Friday, August 29, 2008

Can Any President Save the USA?

Every four years we have presidential elections and just as regularly, the nominees from both parties make promises which they must know they cannot keep. And so it is with this, the 2008 Presidential Elections: both Obama and McCain promise lower taxes for the majority of us; they both promise better health care, better security for the elder; blah, blah, blah. Yet both acknowledge that our economy is weak, we have too large a national debt, and our reputation abroad is weak.

How can we take these characters seriously? Our economy is indeed weak. Our national debt is greater than 9.5 Trillion dollars (each man, woman, and child in the U.S. now owes more than $31,000 dollars - more than a year's worth of the average US salary!) With so much debt, with so little GDP growth and demand for our products overseas at an all-time low, how can the American people be promised *MORE* and *BETTER* things?

Both candidates claim they will be able to do so by eliminating waste and unnecessary programs. But neither explicitly identifies what exactly is up for cutting. Rightly so. Since neither knows what they will be able to cut - that depends on the holders of the purse strings: Congress. And the politicians there are all beholden to their masters: the voters of their respective states. And nobody wants to give up their pet benefits and/or subsidies -a.k.a. "pork". The farmers in the farming states will not let their congressmen eliminate the federal farm subsidies - despite the fact that farmers are making more money than ever before; large multi-nationals will not let the congressmen in their pockets (via lobbyists) eliminate the large tax breaks they enjoy....the only programs that end up getting cut are those that have no powerful constituencies....which are also not worth cutting, since they don't cost much!

The problem is moral corruption. Politicians, never held in that high a regard in the first place, have hit new lows with regards to their level of integrity and honor. Not only are their services (i.e. their votes) for sale, but their personal ambitions now always completely overshadow the needs of the community/country. Added to the corruption of politicians is the ever growing army of parasitical public servants: folks that see service in the federal or state governments not as a priviledge, but as a means for the easy life - a place where they can get paid, get excellent benefits, vacations, pensions, etc. and where they're essentially immune from being fired (thanks, there to our "great" Union laws). Since they can't be fired, many don't even bother doing any useful work. Since work *does* need to be done, more and more federal and state agencies are turning to private consultants to do the real work...which, of course, costs alot of money.....but, that is never a problem, since taxpayers can always be fleeced for another tax dollar.

So, what can the next president actually do to help this morally bankrupt nation? To be honest, I'm not sure. The only thing I can think of is public humiliation of those that oppose his proposals. How would this work? It seems to me that the president could put up a Web site on which he posts a very specific list of things he wants to get cut, including when these proposals will make it to Congress, and, if it does not get approved, who voted against it. The president should go on TV, during prime time, and announce that Congress denied one of his proposals and read out the names of the people that voted against it - and urge the voters to vote these people out of office. Sounds extreme? Perhaps - but it's really the only way I can think of to make those politicians listen to the people!

Of course, this *solution* presumes that the president is honorable. But assuming the moral integrity of one person is alot easier than believing the piety of all of Congress.

What do you think? Would something like this work?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Why BMW sucks

In July of 2005, I fulfilled my childhood dream and purchased a brand new 2006 BMW 330i (with sports package and navigation system). The car's performance and handling was everything I hoped it to be. The styling was beautiful.

But then the disappointments began:
  • Just a couple months after taking delivery of the car, the "Passenger Airbag Off" indicator light came on - while my wife was sitting in the passenger seat! I took it to the dealership. They kept the car for 12 days and declared the problem fixed after replacing the passenger seat sensor mat. A few weeks (or days? I can't remember) after I got my car back, the indicator light turned on again :-( I brought it back to the dealership....they kept it again - this time for 10 days and declared the problem fixed. I took it back....and the problem came back again. When I took the car back to the dealership the third time, I told the technician that I would consider letting them keep the car (under the lemon law) if they didn't fix it this time. And fix it they did (apparently, some software update did the trick :-(
  • Within a year of owning the car (25k miles on it), three of the run-flat, low-profile tires developed bubbles on the side walls - presumably the result of driving on NJ's pothole-ridden roads. I checked the dealership and found out the cost of these suckers: $399/rear tire and $349/front tire...about $1600 for all four tires! I checked the Internet for alternatives and found....NONE. Although Tire Rack carried the Bridgestones (the only run-flat for BMWs) and they were a bit cheaper than the BMW dealership, none were in stock, since there was a shortage and the BMW dealerships had priority on Bridgestone's production....I ended up waiting for 2 months for my tires :-(
    Now I'm at 58k miles and my second set of tires has bubbles again - I dread getting new ones.
  • After only 1 1/2 years, I was getting close to the end of the free maintenance agreement (I was at 40k miles). Since I already had to have the brake pads and rear brake rotors replaced (normally a $1800 cost), I thought it wise to purchase the extended maintenance plan for the "low" price of $1600.
  • At 46k miles, my daughter's rear windshield would not come back up after it was lowered all the way. When I stopped the car, turned off the ignition and removed the key, re-inserted it and restarted the car, the windshield came back up. When this happened again on a Saturday and it began to rain (car was at 48k miles), I took it to the dealership...but of course, the technicians had already gone home for the day - but I showed the problem to my service representative. Since the windshield came back up after I started the engine, I went home...and forgot to bring it Monday - big mistake! Because the next time I remembered - because it happened again - the car was at 55k miles. When I took it to the dealership, they said that the extended maintenance contract I purchased didn't cover these kinds of problems and the warranty ran out at 50k miles!....but because I was a valued customer, they might be able to do a one-time fix for "free". Golly gee! Well, anyway, I left the car there and was called back a few hours later and told the car was fixed and ready - according to the technician, the problem was caused by some stickers my daughter had put on the windshield which had gotten into the mechanism. They took it out and that fixed it. Strange - the next day, the problem occured again. As I was tired of dealing with my car and potentially having to pay for a repair that was clearly a warranty issue, I decided to ignore the problem.
  • Today (07/29/2008) - another big problem: I parked my car and when I took out the ignition key, the navigation system screen went all WHITE and stayed that way - despite the fact that there was no key in the ignition! I tried starting the car again to see if the problem would go away (sometimes, that helped with BMW's bug-ridden electronics) - but no luck. The damn thing just stays on! I thought: ok - maybe I can just disconnect the car battery so that it doesn't get drained overnight and tomorrow I'll take it to the dealership....but, of course, I have no idea how to do that on this car - the f$cking battery is hidden beyond view somewhere and the owners manual doesn't tell you how to get to it! Can you believe this? The battery is totally hidden with only a "terminal" for the positive and a "ground" nut exposed so the car can be jump-started (or help give someone a jump start). So, now the damn battery is slowly draining while I wait for tomorrow....when I'll probably be told that the navigation system broke outside the warranty period and that I'm responsible for who-knows-how-much to fix it.
If that happens, f#ck BMW. I'm going to trade this piece of sh#t in and get a car with less problems. A Honda may not be as fun to drive - but it sure as hell will be more maintainance free and cheaper to fix when it does break.

Just another case of reality falling far short of the dream - or the advertisements.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Ways To Save America

Why is the US becoming a second-rate country? I think that this is the progression of any civilization: there is a youthful stage in which the ambitions and patriotism of its citizens and leaders allow the civilization to grow and prosper. But then, complacency takes hold - people begin to think of their privileges as inalienable rights rather than something to be worked for - and the civilization begins its inevitable decline.

But there are many things Americans could do to stave off this decline. Here is my list:
  1. Take Responsibility For Your Action Or Inaction. Americans, by in large, have become a bunch of whiners. Every day, I meet people complaining about the government, their jobs, their neighbors, their spouses, and on and on. Everything is someone else's fault - never ones own. For example: Americans are lamenting that their jobs are lost to countries like China. China, with its near-slave-labor wages is to blame! Never mind that Americans are buying Chines goods, knowing full well under what conditions said goods are made!
  2. Tort Reform. Huh? Let me explain: since Americans think everything is someone else's fault, they feel justified in trying to extract payment for these wrong-doings. So they spend their time suing each other. Why else, do you think the US has only 5% of the world population, yet 95% of the world's lawyers? Most lawyers in the US perform no useful function other than to encourage, facilitate, and profit from this behavior. Eliminating frivolous lawsuits would allow American companies and individuals to produce goods more cheaply - since they would not have to spend so much time and money defending themselves in court. As a side-benefit, liability insurance rates would go way down. One proposed reform is to simply ask the suing party to pay for the defendant's court costs if the suit is decided in the defendant's favor. Seems fair, doesn't it? Well, guess what powerful lobby is against this ever passing? The lawyers, of course.
  3. Respect. Kids are not taught to respect their elders. Why did I (in Germany) and my wife (in China) grow up respecting our teachers? Because our parents taught us to be respectful and because when we weren't respectful, either the parens or the teacher would smack us! In the US (because of parents not taking responsibility and lawyers eagerly waiting to help parents OR children), teachers would not dare touch a child. Heck, even parents dare not physically punish their child in public for fear of being visited by an overzealous social services department.
  4. More Logic and Less Emotion. When deciding who our political leaders are, Americans too often use their hearts rather than their brains. A friend voted for Bush because he was "pro-gun" and my friend likes to bear arms. It never even occured to him to vote for a President based on what was best for the country. Americans get (and believe!) everything fed to them by the biased news media. They should try to see things through the eyes of other countries by, perhaps, getting some of their information from non-US news sources! A better education would be helpful too.
That's all I can think of. Opinions are welcomed.

Monday, March 10, 2008

New Jersey and Immigration

Today, when I dropped off some information with our accountant, I found him in a bad mood. He railed on and on about how New Jersey is going straight down the toilet - because of the immigrants that have, in his opinion, overrun the state. He talked about how high-paying professionals with small families were selling their expensive, property-tax generating homes and leaving the state while immigrants with low incomes and larger families were moving in and straining the state's coffers by not paying much into the system (according to him, immigrant families not only have more children, but they families also share single-family homes to save money, so they pay less property taxes too).

I thought - oh, my god - another racist, narrow-minded individual. Do I really have to listen to this? But after I left his office, I started thinking about his point. It's certainly true that a larger family(ies), living in a single house definitely pay less property taxes, per capita. It is likely that the state has to subsidize the children's education. So these people are benefiting from the state.

But isn't that the purpose of the government - to serve its people?

Why is he singling out the immigrants? The accountant's error lies in believing that the immigrant families are the only beneficiaries of the state's largess. Far be it from the truth: the accountant himself is leaching off the government by finding tax loopholes for clients such as myself; state workers are cheating/leaching whenever they get a family member, who is not qualified, hired into a government post. The list goes on and on.

I think that when things aren't going well economically, people look outside themselves for blame. For better or worse, it seems like my accountant has found his personal scape goat for all the ills happening in our lovely state.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Education and Americans

Lately (well, more like for the past 10-20 years), American parents, politicians, etc. have spoken of a crisis in the American educational system. Indeed, American kids are woefully behind in academics (especially math and science) compared to children from other nations (e.g. Asia and Europe). Much time and money has been spent on improving K-12 education - with what appears to be only limited success.

One has to ask oneself whether it is really the educational system that needs fixing? Are our teachers really that much worse than teachers in other countries? Are our kids just dumber than those of other countries? I have experience with both the European and American school systems (I went to German schools from K through 7th grade and to American schools from 8th grade through graduate school; my daughter is currently in 4th grade in a US elementary school) and I feel comfortable saying the answer to both questions is NO.

So, what is the problem then?

I think the answer lies in a sense of entitlement that has been growing in Americans since the early days of the country. The US has always been a country rich in natural resources. With the industrial revolution, exploiting those natural resources became inreasingly easy and, as a result, people didn't have to work quite so hard at succeeding. Even without working too hard, there was enough wealth being created that some of it could be passed from generation to generation. Parents not only passed their wealth on to their children, but they also became less demanding of their children: after all, why demand so much from your children when you no longer depend on them to take care of you in your old age? So each successive generation became a little "softer" than the preceding one.

This was fine in the more-or-less closed system that was the US market place. If your fellow American was just as "soft" as you were, you could compete with each other on an even footing. But in the late 80s and early 90s, we increasingly began to live in a global economy. Suddenly, Americans who, for generations, have grown to believe that their education, work ethic, and way of live were the best began to face competitors who grew up in truly cut-throat environments (e.g. Chinese university graduates - who grew up tough because the parents demanded excellence and competition from a billion others did as well).

Americans are simply not equipped to compete. Sure, we can try to improve our schools. We can equip them with the latest tech toys. But the problem is the mindset of the student as well as the parent. American parents don't know how to demand more of their children. And American children have not been taught to be emotionally strong and, thus, can't deal with the tough road ahead of them.

The sad truth is that most Americans don't even realize how weak they have become. It is endemic in American society to blame others. Nobody wants to take responsibility. Not even for their own children.

The only way for this to change is for the next generation of American kids to realize that their standard of living has become less than that of their peers in other countries, and they will then teach their children to be more competitive.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

China Rising

I just came back from my second trip to China. The first one was a 2 week visit in Summer of 2005 and was a whirlwind of impressions from all the places we saw (Beijing, Shanhaiguan, Shanghai, Suzhou, Hanzhou). This time, my wife and daughter spent most of our time in Shanhaiguan with my in-laws. But since we arrived/departed in Beijing, I also got to check up on the Olympic preparations.

China is such a place of contrasts for me: on one hand, I'm thrilled by the energy the whole country exudes. Everyone, especially in the big cities, seems so up-beat and hopeful about the future. The truly gigantic amount of construction going on in the metropolitan areas just serves to underscore this hope for the future. One feels the proverbial dragon awakening. On the other hand, it also feels like China is trading its population's health for a seat at the global economic table. The air quality, at least in all the places I've been to, is truly bad. Based on my short experience breathing this air, I truly believe that the people of China will have a long-term price to pay for all this pollution.

I want to make it clear that I'm not condemning the Chinese for the pollution in their country. Quite the contrary - I'm awed that with over 1 billion people living in the country and it being the factory for the entire world, China is still "just" the second largest polluter in the world (I believe that title still belongs to our good ole' USA). I am simply saddened that the Chinese people have to pay this price. Think about it: the Western world (Europe, US) got to pollute the planet for a few hundred years to achieve its current standard of living - pretty much avoiding paying any penalties for this abuse. The Chinese are now trying to catch up, but with the world already as polluted as it is and with the size of its population, this can no longer be done without consequences. Sad.

Change of subject: Chinese driving style :-) Although roads exhibit plenty of traffic signs, lights, etc., they seem to be generally ignored. People seem to do pretty much as they please. The only thing that seems to be, more or less, observed is the speed limit. That is probably the saving grace in all this traffic chaos - in my two visits to the country, I only saw two traffic accidents (both in Beijing) and they were very minor ones.

Well, that's it for now. In my next installment, I want to talk about Education. Growing up in Germany and the US and having a wife who is Chinese and a daughter that is beginning to go through the US educational system, I want to share my humble (not!) opinions on the subject.