Global Thoughts – 21 August 2017

Jeremy celebrating 10th birthday
Jeremy celebrating 10th birthday

An observation at the airport: I was on a flight from Boston to New York on a 737 which seats roughly 165 people, and there were 75 people on the line in Groups 1 or Group 2 (25 and 50 respectively), which means they had priority boarding. By the time those people were on board, there weren’t 20 people left at the gate, and every seat on the flight was taken. So basically there is no meaning to priority boarding except that you have a better chance of finding a place for overhead luggage. At Newark, the line for priority security check went around and around about 4 times, so again there is no priority in priority these days unless you fly first class, pay extra for Group 1 boarding, or have real heavy elite status.

Here’s the difference between Apple and Hewlett Packard. When you call up HP, the only time a person in the US ever picks up a phone is to sell you the computer. Once you purchase, you speak either to people in India or the Philippines unless you buy a high-grade computer with high-grade tech support. When you call, you get shunted from transfer to transfer till you finally speak to someone who has no idea what they are doing. One teckie told me to go to a store to figure out how to connect my PC to a monitor. Another one kept reading from a manual even when I emailed him a photo of my PC which showed that the layout of the outlets did not match the manual. When you call Apple, somebody in the US picks up the phone almost right away and solves your problem. Except for the fact that HP makes some nice computers, it is the among the most awful companies to deal with for customer service. Someone in their Resolution Center wasted a month tracking a package of a return computer that they said they didn’t receive; they had spent a month tracking the computer that was originally being sent to me.

Every day we have to send the kids some letter to camp. Our lives are boring and we have to struggle to find what to write; when you’re our age, the only difference between summer and the rest of the year is how much you sweat on the subway to work. Of course, our kids want to know how much we miss them. We of course are cherishing the days left to us till they come home. We’re quite happy to get some time together without playing day camp counselor all weekend and we’re glad to know we still really like being with each other even with no kids around. But not everybody feels that way. I was thinking of the letter someone else might write: “Dear Kid, Your parents spent the first weekend together without you in 12 years since you were born and guess what? We found out that we really can’t stand each other. So we’re getting divorced. Looking forward to seeing you soon.”

At camp Elizabeth learned to clean toilets and Jeremy learned all kinds of bunk cleaning skills (which they forgot as soon as they got home). They get incentives if they do a good job cleaning their bunks. The funniest thing we heard was that when it was laundry time Jeremy sent everything he had to the laundry, including his clean clothes. He’s just so used to having everything show up in his closet at the end of the day that he had no idea what to do with his clothes in camp.

I took the kids to Camelback Resort in Pennsylvania, a 90 minute drive from the City. They take the ski area and turn it into this giant summer wonderland with ropes course, zip lines, mountain coasters and a huge water park. I don’t know how they manage to do this. One zip line goes straight down a mountain with nothing below and goes for 4,000 feet. And they also have an indoor water park, an arcade and an indoor area with laser tag, ropes course, climbing wall, mini golf, etc. For kids, it’s like they’ve died and gone to paradise. It’s very reasonable; for $250 a night you can get a room with a big bed, 4 bunk beds, and a sofa. You can also get a kitchen. The room includes admission to both water parks. There’s a photo of Elizabeth below on the wave runner ride.

Mount Washington Resort in New Hampshire
Mount Washington Resort in New Hampshire

After camp was over, I picked them up and took them for 2 nights to the Omni Mount Washington resort in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire. It is about 2 hours drive from Manchester, NH airport, but it is worth the extra 45 minutes to fly in and out of Boston because Manchester flights are not reliable. The resort has been renovated a lot since my last visit 10 years ago. You get beautiful views of the mountain range from rooms and the dining room. During the summer you can eat dinner al fresco viewing the mountains. The nearby adventure center has go karts, zip line, archery, a chair lift and a climbing wall. You can ride bicycles around the golf course. This resort is good for July and August; otherwise it can be cold. An attraction here is the cog railway up Mount Washington, but be careful making advance reservations because it’s not much fun doing this 3 hour trip if the mountain is all covered with clouds. Our kids needed some re-entry into civilization training; Jeremy did not want to dress up for dinner the first night which involved sweat pants and a long-sleeve shirt. I think that perhaps he came in his pajamas to dinner at camp.

We also spent a weekend this month at the Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz, NY. We’ve been going there each year or two since the kids were born. As they grow, the place grows with you. Last time they just wanted to go on the paddleboats several times a day and we could never get everyone to climb to the top of the mountain. Now we can climb to the top in under 15 minutes and the kids want to go in canoes. Everyone still likes mini-golf though.

Here’s a great consumer tip. You know how your toothpaste tube gets thin and it becomes irritating to get the paste out. But you feel wasteful if you throw it out. Or maybe you don’t, which is good for shareholders of these companies if each person in the world spends a few extra bucks a year replacing toothpaste. But if you take the tube and roll it, and then stick some strong tape like duct tape over the crease, it will keep the tube in place while you use it up. And you can reuse the tape!

One of our companies offers employees Seamless Web for lunch on Wednesdays. It is a food delivery service through the internet. The idea was that employees would improve productivity by staying at their desk instead of going out for lunch, and this would offset the $17.50 each employee gets to spend for the lunch. The problem is that the website has thousands of menus and employees waste more than half an hour going through the menus to decide what they want to order. So it is a net productivity loser because you are paying for all that wasted time and their lunch to boot.

An unintended consequence of lower gas prices is declining revenues from gas taxes. A consequence of more ride sharing services such as Uber is lower revenues from tolls that each car pays to use a road or to enter an area with congestion pricing. Governments have to figure out how to get that revenue from the Ubers and electric cars of the world. GPS will be used to keep track of how many miles cars drive within what areas and cars will increasingly be billed for the miles they drive and the routes they take.

IMG_0359I was meeting with financial advisors from a major bank and they were telling me that various investment funds made investments after Trump was elected in industries that they thought would benefit from his policies. So far these investments have been duds because he has been ineffective in doing anything to benefit even those around him that hoped to be favored. People figured for instance that Goldman Sachs, which makes up something like half his cabinet, would have benefited. I think that unless you work for the Trump companies you are just not coming out ahead with this president. Much has been made of the coal industry and how many jobs were being lost that he hoped to save. I understand that many more jobs were lost this year in the retail industry than the coal industry; it is not getting as much attention but it is quite important and probably many more jobs will be lost. There is probably very little any president can do about it; I don’t know what is the connection between Amazon buying Whole Foods and the idea that many cashiers will be replaced by robots, but people say it will happen quicker because of this acquisition. And there are many cashiers out there. I think it will not happen so fast; when you go to Trader Joe’s in our neighborhood it makes a difference that cashiers talk to you, ask you if you found everything you wanted, and seem genuinely interested in talking to you about groceries. It is not the same interaction you get at Fairways and it is not a coincidence that Trader Joe’s has taken away a lot of business from Fairways since it opened a few years ago.

While the kids went to camp for 2 weeks, Karen and I stole away to Virginia for a weekend. We had been to Keswick Hall about 10 years ago and returned for its views and food. It also offers an infinity pool for adults only with views of the golf course. Food is excellent and the nearby Estates offers pleasant walks, bike rides (you can borrow from the hotel), and you can ride a golf cart even if you are not golfing. The gym and spa are also very good, and it is a 15 minute ride to Charlottesville and Monticello, summer home of Thomas Jefferson. You can either fly to Richmond (80 minutes drive) or Charlottesville. One thing I found out about is that flights into Newark on United from Richmond are billed as scheduled flights but actually have what is known as “non-reserved landing slots” which means that they fit in the flight when they have time for it. 90% of the flights in the afternoon or evening arrive seriously late or get cancelled according to the check-in supervisor at the airport. You don’t want to be on the last flight of the day or on a connection to an international flight out of Richmond unless you leave from here in the morning.

Lobby of Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia
Lobby of Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia

After Keswick, we spent a night in the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond. The lobby of this hotel is probably one of the Top Ten Beautiful Indoor Spaces in America. The Le Marie restaurant was also excellent and is a beautiful space. We were upgraded to a beautiful suite with a huge porch. The rest of the hotel with its indoor pool, gym and mini-spa was very good. The concierge arranged a 3 hour tour with a private guide and I visited the Museum of the Confederacy and the White House of Jefferson Davis, the Virginia State Capitol and the Virginia War Memorial, the Hollywood Cemetery and saw various neighborhoods. Virginia takes its history very seriously and has memorialized a lot of it.  Virginia as a whole is a very broad state with many nice places to visit in a mid-range climate, and I reckon we’ve probably gone on more visits to that state as tourists than any other aside from Florida.

Think about this. In 1800, the population of Richmond, Virginia was 5,704 according to a master’s thesis quoted in Wikipedia’s timeline of the history of Richmond. From 1800 to 1820 it was the most populated city in the entire United States according to this source (although I have trouble believing that since places such as Brooklyn NY reportedly had more people). It was only incorporated as a town in 1742, and around the time of the revolution it had maybe 500-1,000 people. Many of them were women and children, so how many educated white men could it have had? But many of the founders of America came from Virginia. When you think about it, the competition to be the founders of the country was not great. There were only so many wealthy educated white men around that could possibly have done it. Those left standing with checkbooks and the time to indulge in politics were basically in charge. About 100 years later, Jefferson Davis was president of the Confederacy. He owned about 100 slaves which placed him in the top 1% of all slave owners. Think about it – he had 100 employees who he didn’t have to pay or give health insurance benefits, and this puts him in the top 1%. One of my companies had 150 employees and we had to make payroll every 2 weeks and give out bonuses to boot, and we’re not exactly up there with the Fortune 500 or even 500,000.  We lionize these people but really they were there at the right place at the right time and did what was in their interest to do at the time.

IMG_0481Today America has roughly 320 million people and until this year it seemed the only two families that could produce presidents were the Clintons and the Bushes, and what did we wind up with instead in this year of upheaval? Trump besting 18 Republicans who thoroughly sucked as candidates, which was the only reason he rose to the top of the pile. Thomas Jefferson had said that an enlightened educated people could run their own affairs. Not only do we have a bunch of people who are proud to be ignoramuses and watching TV networks promoting know-nothingness electing our leaders, but according to a recent Economist survey about America, many voters vote against their own economic interests for strange reasons when they elect their leaders. The Economist quoted extensively from the American National Election Study, a large survey run by Stanford and the University of Michigan published in March. For instance, it makes no sense that in the span of 3 months from November to January this past year, people who voted Democratic went from saying the country was in great shape to being in terrible shape, while people who voted Republican went from saying the country was in terrible shape to becoming bullishly optimistic. Surveys show consistently that majorities support Democratic agendas when it comes to government spending – they say they are against government programs and vote for people who say they will cut spending, but they don’t want their own benefits to be cut. Perhaps Jefferson was right – the democracy we have today may not have been what he and others around him had in mind 241 years ago, and maybe we shouldn’t have this free for all that we have now. Nothing is working right and we’d all probably be better off if a few people got together and cut some deals and fixed real problems.

North Korea: I haven’t changed my views on this over the past 10 years, and my solution I think is still the best one. Make a deal with China that they take over the country and get rid of this regime and put something else in its place. The Chinese will get the job done and I have no problem with China taking over that country. If we go to war there will be hundreds of thousands of dead Koreans and they will hate us for it. If we don’t go to war, there will be ICBM’s with nuclear warheads threatening the US mainland in another few years. I’m not worried about a future war with China; the Chinese people are too smart to go to war with the US. It’s not in their interest. They are a billion people wanting a better life and they think the North Koreans are nuts anyway. Problem is that they are happy to tolerate the regime if the alternative is chaos on their border and the loss of pretty good trading business and the loss of an irritant to the rest of Asia which gives China leverage, which is why I suggest we just allow them to take over the country and do what they want with it. In another year North Korea will have missiles that reach the US mainland; time is running out to deal with this.

Jeremy playing soccerTrump vs. Nixon: Nixon had a certain dignity and he showed outward respect for the office of presidency. He was strategic and he passed significant pieces of legislation that bridged the gap among moderates in his party and moderate Democrats.  He was privately coarse and was consumed by the cover-up of this scandal and his paranoia, but many people have a dark side to them which the public does not see. Nixon was not seen to be privately trying to capitalize on his office and appeared at all times to be representing the interests of the United States. Trump’s dark side is on public display and he shows none of Nixon’s strengths. Trump makes it clear that he does not care about American interests, only his own. He abandons allies, campaign positions and national policies on a whim. Our nation has reached a new low with Trump as its president.

I just read through the transcripts of Trump’s phone calls with the presidents of Mexico and Australia. I cannot believe they allow this guy to function as president of the US and I can’t imagine what other senior people around the world think of this man. You have to read these transcripts from the Washington Post website. It is so painful to read. He sounds like an old cranky uncle that no matter what you say to him, he just keeps going on like a broken record and ignores everything you say no matter if what you say makes sense or is reasonable. I’m not even going into details here. Just read the transcripts for yourself from beginning to end instead of reading a report about them and you’ll see what I mean.

Most damaging thing I’ve found out about Trump is that he didn’t decide who was being fired on the Apprentice but rather said lines fed to him by the producers. The source of a lot of his credibility was his supposed wisdom in deciding who to fire and why during all the years that people watched the TV show. And now we find out that it wasn’t really him who decided anything.

IMG_0275After several months of wavering, I think that the American economy will be OK for the coming short term. Trump is boxed in; if he fires his attorney general, he will have a revolt by his own party and Rosenstein will take over, and he is the one who appointed the special prosecutor. If he fires Mueller, there will be a bipartisan revolt. I expect Mueller to eventually prosecute Trump. If Trump is removed or resigns, Vice President Pence has a better chance of getting Congress to pass legislation that the Republicans want, and ultimately this will be what does Trump in – the Republicans have control of the government and are getting nothing done with him in the White House squandering a historic opportunity for the party to get its way. The markets want the Republicans to get their way; that’s why the markets rallied after Trump was elected. Corporate earnings continue to be better than expected; so looking at the near future for 6-12 months, it looks like the markets will outlast any political instability short of a war. And if there is a war, I expect the generals to get Trump out of the way real fast. Doesn’t help to have a commander in chief that can’t be trusted not to tell our secrets to the Russkies. So far what I read about Pence is that he is more of a Reaganesque Republican and he has a good number of friends in the Republican party and in the Congress. People who meet him seem to like him abroad. So he has a chance to make a favorable start if he gets it. I bet someone earlier this year dinner for two that Trump is out by the end of the year.

We’re heading to Germany and Switzerland for our summer holiday. I strongly suspect people there to be asking me what the heck is going on in our country? I’m looking forward to getting out of the way for awhile.




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