How many roads must a man drive down?

I kept my mouth shut last week. Maybe I shouldn’t have. Seriously, how many elderly drivers have to injure or kill people in the course of just one month before we young whippersnappers do something? Please keep in mind, the month isn’t over yet. More carnage could be coming to a fruit market or street corner near you. Drivers who should not be on the road anymore are a danger not only to us, but also to themselves.

Now, please understand, I do not support simply having a maximum driving age. I do, however, think there needs to be some way to get dangerous drivers off the road. We have ways of getting drunk drivers off the road. We have had great success in reducing the accident rate among young drivers through better instruction and “graduated license” programs. In fact, both of the last two big teenager crashes I can think of involved young people in violation of their license limitations. There must be a way to make sure that elderly drivers are competent behind the wheel.

We can start by making a driving road test mandatory to receive or renew a handicapped parking tag. Every time I see some Mercury or Buick parked badly more or less “in” a handicapped parking spot, I think to myself “Here is someone who couldn’t even wedge their vehicle between the extra wide lines of a handicapped spot at less than 5 mph. How on earth do they manage to keep between the lines of the road at 35 mph, let alone higher speeds?” What about people who need the tag because they drive for a handicapped relative? Let them go to the DMV in person and fill out an affidavit to that affect. It will be up to the professionals at the DMV to determine whether a driving test is necessary. These professionals, by the way, should keep several newspaper pictures of crashes posted prominently in their workspace, as a reminder of what can happen should rules be bent.

Perhaps we should also have regular road tests for drivers over, say, 75. While we are at it, we could say that drivers with certain types and quantities of traffic tickets should get road tests when they renew. I am not talking about a new test every year. Maybe once every 3 to 5 years. And yes, states are going to have to spend some money on testing. They could recoup some losses by having a “retest fee” on any driver who takes a driving test more than once in the course of a month, regardless of age. Such a fee would certainly make marginal drivers rethink their test date. It might make them think twice about retesting at all.

Now lets take a few minutes to examine the criticism to doing much of anything about this problem:

It’s discriminatory! Yes, and so are senior citizen discounts. For that matter, so are retirement villages. You are grown-ups. Deal with it. Life is not always fair.

How are they supposed to get to the grocery store and to Doctor’s appointments? Let me get this straight, we are supposed to allow dangerous drivers to be a menace to people, property, and themselves so they can get to the Doctor’s office? The idea that people whose licenses are revoked will be stranded is certainly a problem, but not so big a problem that we should allow people to drive who are proven to be unsafe behind the wheel. The wonderful thing about a market economy is that I can say without fear of contradiction that someone will come up with a safe and sane solution to this problem.

The driver isn’t always to blame. Often older people drive older cars, which are more prone to mechanical problems such as sudden acceleration, stuck throttles, and failing brakes. If this is valid, then we should also be hearing about a lot more cases of people between 20 and 50 having mechanical failure induced wrecks, shouldn’t we? In the old days, many states had safety inspections, and some still do. Perhaps mores states should have such tests. Often conducted by your friendly neighborhood (but state certified) mechanic, he would among other things they make sure the brakes worked, the the horn was loud enough, and that all the lights worked. These tests were a big pain, but they did make sure unsafe vehicles got fixed or taken off the road. Unfortunately, these tests had the side effect of making cars too expensive to maintain for some poor people, some of whom also happened to be elderly. Of course, this does not address the issue that most “sudden acceleration” is in fact “user error” and that some “failed brakes” may simply be legs too frail to properly depress the pedal in an emergency braking situation.

No matter what you say, elderly drivers still have fewer accidents than teenagers! Yes, that’s true. It doesn’t take into account that elderly drivers drive less. It doesn’t account for the fact that elderly drivers are usually more experienced drivers who should “know better.” And it doesn’t account for the 27% rise in elderly people killed in car wrecks in a decade where total auto fatalities dropped. Besides which, many states now restrict teen driving. They do it because they care, and want their kids to stay alive. Oh, and not kill anybody else either.

You are blaming everyone for a few bad apples. No, we’d just like to get the bad apples off the road to keep all of us safe, even you.

So what if elderly drivers are going a bit more slowly? What’s the problem? What’s your hurry? If all these drivers were doing was going a bit slow, I don’t believe anyone would have a problem. But look at the 10 links to accidents in the first paragraph! How many of those wrecks were caused by “going too slow”? The slow driving is unfortunately often a compensation for slower reaction times and poorer eyesight — both of which cause crashes.

This is an excuse to herd old people into concentration camps! Putting all of us into one place is the only way you can make sure we have “transportation,” and when we are too expensive to take care of you will euthanize us! Do you really think the AARP will allow that to happen?

Driving tests are a bad idea because the test will make Seniors nervous. That almost guarantees they will fail. If they are getting nervous and messing up in a driving test, then they are getting nervous and messing up in traffic emergencies too. Like when that pedestrian steps in front of them. Or the light all of a sudden turns red. Or when the “accelerator sticks.” Or when they see those emergency vehicles in the rear view mirror. Or when that young fool behind them starts beeping because the light turned green a whole second ago. Or when they get cut off in traffic. You can at least study and practice for a test. You can’t study and practice for a traffic emergency.

Hitting the gas instead of the brake can happen to anybody. And when was the last time you heard of this happening to anyone who was not either elderly or inexperienced?

The AARP is going to lobby hard against any change to the status quo. They have to; their membership demands it. However, they are going to have to come up with a better solution than checklists and voluntary driving refresher classes.

“Let your Light so shine before men”

Yesterday’s news includes the footnote that a church in Milford, Connecticut is buying out an adult movie store. The congregation raised $245,000 to do it. Almost a quarter of a million dollars. What else could they have done with that money?

They could have given 16 people full time jobs at minimum wage with benefits. Alternatively, they could have hired 8 people at a salary of $30,000 per year. They could have “adopted” a dozen needly families, and helped them with everything their meager earnings would not cover.

They could have fed 150 homeless people a meal, each and every day of the year. They could have paid a years rent at $500 per month on 40 apartments to help homeless families transition out of shelters. They could have bought and distributed over 11000 Bibles. They could have purchased over 3600 winter coats for needy people.

They could have given full scholarships to 29 underprivileged children to attend the Academy of Our Lady of Mercy – Lauralton Hall in Milford. They could send 78 children to private schools with the Cato Institute’s average tuition of $3116.

They could have bought a years supply of birth control pills for 510 impoverished married women, preventinggod-alone-knows how many abortions, and helping poor families keep from becoming even poorer by allowing them to control the size of their families.

They could have purchased 22 Toyota Echos and replaced an equal number of old junkers that were unreliable, got lousy milage, and polluted “God’s Creation” more than new cars.

They could have sent 70 letters to each of the 3500 people on Death Row in the entire United States, or 12 letters to each and every one of the over 19,000 people in Connecticut prisons. They could have sent a $10 “get well” gift after each of Yale-New Haven Hospital’s annual 22,000 surgical operations.

They could have taken over 40,000 people to see a movie.

The really ironic part of this entire saga is that it will not put the former owner out of business at all. Could they really honestly have thought he would say to himself “Oh well, no more adult entertainment business for me. I think I’ll become a laundromat attendant”? No, he’ll use that money to rebuild, and have a new bigger place of business in a couple of months. Maybe just down the street! If the church got a non-compete clause in the sale, he will set up as close as is allowed, or get a court to set the agreement aside. His former customers will visit his new business, but his employees may not be so lucky, depending on their available transportation.

The only thing they have truly accomplished is knowing there’s no adult entertainment nearby — Not In My Back Yard. At least for today.

The Scales Scream for Ice Cream

Even the “researchers” began this scoop with the concession that “Everyone knows icecream is not health food.” From the very beginning, this sounds like another missive from the Duhpartment of Stupid Research. However, I think it was a little surprising to many to find out that a deluxe ice cream cone might run as much as 800 calories. That a sundae might be over 1200 calories. That a mere milkshake might pack in a thousand calories — and that’s for plain vanilla. Or that the “fat free” frozen yogurt might have 11 grams of fat.

Talk about a diet buster. Even if you are of normal weight and metabolism, you’ll feel this on the scales. Regardless of your opinion regarding the role and impact of dietary fat, the mere calories easily equal a meal — or two! Keep in mind, they haven’t even compiled figures on the refined sugars in any of these products. And good luck finding nutritional information on their websites; you can find it sometimes if you have the time and energy and a knack for Googling. This data might be “available on request” at the respective store, assuming they have any data sheets left, and assuming the employee on duty knows where they are kept and can get to them. For that matter, any data you are actually able to lay hands on assumes that the employee does not inadvertently “super size” your order by, say, cramming 6 ounces in a 4 ounce serving, or maybe giving you “the real deal” instead of the fat/sugar/taste free item you requested.

At least if you make a sundae at home, you have the labels of each product you use handy, and can control serving sizes accordingly. If you use 8 ounces of ice cream and 4 tablespoons of Hershey’s Syrup — naturally fat free! — you and you alone are to blame for the calories.

And to think they didn’t bother to look at the nutritional information for Dairy Queen.

Do You Beleive in Little Things?

Today’s science news includes the idea that scientists have created stain-free pants! I confess, my knee-jerk reaction to this news was “Wake me when they are sold at Mervyn’s for less than $100 a pair.” To my great surprise you can actually purchase them at Eddie Bauer, for a mere $10 premium. The company claims they have sold well since their introduction in 2001 — begging the question of why this is in today’s news. Shirts of similarly treated fabric are supposedly available, with jackets to follow this fall. This is clearly a boon to those who still have a propensity towards spilling things on themselves, usually at inopportune moments, such as right before a job interview.

Strictly speaking, nanotechnology is nothing more than the science of making things that are very small. Things like better skin lotions, batteries that last longer, or anti-stain coatings for fabric. The public idea of nanotech, however, includes such “flying car” ideas as microscopic robots that cure disease, and cars that can repair themselves. Nanotech is seen as “revolutionizing” everything from medical products to environmental cleanup to crime prevention. Even the government wants in on this act.

Intelligent people who you may or may not agree with, like Steve Forbes and Joe Lieberman, say this is such a clearly up and coming field that people should invest in it. Not just as individuals, but as corporations and venture capitalists and governments. They cite figures saying that it could be a $1 Trillion business in 15 years.

Others say this is a dangerous trend, which should be closely monitored, lest there be horrible unforeseen results. This is particularly true of military applications of nanotech. It does not take a tin-foil hat to see the possibility that weapons using the technology of the very small — say, pocket sized nuclear devices, or listening devices no larger than a flea, or even weapons-resistant coatings for tanks and aircraft — could be very dangerous in the “wrong” hands.

Still others think nanotech a tempest in a teapot, perhaps interesting, but not paradigm shifting. Sure, nanotech is interesting, but is it cost effective? Can it ever live up to its promises? Remember that not long ago, everyone was convinced that the Internet would change everyone’s lives in unimaginable ways. When all is said and done, the biggest change for most of us is the ability to find a startling amount of information without leaving home, and without living in a research library. The nay-sayers have a half-century of “world of tomorrow” exhibits to point to as they say that things rarely turn out exactly as planned.

I think I’d be very careful about investing in nanotech. Investors might be better off waiting for 3M and DuPont to buy out the small companies with actual viable products. In the meantime, I think I’ll see if those Eddie Bauer pants come in a 26″ inseam.

Just an Idea

Now make no mistake! I like my car, and I like driving it. I like getting around town whenever and by whatever route I choose.

The car has made suburbia possible, along with it’s unpleasant sibling, urban sprawl. It has given rise to great shopping palaces, and in some cases destroyed downtown retail districts. The car makes it possible to cross town in a timely fashion, regardless of bus schedules, and thus undercuts the feasibility of mass transit. The car gives unprecedented independence to millions of adults, including some who should possibly give that independence up, and those who perhaps should never have had it. While the car makes gainful employment possible for millions of people, they are expensive to purchase and maintain; they are a major budgetary drain on the finances of many families.

The car is also a source of pollution, including suspected greenhouse gasses. This has resulted in many states mandating regular emissions testing — a minor inconvenience to most, but a potentially disastrous expense for some. Cars are a contributor to American dependence on foreign oil. They are death on wheels to hundreds of thousands of people each year. Collectively, Americans lose years of time on freeways commuting in rush hour traffic. There is no positive aspect to counterbalance these issues.

Since it seems clear that the EPA knows more about making regulations than helping communities implement them, and that furthermore tax reform and simplification is not apt to happen any decade soon, I have a modest proposal. <Give a tax break to people who live within 5 miles of their primary work address. This can be verified by Zip code of employee and employer, although large multi-location employers may have to add the address of the work facility to the W-2 form. At the same time, a tax break could be given to both companies and employees that telecommute. Maybe even a plain old fashioned deduction for mass transit monthly passes, although I admit that many people who take the bus currently do not have enough deductions to itemize.

This proposal makes mass transit a reasonable alternative to driving oneself. It also makes car-pooling more realistic. It has the potential to revitalize urban areas. It opens the possibility that some people will choose to walk or bike to work. That could only have a positive impact on the American obesity epidemic. In any event, those who still choose to drive to work will spend less time in traffic — even those who still live relatively far from their jobs. In addition to wasting less time, wasting less energy, creating less pollution, workers may actually end up spending more time with their families, more time to participate in their communities.

Under this idea, nobody will be prevented from owning the biggest baddest SUV he can afford to gas up. Instead, individuals will be encouraged to choose complementary home and work locations. I doubt many people will move 3 miles to get the deduction, but for those moving to a new town it will be a valid consideration. It may encourage developers to think in terms of larger communities with nearby businesses and sidewalks, instead of a few hundred houses here and there.

Context Is Everything

“Context is Everything.” That was the favorite saying of a former professor and academic advisor I had. The first day I met him, my first day on campus as a fresh-faced youngster, he attempted to talk me out of my major. I rather resented it at the time. I gradually came to understand his thinking, and wish that instead of something so heavy-handed, he’d suggested a minor in another subject.

So please consider the context when you read that Dick Cheney’s Energy Task Force discussed Iraqi oil-field contracts (as well as some in Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.) when they met in early 2001. The subject of much debate and legal wrangling, these records were formally requested by Congress on April 19, 2001. That happens by sheer coincidence to be the 8th anniversary of the Branch Davidian Fire in Waco, and the 6th anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing. More than two years after the fact, after a great deal of moaning about executive privilege and more than one court date, some of the requested information has finally surfaced. The fact that there were records to subpoena means the meetings took place before April 19, 2001, two years before the American led invasion and “liberation” of Iraq.

Remember early 2001? That was before there was a Department of Homeland Defense. Indeed, that was before the New York City skyline met with violent change. Iraq was, despite occasional grumbling, a dead issue. We were officially in a recession (but be of good cheer, it’s supposed to be over now). Seattle was cleaning up from a magnitude 6.8 earthquake. Bush finished his first hundred days in office at the end of April. Indeed, people were still wondering if, in the end, he was duly elected. The big chair in the Oval Office wasn’t even warm yet when the subpoena arrived. No Child Left Behind was still a pipe dream. An American spy plane was captured by China. It would be most of a year before Ashcroft spent $8000 of taxpayer money to cover a statue entitled “Spirit of Justice” allegedly because it displayed bare bosoms, forcing the civilized world to wonder if he had ever so much as driven past an art museum. It was still acceptable to have no revenues and give product away for free, or even sell product at a terrible loss, as long as your company had “.com” in its name. Indeed, that was before the California energy crisis, resulting in astronomical prices and rolling blackouts — please pay in advance for unreliable power. Enron was considered a nice, stable, energy company despite the fact that they would declare bankruptcy by the end of the year. British cattle herds were being decimated by “foot-and-mouth disease.” Kids sucking down sugary sodas was linked to obesity. The human genome was newly mapped. The Code Red virus was months away.

So, if I may be so bold as to ask, why exactly were Dick Cheney, Ken Ley, and their handpicked crew of cronies talking about divvying up Iraqi oil contracts? And should King Fahd worry that his people are to be “liberated” next?

Bond, 30-Year Bond.

This morning, the nice folks on CNBC’s Squawk Box were discussing the possibility of bringing back the 30-Year Treasury Bond. A Treasury Bond is, in short, your very own piece of the National Debt. Instead of sending the President down to the local Citibank chapter to put a mortgage on Yellowstone, the United States Treasury — the same folks to whom you write that check enclosed with the 1040 — issues bonds. They pay you interest for the term of the bond (2, 5, 10 years) in return for using your money to run the government. But wait, there’s more! These bonds are a liquid investment, meaning you can buy and sell them fairly easily. You don’t have to hold a bond to the bitter end to get your money back. Even if you don’t have one of these in your brokerage account or safe deposit box, you still probably own some of these bonds, because they are often used by banks, brokerages, and mutual funds as an interest-bearing place-holder. Treasury Bonds are considered a very safe investment because they are backed by the United States Government, an entity unlikely to default (or, declare the bonds worthless).

A few years ago, the government stopped issuing the 30-year Treasury Bond. At the time, there was a budget surplus and the national debt was shrinking. It made sense to reduce the number and kinds of bonds out there. It made sense to get rid of what national debt was left in a shorter time frame than 30 years. It made sense not to pay 30 years worth of interest. It was the government equivalent of paying down a credit line and cutting up the credit card. Besides which, the stock market had long since peaked, and I believe there was the unspoken hope that with one less type of bond available, money would make its way to corporate bonds and common stocks. Stock market recovery was vital to the idea of “privatizing Social Security.”

But things have changed since then. The budget surplus is gone. The national debt is rising, buoyed on a rising tide of Homeland Security and War On Terror and tax cuts upon tax cuts. Interest rates are at historic lows, even on a 30-year basis, as proved by America’s collective mailbox full of mortgage and refinance offers. Peter Fisher, the man credited with killing the 30-Year Treasury, is moving on. Bloomberg sees an open door.

The Squawk Box online poll results were 74% in favor of bringing back the 30-Year. Keep in mind, this is not a population of day-trading soccer moms, but predominantly licensed financial industry professionals who happen to have time to respond to an unscientific online poll during the hours when the markets are opening. If this is consistent with the opinions of people with actual authority, consider the return of the 30-year a done deal.

Should it be announced that that new 30-Year Treasury Bonds will be issued, I believe the major stock market indices will go down. This will happen for two main reasons. First, it will mean the Feds are admitting that budget deficits and the national debt will be with us for the foreseeable future. So much for shrinking the government; farewell fiscal responsibility. It will be evident that the government needs 30 years to pay its debts. That bodes ill for the economy, and therefore the stock market. The other reason this will cause market declines is that some investors will take money out of stocks in favor of the new bond. Why? Because it is perceived as safe. After all, if you can’t trust the Federal Government, who can you trust?

Health Class is Over, Have a Mountain Dew!

It probably will show my age to say that I first encountered a school vending machine in High School. The things have become ubiquitous… or have they? After years of “exclusive placement” deals, schools are being forced to either remove vending machines, or at very least offer whatever is considered “healthy” this week in the machines. These days, that means things like fruit juice, skim milk, and unsalted pretzels. To say sports drinks somehow fall in the “healthier” category is disingenuous, considering the sugars and empty calories they contain.

Of course we all know that the rise of the school vending machine is purely coincidental with rising rates of youth obesity, obesity related diseases such as adult onset diabetes, and learning disabilities such as ADD and ADHD. These things have nothing to do with giving children as young as first grade — with the judgment of children — unfettered access to all the soda and candy they can afford to stuff in their mouths. How could it be otherwise?

It is furthermore painfully obvious that students are a captive audience. If only Coke is available, students will drink Coke. If only Pepsi is there, then Pepsi is the drink of choice. If this is in opposition to what is available at home, so be it. Branding at its very worst. And that is before considering that vending machine snacks may be keeping students from eating the theoretically more balanced lunches available in the cafeteria. Theoretically. Go ahead and Google up “school lunches” and you will likely find dozens of menus in the first 3 pages of links. Decide for yourself whether you consider the meals nutritious and balanced.

Of course the reason vending machines are popular in schools is the same reason you will find them in apartment complexes and shopping malls and a hundred other places: revenue. The companies that place vending machines, as you may or may not know, pay a portion of the proceeds for the privilege of placing a sure money-maker. In an age of schools which believe they are poorly funded, this revenue may make the difference between a bare-bones no-nonsense education ad the availability of extracurricular activities. Some cynics suggest that our schools are in much more dire need, making this revenue the difference between ancient outdated textbooks and new ones.

The school day is the one chance some kids have to eat anything approaching a balanced meal, whether because of parental lack of interest of parental lack of money. Vending machines in schools undermine that ideal. To sell that dream in return for a few hundred dollars is unconscionable.

So, Where is there a 5 Star Restaurant in Omaha?

One lucky soul had the winning eBay bid of $250,000. The money goes to charity, the bidder goes to lunch. This is no ordinary lunch, of course, but lunch with the second richest man in the world, Warren Buffett.
Buffett is a legendary investor, and Chairman of Berkshire-Hathaway. Perhaps more remarkable regarding his reputation as an investor is the fact that he shuns technology stocks, claiming he does not understand them well enough to invest in them. One can imagine that his friend, the man who nudged Buffett aside from the position of richest man in the world, Bill Gates might be persuaded to tutor him in this regard.

Berkshire-Hathaway, by the way, is a rather legendary company in its own right. They are a holding company, whose subsidiaries are mostly but not exclusively insurance companies. The two subsidiaries you are most likely to have heard of are GEICO and Dairy Queen. At this writing, it will cost you over $70K to buy a single class “A” share of Berksire-Hathaway. There is no dividend. The company paid Buffett a salary of $294K in 2002. That’s not much more than the cost of this little luncheon.

As with many men of wealth beyond being able to spend it, he is also a bit of a philanthropist. Previous charity lunches, held in San Francisco and not auctioned on eBay, went for $25-32K. These lunches have gone from the price of a nice car to the price of a nice 4 bedroom house in many areas of the country. The winner does get to bring 7 companions, bringing the price per plate down to $31,250 — assuming the actual food is included in the price tag.

I sincerely hope the winner is doing this because he or she wishes to help the charity beneficiary, and not thinking to pick up a quarter million dollar stock tip.