Wednesday, August 31, 2005

For kicks, I just did a Yahoo! search using the words "Muslim", "Pilgrimage", and "Stampede". Take a gander at the results.

Alas, there are some on the radical environmental left who insist on politicizing Hurricane Katrina to serve their own ends. James Glassman spanks them, hard.

House Sale Update...

After offering my house as an exclusive listing for the past month, I've decided to put it on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS™). We had about 30 buyers view the home over the past several weeks. Despite resoundingly positive and complimentary reviews of the house, we had only one interested buyer: the acupuncturist/herbal doctor, who employs bizarre negotiating techniques. (What sort of retard submits a counteroffer that’s less than their original offer? I’m beginning to question the validity of his “doctorate” in herbal medicine.) Now that the house is MLS™ listed, we should see a big jump in buyer traffic, and hopefully more committed “buyers”, rather than curious “browsers”.

The new price? A whopping $310,000. Although we don’t expect to get that, we had to bump up the price to compensate for the 3% broker commission you pay for the privilege of having an MLS™ listing. Plus, I was encouraged to go on the high side after a crazy person four doors down from me put their house on the market Monday morning for $350,000. It’s a nice place, and they’ve put a lot of work into it, but $350K? For a home that’s over 200 square feet smaller than mine? That figure is so far above the standard for my neighborhood, it’s ridiculous. However, from a purely strategic angle, pricing my place at $310,000 makes it look like a screamin’ bargain by comparison. Honestly, (I hope nobody in the Phoenix real estate market is reading this) I would be very happy to be offered $295K.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

I took a break from worrying about my house sale to have some fun with numbers this weekend. I’ve been tinkering with a new technical model I conjured up that has back-tested quite well. I’m using long option positions to limit capital exposure. Here’s what the model came up with for Monday morning:

- Buy 1 Jan 06 IBM 80 Put @ $3.10
- Buy 1 Feb 06 GAP 25 Call @ $4.50
- Buy 1 Jan 06 CIN 40 Call @ $4.60
- Buy 1 Mar 06 XLU 32 Call @ $1.55

No, this is not a recommendation to take positions in these options, so please don’t go and do something stupid. Like I said, I’m tinkering here. For all I know, the model is worthless.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Let's open today's “Media Bias? What Media Bias?” file:

Item A: Putting a human (i.e. Democrat) face on medieval (i.e. Mormon) Utah

Item B: Giving a voice to the silent Democratic majority of dead Iraq War soldiers

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

P. Diddy Announces New Name Change.

Unless his new name is "P. RipOffArtist" or "P. Douchebag", I'm not interested.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Yahoo! started a blogging venture with the American Cancer Society called Blog For Hope™ to raise cancer awareness. For the next month, an eclectic mix of celebrities will write about their experiences and insights about fighting cancer. I found the juxtaposition of the celebrities in this graphic a tad strange.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

House Sale Update…

I came home Monday afternoon to find water streaming from my living room ceiling. This was not the best timing for a roof leak. We had to stall several potential buyers from viewing the house while the roof and ceiling damage is being repaired. Hopefully, things will look good as new by Friday evening. The roof definitely needs to be replaced, but I won’t be tackling that job at this point. Whoever buys the place will have to wrestle with that mess.

On the plus side, 5 other homes in my neighborhood went on the market within a few days of our listing. The average listed price per square foot for those homes is roughly 10% higher than what we’re currently asking. As such, we’ve instructed our agent to raise our price by $10,000.

Monday, August 08, 2005

NEWS FLASH>> Canada Inches Toward Private Medicine

The Canadian healthcare debate (and, increasingly, the American one) has for decades revolved around this central premise:
Universal public healthcare (i.e. Canadian) is a more humane model because everyone is covered regardless of their financial situation, and free market private healthcare (i.e. American) is inhumane because so many people, particularly the poor, are left without adequate medical care.
Allow me to point out some inherent problems with this half-baked assertion.

1) Apples to Oranges…

To say that the US system represents the free market private care model is incorrect, hence, to compare the systems as wholly public vs. wholly private is the wrong way to frame the debate. People need to understand that the American system is not an entirely free enterprise system by any means, thanks to the humongous Medicare and Medicaid bureaucracies. To ignore this fact is to ultimately compare apples to oranges. The politicians and the media in Canada need to stop using such a comparison as part of their propaganda and recognize the fundamental problems with their system, as evidenced by similar systems all over the planet, including the Medicare and Medicaid programs in the US.

2) Public Care = Humane Care…

In Canada, all you hear about is how bad things are on the other side of the border. Consequently, the horror stories of American healthcare are grossly overstated, and the failings of the Canadian system are vastly understated. There are many dirty little secrets about socialized medicine that belie the notion that such a system is the most “humane” way of treating people. Canada aside, it’s not just a handful of countries encountering problems with public care; virtually every nation with a large socialized medical system is grappling with the same issues associated with providing “free” services, primarily the degradation of care due to rationing and shortages. Check out this site and read about the deadly shortcomings of public healthcare. You’ll find a litany of articles that are almost never referenced in the Canadian media.

The perception that a publicly funded universal care monopoly somehow constitutes a more humane system is a grotesque fallacy. Even the architects of the most venerated European public healthcare systems acknowledged that fact to some extent, which is why they didn’t outlaw private health facilities or private insurance. Oddly, Canada is part of a very small club of countries that bans private care and insurance outright, sharing that honor with the likes of Cuba and North Korea.

Canadian healthcare advocates write about public monopolies providing the best form of care to the most vulnerable in society, but how does the mere existence of private care harm those most vulnerable? What about the poor man who was at the center of the recent Supreme Court decision that outlawed the Quebec health monopoly, the guy who needed hip replacement surgery but had to wait over a year? Does he not qualify as vulnerable? If he had the means to buy insurance that would have covered his surgery within a reasonable timeframe, what is so wrong with that? This man should suffer in pain for months on end to preserve the principle of universality? Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that universality keeps “the rich” from “jumping the line” ahead of "the poor". People with the means to do so simply take a short ride across the US border if they do not want to wait in the Canadian line for care. What is so wrong with letting them get the care they wish to pay for in their own backyard instead?

All that being said, I am not an advocate of the American healthcare system in its current form. Contrary to the popular Canadian myth, the American system is not some giant capitalist marketplace that squeezes innocent, sick grannies of their hard-earned pennies. In reality, the system is a hodge-podge of both private and public care that’s been cobbled together over the years, and mangled by politicians and bureaucrats who’ve stifled the private market’s ability to deliver care at a reasonable cost. The answer to solving the problems of the US system is not more bureaucracy and public care. The correct answer is to let the market for healthcare operate more freely. If you allow the providers and insurers operate in a competitive environment, it will lead to more options and lower prices.

What we have to remember is that people are “consumers” of healthcare. When you give “consumers” a free service in a monopoly environment, as in free universal healthcare, they will tend to consume more of it than they otherwise would. In other words, what you have is a situation where the demands for the free service are never met by the limited means of the service provider, the government monopoly. This leads to chronic problems with shortages, rationing and higher costs for the delivery of the free service. This is Economics 101, folks. It applies whether we are talking about making widgets or performing bypass surgery. Why some people insist on perpetuating a system that is unsustainable is beyond my comprehension.

3) Private Care = Inhumane Care…

At my weekly office meeting a few weeks ago, there was a discussion about my co-worker's sister, who’s been battling lymphoma for some time. She used to work for a cutting edge healthcare technology company, and through her contacts was able to get some phenomenal stem cell treatment. In a nutshell, her doctors were able to harvest her stem cells and apply some revolutionary technique to essentially replace her immune system. So far, she’s doing great. Although it wasn’t stated explicitly, it was clear from the tone of the conversation that followed that it was 1) a shame that such a breakthrough treatment was so expensive (probably at least $1million), and 2) a greater shame that not everyone with lymphoma had free, unfettered access to such treatment.

Duh! If such treatment were free, who would spearhead the enormously costly research and development that would yield such treatments in the first place? Without a means to recoup investments in such things, how would companies stay in business, let alone exist in the first place? Medical technology is no different than any other technology in terms of its core business model. It goes something like this: A company invests in product development. It sells that product to a relatively small market for a hefty price to recoup the costs of development. The product matures, bugs are worked out, and efforts to expand the market are taken. Prices come down as competition enters the marketplace to meet demand for the product. The company invests its profits in improving the product and developing new ones. And the cycle continues unabated…

The product lifecycle is a relatively simple one which has been proven successful time and time again. Just because the lives of lymphoma patients would otherwise be saved if they had access to it in the early stages of the cycle does not change the basic equation. Providing it for free may benefit a few people today, but it harms countless numbers tomorrow because there would be no incentive to advance revolutionary technologies any further.

4) The Uncovered Millions…

Contrary to Canadian myth, the number of Americans living without medical coverage is grossly exaggerated. The oft-repeated line about 1/3 of Americans being without health insurance is utterly and patently false. Even the most ardent American universal care advocates say there are roughly 43 million uninsured Americans. That’s 14%, which is a far cry from 33%. Of course, using those figures is being quite generous to the universal care cause. Unbiased estimates of the uninsured come in between 25 and 30 million, taking the percentage down to 8% - 10%. Interestingly, there’s ample research showing that nearly half of that 8%-10% is made up of people who have the means of purchasing health insurance but choose not to do so. As the old sayings goes, “you can lead the horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” To impose universal care on everyone would be to forcibly lead the horse to the water spigot and thread a hose down its throat. Making matters worse, there would only be a limited number of spigots, and no guarantee that the water would be running at all times. Plus, the horse’s owner would have to pay for the privilege of having access to the spigot and hose, yet have no input into their working condition. Maybe that’s taking an analogy a bit too far, but you get the idea.

Frankly, I understand where medical service providers like doctors and nurses are coming from when they make their pitch for universal care. On the frontlines, it’s tough to watch people seemingly get “screwed” by the system, citing the refrain “if only they had health insurance.” But good intentions do not always result in sound public policy. Countries all around the globe have experimented with public care in one form or another for the past 50 years. What’s becoming readily clear, particularly in this era of rapidly aging populations, is that these models simply do not provide the masses with the medical benefits that were intended. There’s no sense clinging to a bad idea in spite of good intentions. At some point in the near future, many countries, including Canada and the US, are going to have to face their tattered systems head-on, and make the requisite changes that will improve medical care for everyone. I only hope the powers that be will allow for a sensible injection of market forces into the bureaucratic nightmare the healthcare systems have become.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

4 bedroom, 2 bath charmer near the Squaw Peak Hwy and Paradise Valley Mall for only $285,000!

My house has been on the market for less than a week and we’ve already received the first offer. Some acupuncturist/herbal remedy doctor offered to pay our full list price, but he wants kickbacks for some closing costs and contingencies for any repairs that his inspector may turn up. In this hot market, that sort of thing is passe. We’ll be rejecting the offer.

Aside from the pin doctor, several others have seen the house. When our broker called us this morning to say he scheduled an East Indian couple to view our home at 10am, I told my wife, “Quick, light the curry scented candles!” She thought I was being racist, I thought I was simply being pragmatic. Go figure.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

NEWS FLASH>> Bathurst mill closes, hundreds lose jobs

Rumors of an impending closure have been circulating for the better part of the last 15 years, since Stone Container Corp. took over the mill. It was spared closure in the late ‘90s after Stone merged with Smurfit, but just barely. On old roommate of mine who works for the management consulting firm that facilitated the merger told me that the only thing that saved the mill then was the depressed state of the Canadian dollar. He said that if the dollar ever recovered, the mill would surely be mothballed.

Well, the Canadian dollar has strengthened by 30% over the past 3 years, so guess what? The Bathurst mill has closed. What a shocker!

I’m going to keep an eye on the Op-Ed page of the local paper over the next few weeks. If I’m right, I’m probably going to find plenty of opinion pieces and letters to the editor from disgruntled workers bemoaning the closure and castigating those evil American fat-cat Smurfit-Stone executives.

Personally, If I was a laid-off mill worker, I’d save my ink for my union bosses, who should have warned me years ago that the $40/hour money train I’d been riding wasn’t going to keep chugging along forever, that no amount of bitching or cajoling from the union would keep my job safe from the threats posed by foreign competition and exchange rates, and that I would do well to save a few bucks along the way to soften the blow when the axe finally came down.

But hey, that’s just me.

In politics, image is everything…

Since the 1960 televised Nixon-Kennedy debates, political image casting has emerged as a vital part of any well-honed campaign, whether you’re running for local dog-catcher or President of the United States. That’s why I find it so strange when I come across a candidate who could, despite a costly, high-profile campaign, very well find themselves coming up short at the ballot box due to a seemingly minor thing that undermines their otherwise carefully crafted image.

Case in point, there’s a candidate currently running for Phoenix City Council who has signs plastered all over the neighborhood near my office. The text of the signs read:
“Elect Jarrett B. Maupin II. Putting the People Back into Politics”
Whoever drafted the text of these signs, assuming it wasn’t Mr. Maupin himself, should be fired from the campaign, asap. Judging from the slogan, he’s clearly running on a populist theme, however, the branding of his name belies his message. The middle initial and the numerical moniker suffix “II” convey pretentiousness. In a very mixed socio-economic district with a large cross-section of poor and lower middle class residents, like the one in which Mr. Maupin “II” is running, pretension is not a quality that translates into votes, no matter how populist the message. My guess is he may finally come to understand that after he concedes defeat on Election Day.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Office politics can be fun sometimes...

My basketcase client in Florida offered me a job today. The verbatim conversation went like this:
Client: Would you be interested in coming to work for us?

Ace: No.

Client: Why not?

Ace: Because your boss is a psychopath.

Client: Oh...(long pause) you know of anyone who might be interested?

Ace: No.
It's been several years since I declined a job offer. Though I'm usually quite flattered when such offers come my way, I took some perverse pleasure in squashing this one vigorously, as the client's boss truly is a psychopath. He berated me in an unprovoked fit of rage during my last on-site visit back in February. After which, I packed up my things and headed straight to the airport, never to return. Now the psychopath has backed himself into a corner by horribly mismanaging his IT staff, and has unwittingly made me an essential and indispensible resource in the process. Not a very smart move, considering I'm an outside vendor who's unbeholden to him. Hence, the job offer.

Will wonders never cease…

What do you do when you have a stagnant economy, a decade of languid private sector growth and an unemployment rate stuck above the 10% mark? The French, who just happen to fit that bill, have come up with a not-so-novel idea to jumpstart their ailing economy: reform the labor laws to reduce punitive government regulations on small business. Though there’s no better economic catalyst than a broad tax cut, the French government simply couldn’t bring themselves to adopt such a policy, so they went for the next best thing. Bravo!

As if on cue, French union leaders denounced the new measures and vowed to hold massive street demonstrations in protest. What better way for the French people to usher in a major job growth initiative than by staging a nationwide strike? How fitting.