instead of the gas tank.   
                  All of these beautiful, heavy old cars we owned would be museum pieces today, worth tens of thousands of dollars each.  If instead of driving them to an early grave, we had just stored them in a barn, we might be millionaires today.   Yet when fuel becomes rationed, or just becomes very expensive, a 5000 lb luxury car becomes 5000 lbs of scrap iron more quickly than you could ever believe. So before you buy that huge 4-wheel SUV, ask yourself what it will be worth if gas sells for 8 or 9 dollars a gallon (which it already does in Europe).  People who buy them today may well be trading them for rusted out VWs or Chevy Metros while they still owe $30,000 on them.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

limerick of the Day, Feb 23

Our posts are, alas, evanescent,
Whether writings of poet or peasant.
If you post a new tune
In the full of the moon,
It's erased ere the light of the crescent.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

There is No Skill Shortage.

            There is an excellent article in the Jan/Feb issue of Dollars & Sense magazine entitled “UNEMPLOYMENT: A Jobs Deficit or a Skill Deficit?”   This is a brief article and I suggest you follow the link and read it.  They make the point that whenever we have a high unemployment, leaders of government and business try to define the problem as “structural” unemployment, that is, a mismatch between the available jobs and the skills of available workers.  This strategy neatly blames the victim. It excuses the business institutions which caused the recession, and it excuses a government which might have prevented the recession, and failing that, might be doing more to cure it.  But gosh, no!  There are plenty of jobs—it’s just that those stupid, lazy workers haven’t given themselves the right training.  And once this disinformation about a “skill deficit” catches on, the media jumps on it (including NPR, which one might expect to know better.)
            But it’s all nonsense.  This article exposes the kind of statistical gimmicks which the administration and business spokesmen now use to create the illusion that there are millions of job openings going unfilled for lack of qualified applicants.  Yet if you are unemployed or know someone who is, you know that it is not unusual for 500 fully qualified people to show up when a single job is advertised, and half of them have recent experience actually doing the job in question. We have a shortage of jobs—not a shortage of highly qualified people. The reason is that no one is hiring.  And they are not hiring because there is very weak demand—and there is weak demand because 17 million Americans are out of work.  And it’s not that employers cannot afford to add staff—they are sitting on 3 trillion in cash.
            This is a game I’ve seen played before.  In the early 1980s, while the rest of the country was in a moderate recession, the rural Midwest was having a complete disaster due to the collapse of farmland values.  Banks went broke, factories closed their doors, and masses of workers fled the region for both coasts, hoping to find some chance of a job.   John Deere Waterloo Tractor Works, our main employer, went from making 225 huge tractors a day to making only 25--and they laid off employees back to 21 years seniority.    And of course, they canceled all building projects. I was then an electrician doing industrial construction work.  In one year, we went from having 300 journeymen working full time in the area to having less than a dozen.   As a union electrician, my jobs are obtained though the union hiring hall.  My business agent called business agents all over the country, and there was almost no work available anywhere except for a small amount in the south.  I put 16,000 miles on my car looking for work in 1982. I was in every southern state except Arkansas at least twice, and I found not a single day of employment.  Every place I went, I found 500 names on the waiting list ahead of me. Yet every day, I endured watching government pundits on the evening news claim that the country was awash with unfilled job openings.
            After my 26 weeks of regular unemployment benefits were exhausted, in order to qualify for a federal extension, I had to register with the state employment service and pretend that they were going to find me a job.  At one point I was subjected to some kind of an aptitude test. The young man who administered it informed me, with the thinly disguised jubilation of a cat that has just discovered a partially eviscerated frog, that I should consider being re-trained—I should become an electrician.  After a few seconds of astonished silence, while repressing the urge to choke the bloody idiot to death on the spot, I patiently informed him that I was already an electrician—a fully licensed journeyman electrician—and I had been so for many years.  And before that I had been a journeyman electronic technician, and before that I had studied physics in college for two years, and at one time I had owned my own machine shop and welding service.
             Now it was the idiot’s turn for astonished silence.  He finally said, “But then how could you be unemployed?  According to my information, those are exactly the skills we should be training people for.”  I said, “I haven’t worked in a year, and neither have a hundred other members of Electricians’ Local 288. Would you like their names?”  He replied, “But those are exactly the job classifications that the country supposedly needs.”   I replied,   “Your data, averaged over the next 25 years, is probably correct.  The country does need us—they just don’t need us today.  We are all unemployed today—because there are no bloody jobs today!  It’s that simple.”
            At that time my wife was also unemployed.  She was a teacher with a master’s degree in English, with a permanent professional certificate, and she had also taught Spanish.   She had quit teaching a few years earlier to have a child and when she was ready to return, the demographics had changed due to working families with school aged children fleeing the area in search of work.  In any rationally ordered society, no family could remain jobless with the pool of critical skills which my wife and I possessed.  But this is not a rational society and never has been.  Would a rational society have 30% of its GDP in the financial sector?
            But whenever there is high unemployment, many people have a stake in pretending that there is no shortage of jobs. While my journeyman friends sat idle, on and off for a decade, the local community college went on merrily training electricians, and the teachers’ college went on cranking out more English teachers. Why?  Because the false promise of imaginary jobs keeps people off the street and keeps them from becoming part of the unemployment statistic. And of course, it provides employment for those who run the training programs.
            And there are other games being played.  According to Wall Street Journal, many employers regularly post “job openings,” though they have no immediate plans to hire anyone. They do this because they know that the economy will someday change from slack demand and a surplus of workers, to strong demand and shortage of workers.  And it could change very quickly--so they amass a file of resumes and continually update it. Yet they never admit this.  Workers who are nearly broke spend their last few dollars jumping through hoops to interview for non-existent positions.  And of course, the pages (or web pages) of help wanted ads which these corporations generate help support the illusion that jobs are going unfilled.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Limerick of the Day, Feb 14

Had Xerxes invented the zerk
Grease would never have been so much work.
But 'twas Greece and not grease
That disturbed the man's peace.
Oh well--He was still such a jerk!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Retirement Age Myths

            The March 2011 issue of The American Prospect magazine has a pair of articles examining whether the average age of retirement in the United States should be lowered or raised.  James K. Galbraith sees early retirement as a quick fix for unemployment.  He says that we will probably have unusually high unemployment for another decade, so young people seeking their first real jobs will have little chance of finding any unless more of our older workers move aside and retire.  This problem, says Galbraith, is coupled with the fact that many older workers continue to work at jobs that they find physically painful, because they cannot afford to retire under the present system, even though their jobs are too demanding physically for anyone their age.  Under our present system, to get full Social Security benefits, you must work past 66. You can take early retirement at 62, but with reduced benefits, and with no Medicare coverage till age 65. Galbraith suggests that we temporarily allow retirement at age 62 with less reduction in benefits, and that we allow Medicare eligibility for retirees at 62. These measures would allow those who want to leave the workforce to leave, thereby allowing those who wish to enter the workforce to enter. As usual, Mr. Galbraith understands the situation and has a reasonable solution.
            The other article is entitled “The Progressive Case Against Subsidizing Middle-Aged Retirement,” by Eugene Steuerle.  Mr Steuerle utterly misses the point, as demonstrated by the fact that he apparently considers age 62 “middle aged.”   I hate to be the one to tell you this, Eugene, but 62 is not the middle.  People do not generally live to be 124.  Sixty-two is old. Perhaps not too old to do what you get paid to do—sitting behind a desk and writing articles expounding the virtues of work—but way too old to be a skilled construction worker, which is what I did for 40 years.  Let me explain it to you:
            If a man says, “I’m 80 years old and I work every day—and I love it,” we assume that his most likely occupation is:
1.      1. Steeplejack;
2.      2. Professional Heavyweight Boxer
3.      3. Green Beret Soldier;
4.      4. Longshoreman;
5.     5. Firefighter;
6.      6. Foundry Worker;
7.      7. Coal Miner;
8.      8. Construction Worker;
9.      9. Emergency Room Nurse;
10   10. Guy who gets paid to sit behind a desk and shuffle paper and punch computer keys.
The correct answer is (10).   Mr. Steuerle, you are assuming that we all do sedentary jobs now.  We do not.  The percentage of American workers doing sedentary work is large and growing, but it is still a minority, and it always will be.  Those in non-sedentary occupations don’t quit working when they choose to quit—the choice is made for them.  They quit when their bodies give out.
            Sedentary work can be difficult, frustrating, and in some cases hazardous to your health.  If you have arteriosclerosis, a sedentary job can kill you. But except for carpal-tunnel problems, sedentary workers don’t suffer the kind of skeletal injuries that account for most industrial disability.
            The main trend in job requirements today is that more jobs require a high technical/creative/intellectual component. But the introduction of this new requirement seldom negates the old requirement for physical strength, agility, and endurance.  The premier example is the military. Combat troops now apply every new technology years before it is in civilian use, but are required to be in such top physical shape that they are mostly too old for their jobs by the time they turn 35, although many remain on active duty much longer.
            They same applies to many industrial jobs, where employers want the technical wizardry of a Tom Edison,  but still demand the endurance of a Jim Thorp.  I spent nearly 40 years as a skilled construction electrician, mostly on heavy industrial jobsites. In our trade, the earliest retirement age is 62.  Among my close friends who started the trade when I did, I’m the only one who made it to retirement. The others all either died or became disabled in their 50s with knee or back injuries. When a young person applies for an apprenticeship today, the selection committee asks two questions:   “Did you get all “A”s in math and science?” and “Were you good at sports?”  Before asking when a person should retire, you should first ask, “Retire from what?” 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Sight Rhyme Limerick, Feb 11

A spelling like "rhythm" or "rhyme"
Confuses us thyme after thyme.
But spellings like "rhythm;"
You're against 'em or whythm.
Ridiculous--yet so sublhyme.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Sight Rhyme Limerick, Feb 6

To keep away colds I use zinc.
It's pretty effective, I thinc.
It banishes flu,
And I think it might du,
To keep away badgers and minc.
A repellant for badgers and mink, I thinc;
To keep away badgers and minc.

The False Promise of Term Limits

      A cousin of mine just e-mailed me one of those internet chain letters, this one supporting some congressional effort to impose term limits on members of the U.S. House and Senate. This person is one the the most well-intentioned people I know, and she is quite intelligent. So I felt compelled to write a brief explanation as to why I will not support this initiative, instead of just ignoring it.  So I said to this cousin, (let's just call her Mary)
Dear Mary,
     Term limits is one of those ideas that sound great, but would actually have the exact opposite effect as people like you would desire to see.   The idea of term limits is based on the assumption that all a person needs to pass good legislation is common sense and good intentions, and that all freshmen congressmen have these qualities until they become corrupted by those "inside the beltway" interests.  But when California passed term limits, it was a disaster--it made the state legislature even more corrupt and beholden to special interests than it had been.
     The trouble is that passing our laws is not "unskilled labor," any more than designing watches or performing open heart surgery is unskilled. If you were a newly elected Senator, on your first day on the job, you might be asked to vote on things like:  coal mine ventilation standards;  multi-national maritime treaties;  safety testing standards for brakes on school busses;  or a thousand other things you've never heard of.  Let's face it--you don't know diddley squat about any of this stuff, and neither do I. But you would be required to vote yea or nay.  So what would you do--flip a coin?
     You would probably ask the party bosses of your own party and vote exactly as they told you.  Or you could take the advice of one of the competing lobbyists trying to influence you.   Remember that if congressmen were subject to term limits, lobbyist still would not be.  They same lobbyists will be there for forty years. They are highly specialized, and most have expert knowledge of the field they represent. And they are all smooth talking lawyers who can twist any argument to suit the interests of whoever pays them.  On any issue, there would be at least two groups of lobbyists, each trying obtain your vote.  Each would make a persuasive case.  One group is lying and knows it--the other is telling the truth, but might not be able to get anyone to believe them. In the end, you would probably back which ever group had just contributed to your election campaign, because when your next election is due, you can't get re-elected without their support. Besides, since you have utterly no understanding of the issue, there's a 50% chance they might be right anyway.
    Eventually, you would begin to learn.  Congress is divided into committees, and as a member of a half dozen committees, you would eventually gain expert knowledge on your own---but this would take several years.  Your friends on other committees would also gain expert knowledge, and would share their insights. But not all your colleagues are to be trusted.  Some are fools who can easily be deceived. Others are clever liars. But, in the fullness of time, you would  learn whose information can be trusted, and whose cannot. Again, this may take several years. But after eight to twelve years, you might finally be free of dependance on party bosses and lobbyists, and actually begin to do the people's business--and not just be a puppet.  But with term limits, you would then have to leave to be replaced by some gullible, clueless young stiff who is just as dependent on the lobbyists as you had been eight years before.   In short, term limits do not free our lawmakers from special interest lobbyists--it merely tightens the lobbyist's control.  It's mainly well financed special interests such as Wall Street who are pushing term limits, as this would give them total control if it ever succeeds.  

Friday, February 4, 2011

Sight Rhyme Limerick, Feb 5

When battling Custer, the Sioux
Attacked with their whole retinioux.
But once the Lakota
Had slaughtered their quota,
They didn't quite know what to dioux.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Sight Rhyme Limerick, Feb 4

A restaurant owned by Ann Dewey
Sold Cajun food in Saint Lewey.
But Ann Dewey's andouille
Was tasteless and chouille.
Her business went busted--aw fewey.

Sight Rhyme Limerick, Feb 3

If you're feeling a touch of catarrh,
Try spending less time at the barrh.
A bit of the sauce
Makes you feel like the bauce,
But you're better off just as you arrh.

You Can FED EX a Cow!

An Interesting Fact:  You can ship your cow by FED EX.     It happens that Cornell University has a long established and world renowned cattle herd in their dairy department.  Any of these world class cows would, if used as breeding stock,  improve the blood line of any herd they might become a part of.  Once a year an auction is held to thin the herd, and the public is allowed to purchase these animals.  Cornell is located in the heart of New York's best dairy country,  and the local farmers do not fail to take advantage of this opportunity.   But since the sale is held every year,  the local market is saturated, and these animals can be had for less than cows of such quality might sell for elsewhere.
     One student at Cornell, whose family was in the dairy business, noticed this and informed her parents. The parents found the idea of buying a cow from the Cornell herd attractive, but wondered how they might get it home.  They lived on the other side of the continent, in Washington state.  Upon checking, they learned that FED EX is licensed to ship cattle by air to nearly anyplace in the world. They routinely do this, and will provide the shipping crate and all necessary services. So they bought a cow and FED EXed it home. Of course, shipping cows by air can be a bit pricey, but after all expenses were paid,  they ended up with a better animal than they could have obtained locally for a similar investment.  Thank you,  Orville and Wilbur.