Score one for property rights in St. Louis

Former mayor Vincent “Mel Carnahan’s just a redneck from Rolla” Schoemel’s eminent domain crusade against an auto mechanic’s garage is over.

58-year-old Jim Day gets to keep his business.Grand Avenue is a north-south drag in St. Louis that has seen better days, especially on the north side. But in all fairness it’s seen worse days too. Some 20 years ago an abandoned movie palace reopened as the Fox Theater, a venue for live music, comedy, and other shows that are too small to fill an arena but too large for a nightclub. I was going to say “too classy” for either, but while that would apply to Tori Amos, I don’t think that applies to Larry the Cable Guy.

Nearby, another former movie palace is now Powell Symphony Hall. The St. Louis Symphony plays there.

Grand makes sense as an area for redevelopment. It already has lots of attractions. The Saint Louis University campus is there. And there are a large number of vacant buildings there.

And while I suppose Jim Day’s garage, which looks like it once was an Amoco station, may not fit into everyone’s vision of a ritzy high-society stretch of town, the fact is that the people Schoemel wants to attract to Grand aren’t going to live right there. Drive onto the side streets of Grand, and you’ll find working-class neighborhoods–the kinds of people who need a decent mechanic. Most of them rent, rather than own. They’re the kinds of people who don’t really have lots of disposable income to be spending at an art gallery. A lot of them are immigrants or the sons and daughters of immigrants who are still trying to establish themselves and have dreams of buying homes elsewhere. An auto mechanic is a good thing for them to have nearby. An art gallery is little more than a distraction to their American dream.

So I’m glad the garage gets to stay. And if Schoemel really wants to rejuvinate the neighborhood and make the rejuvination stick (rather than just be concerned about appearances), it seems to me the area really could use a good-sized grocery store. The further someone has to drive to get groceries, the less likely he or she is to want to live there.

But what do I know? I’m just a working-class citizen. Schoemel probably thinks I’m a redneck too.

The story of MTH vs. Lionel

Inc. Magazine published a story about the MTH v. Lionel lawsuit which ultimately led to a $40 million judgment against Lionel.The article has a lot of good information in it, including insights on how Lionel and MTH came to be such bitter rivals. There’s lots of hearsay out there but aside from combing through very old magazine articles I never found much about the MTH/Lionel relationship that existed in the 1990s. This article isn’t a complete picture either but it gives details that I hadn’t seen elsewhere.

The article mostly paints a sympathetic picture of MTH, at one place saying “[MTH owner] Mike [Wolf] is not sparkling lily white in all this,” but not really elaborating. But I can’t blame the author for this.
Mike Wolf and MTH are willing to talk and Lionel isn’t.

It’s a story of industrial espionage and the downsides of using (or being) contractors, outsourcing, and overproduction, and the rise and fall of the American Dream. The question, yet unresolved, is whether it’s Mike Wolf’s American Dream that’s falling, or Joshua Lionel Cowen’s. Or both.

Side note: Speaking as a journalist, this article is a good reason why it’s good to talk to the press, even when your lawyers may not want you to. You have to win, or at least compete, in the court of public opinion as well as in the court of law. Run what you say through the lawyers if you have to, but make sure you say something. If you decline comment, the next-best place for the writer to get information about you is from the other side, which is the last place you want information about you to come from.

In this case, to look less like the bad guy, Lionel wouldn’t have had to say much of anything that damaged the case. Make some general statement about the case. Even if it’s rehashed from a press release, it looks better than “Lionel and its owners declined to comment for this story.” And then go in for the kill. “Why don’t you ask QSI what it thinks of MTH?” QSI is a former MTH subcontractor currently engaged in a separate lawsuit. QSI might not say much, but now the writer has some dirt on the rival to go chase down. It might have only resulted in one more line being in the story, something like, “Ironically, MTH, years after being a Lionel subcontractor, is now engaged in a separate and unrelated lawsuit with QSI, one of its former subcontractors.” With that information in the story, Lionel still doesn’t look like a poor, innocent little puppy (it isn’t), but it makes MTH look less like one (it isn’t either).

How to get rich–the Biblical way

Money is a controversial topic in Christian circles. On the one hand you’ve got people who say money is the root of all evil. The other extreme says if you do the right things, God will reward you with health and wealth and who knows what else.(This was the topic of my Bible study last night, in case you’re wondering. And I’m short of material, so I’m recycling. I’m also mixing in some insights people shared.)

For the record, 1 Timothy 6:10 says money is a root–not the root–of all kinds of evil. That’s somewhat less of a strong statement than saying it’s the root of all evil. So, money causes problems, yes, but it’s not the cause of every problem in this world.

To see some other causes and symptoms of evil, see 2 Timothy 3:2.

Isaiah 55:2 asks why we spend our money on what is not bread (when the Bible says “bread,” it’s frequently referring to the necessities of life such as basic food, clothing, and shelter) and on things that don’t satisfy. The main reason we do it is because we’re surrounded by messages that say this product or that product will change our lives. And while some products have changed lives, let’s think about it for a minute: Those kinds of things tend to come along once a generation, if that. I’m talking about things like the airplane, the automobile, and before those things, the railroad. Computers belong in that category. But the soda we drink is not going to change our lives, at least not for the better. Drink soda instead of water and it could make your life worse–regardless of what that 7up commercial with the bear says.

The American Dream is to give the next generation things the previous generation doesn’t have. Some have said that dream is dead, because we’ve become so affluent that we can’t think of what the next generation can possibly get that we didn’t have.

But it’s not working. Our kids have entertainment centers in their room that give a more life-like experience than the movie theaters of 20 years ago. They’ve got videogame machines that play better games than you could find in an arcade a couple of years ago. They have everything imaginable, and yet they’re all on ritalin and prozac. Meanwhile, their parents are both working, to pay for those two luxury SUVs and the next big home improvement project and all the toys and all the drugs that are necessary to keep themselves and their kids afloat in the miserable life they’ve built together.

My dad wasn’t always there for me. It seemed like most of the time he wasn’t. But it’s safe to say that when we ate dinner together 5 or 6 times a week, it was unusual. Most weeks we ate dinner together 7 times a week.

My American Dream is for my kids to have two full-time parents. Screw the luxury SUVs and the $300,000 house in the suburbs. My Honda Civic has more ameneties than I need. I’ll drive it for 15 years so I can have more money when things that matter crop up.

I told you how the Bible says to get rich. And maybe you’d argue I haven’t answered that question yet. I think Isaiah 55:2 can lead one to wealth that’s very enviable, but, yes, the Bible also tells how to gain material wealth. Check Proverbs 13:11. It’s especially relevant in the era of dotcom billionaires.

You’ve seen stories of wealty people who nickeled and dimed themselves to the poorhouse. What Proverbs 13:11 says is that you can nickel and dime your way to prosperity as well.

What the Bible doesn’t say is how, so I’ll share the concept of opportunity cost, which is one of two things I remember from Macroeconomics. I don’t know how many other people in my class picked this up from the dear departed Dr. Walter Johnson at Mizzou, so I’ll do my best to make my examples clear.

Opportunity cost says a 13-inch TV does not cost $99. That’s the amount written on the sticker, but that’s not the price. The price is about 30 lunches at my company cafeteria.

The monthtly cost of driving a new car every three years is about half my mortgage payment. But my mortgage will be paid off in 28 or 29 years and my house will be worth more then than it is now. In the year 2031, I will have absolutely nothing to show for the car I’m driving today. Those people who buy a $2,000 used Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla every few years and drive it until it dies have more money than you think they do.

Assuming you work about 240 days a year, two cans of soda every workday from the soda machine at my employer will cost you $240. But not really. What happens if you invest that money in what’s called an index mutual fund, which follows one of the major indices, such as the Dow Jones Industrial Average? Historically, you’ll gain about 10% per year on your investment, which means you’ll double your money every 7 years investing that way. (That’s taking into account times of bad economy, like today, or worse.) Anyway, I just grabbed my calculator. If you take that $240 and dump it into an index fund, in 35 years you can reasonably expect it to be worth $7,680.

The real cost of a can of soda is sixteen dollars. Unless you’re not going to live 35 more years. But unless you’re going to die tomorrow, the real price is considerably more than 50 cents.

There are a total of 118 verses in the NIV translation that use the word “money,” and considerably more talk about the concept without using the word. Of those, Matthew 6:24-34 is poignant, as is Ecclesiastes 5:10-20. What I take from them is this: If you build your empire 50 cents at a time, you’ll never be as wealthy as Bill Gates. But you’ll have more than you need, and you’ll be happier than Bill Gates, and you’ll sleep a lot better.

And if your name is Jackie Harrington, I suggest you start selling autographed 8×10 glossy photos of yourself. Sign them, “Bill Gates just stiffed me for 6 bucks! Jackie Harrington.” Sell then for $10 apiece to people like me. Then put the money in an index fund. Then in 35 years, when you’re a millionaire, write a thank-you letter to Bill Gates.

01/15/2001

Mailbag:

Misc things; The trade; Depression

Why am I still messing with 486s and low-end Pentiums? I found a reference to this on the Ars Technica message board. Let’s see. I’ve got a genuine IBM PC/AT case sitting under my futon doing nothing other than looking old. I’ve got a Media Vision Pro Audio Spectrum sound card with a SCSI port on it. I’ve got a couple of old SCSI CD-ROM drives. I’ve got an AGP video card I can put in it. I’ve got a network card I can put in it, of course. And I’ve got hard drives. Plus I’ve got systems with DIMMs in them that I put there because I’d rather put too much memory in a system than have it just sit in a drawer. So basically I can have a modern system for a song. A Backstreet Boys song.

I’ve got mail. Hopefully I’ll take care of it this evening.

The American Dream again. Friday’s R.I.P.: The American Dream got a far greater response than anything I’ve written since college other than Optimizing Windows itself, which had more than a year’s head start. I had some people write in saying I was right. Frank McPherson’s response echoed another common sentiment: the original dream may be dead, the problem is that this generation needs to find another. That’s certainly a valid point.

One letter asked if I really thought we need a depression. Now, mind you, I don’t want one, and I’m certainly not advocating sabotage of our economy. I think we’ll get our own depression anyway–the Great Depression came about because of heightened expectations that grew unrealistic. Had it not been for regulatory brakes on the system, I think we’d already have had one, because there’s a widespread Las Vegas mentality in investing these days. People aren’t content to double their money in seven years anymore. They want to do it in seven months. And while people can do that, it’s like Las Vegas: the odds are against you. So they take irresponsible risks. People who understand the math much better than I do tell me that if you save 10 percent of your income and just dump it in an index fund–a mutual fund that follows the stock market–and do that from the day of your first paycheck to the day of your last, you’ll retire a multimillionaire. No genius involved. And now that we have Roth IRAs, we can pay our taxes up front and reap the benefits tax-free.

I’m testing that theory. I forget what retirement age is supposed to be for my generation. Is it 70? Like those details matter. Come talk to me when I’m 70 and I’ll tell you how it worked out for me.

Let’s get back to that idea of finding another dream. Frank McPherson pointed to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream. That’s productive use of our discontent. I like that. It’s something we should be doing anyway, but often we have to have a certain degree of angst before we’ll consider doing the things we ought to do.

But will it give us fulfillment? Some. Is it better and more noble than materialism? You bet. Should we? You bet. But will it solve the problem?

No.

I’ve thought about it a lot myself. And yesterday one of the people I respect the most made an observation. God is popular. God’s making a comeback. He’s a star. There’s a wave of spirituality crashing through Hollywood and there’s even another one in Washington. The stars are finding God. Filmmakers are making movies about Him, or at least letting Him make cameos. Slimy politicians are talking about God. Heck, even some not-as-slimy politicians are. C.S. Lewis once observed that there are longings in our being that no travel, no education, no spouse can ever fulfill. He said it made sense that the existance of those longings suggests the existance of something that can and will one day fulfill them: God. So we’ve got some people turning in that direction now. This is good.

Or is it?

The God of pop culture isn’t it. The God of pop culture is God on your own terms. It’s a very American God. In America, cars from the factory aren’t good enough. We get special options. Sometimes that’s not good enough either, so we put the car in the garage and we hot-rod it. In America, we build our entertainment systems from discrete components, getting speakers tailored for our environment and other components to best take advantage of it all. Hey, even a lot of the mystique behind the computer is gone, and people are undertaking projects they never would have dreamed of. They visit hardware sites and talk in forums and stumble across sites like this one, looking for advice on the best motherboard, the best hard drive, the best video card, then they go build the computer of their dreams–or the closest thing their budget permits. In America, we get cars, entertainment, and computers–as well as other things–on our own terms.

No wonder there’s so much appeal to Universalism. Eastern religions are nice, because you can take what you like, leave what you don’t, and they aren’t exclusive. If I remember my world religions class correctly, the Buddha was a Hindu, and remained one until the day he died. And Christianity isn’t incompatible with them, at least on the surface. Self-help pioneer Jess Lair once said someone told him his book I Ain’t Much Baby, But I’m All I’ve Got had a lot of Zen Buddhism in it. Dr. Lair was a devout Catholic. How did Zen Buddhism end up in a book written by a Catholic who admitted in his own words that he never thought much about Zen Buddhism? There’s a lot of Zen Buddhism in the Bible, that’s how. Or is it there’s a lot of the Bible in Zen Buddhism?

If linguists can point world languages and say they can trace all of them back to a single language, it only makes sense that at one time there was a single world religion, from which all of them can be traced.

But I don’t subscribe to the idea of Universalism, which says all of them are correct. And even if I’m wrong, why does it matter?

After all, what do the other religions promise? They promise me that if I do certain things, if I lead my life in a certain way, I might find my way to some kind of heaven. The paths are slightly different, and the destination often is slightly different, but you can pretty much boil down the major world religions to that. What they don’t promise is assurance. There are a lot of mights in it. And none of them promise anything bad will happen to me if I don’t believe them, especially if I lead a good life anyway. I may cease to exist, just as anyone else who doesn’t quite do a good enough job would. Or maybe I won’t get reincarnated in the most desirable way. But if that happens, I get another chance.

Then there’s the great teacher Jesus–just about everyone regards Him as a great teacher–who taught something kinda sorta similar. He taught how to lead your life. But Jesus said something else. He said he was the fulfilment of Judaism, that He was the way to heaven. Period. There was no other way. Him or damnation.

I find it interesting that non-Christians regard Jesus as a great teacher today. If you believe one of the other messiahs, what Jesus said is pure heresy. You might find it interesting that members of Jesus’ own family thought he was a madman. His own family! He was either what He said He was, or a madman. The others may not be incompatible with Him, but He is certainly incompatible with them.

But there’s more to Jesus’ message than just that. The alternatives are works-based. Jesus said just one thing: believe. Everything else is a byproduct of taking Jesus for what He said He was and is. Don’t sweat the other stuff. It just happens, and it’s better that way than if we’d done it on our own. And Jesus said one other thing. He promised assurance. With Him, you know exactly where you’re going.

Christianity really is very simple. You can boil it down to a really simple question. Well, two, I guess. God asks, “Why should I have anything to do with you?” Then after you die, God asks, “Why should I let you in here?” The answer to both questions is the same thing. I can put it articulately, but really a one-word answer will suffice. And it has absolutely nothing to do with me.

So if I’m gonna hedge my bets, that’s where I’m gonna hedge them. I was afraid at first what I’d have to give up, but the truth was I didn’t have to give up anything. Given a little time, I just wanted to give those things up.

I realized just after college that I wouldn’t be able to buy happiness, and that the capitalism I spent four years writing about wouldn’t accomplish much. I went looking for something else. I went looking for what every unmarried 22-year-old male looks for. I thought I’d found the key to happiness when I found her. Along the way I picked Christianity back up too. When I hadn’t proven sufficiently the sincerity of my faith, she took a hike. I was crushed, but I still had something. If you subscribe to the belief that it takes 9 positives to counteract a negative, my ratio’s a bit lower than that. The difference is I always have the ace in my hand. So the ratio of disappointments to triumphs really is irrelevant, because I’ve got the triumph that trumps all disappointments.

So I guess what I’m trying to say in a roundabout way is I agree with Frank. Tell materialism to take a hike, go make the world a better place.

Just don’t try to do it on your own, and don’t rely solely on human help.

Mailbag:

Misc things; The trade; Depression

01/12/2001

Let’s talk about wealth. When I was 15 or 16, I was sitting in English class and the teacher stood up and told everyone that the American Dream is dead. We would be the first generation that would have it worse than our parents did, she said.

I didn’t argue, though I should have. I figured I’d at least be the one to buck the trend, if what she said turned out to be right. A couple of years before, my dad had actually bothered to sit down with me at the kitchen table, candidly tell me the mistakes he’d made in life, and then he told me it didn’t look like I’d make those same mistakes. I trusted my dad’s judgment.

But when I look around today, I wonder if my English teacher might have been right. Wealth isn’t  about money or possessions, after all. In that regard, she’s very wrong. There’s a high school next  to one of the buildings I work in. Most of the cars in that parking lot are nicer than the cars in the parking lot for the building I work in. And there are plenty of highly paid IT professionals like me in my building.

Am I better off than my dad? Well, let’s see. In 1981 my dad decided he’d made it, so he splurged. He  bought a luxury car: a Chrysler LeBaron. It wasn’t the swankiest of cars, but it was far and away the  most loaded car he’d ever owned. The only features it was missing were a tape deck (not sure if  Chrysler was offering that in 1981), the famous Corinthian leather, and speech synthesis (which I think they  were offering that year). I thought it was a nice car.

Today, nearly 20 years later, I drive a Dodge Neon. That car has everything that 1981 LeBaron had, plus some things it didn’t. By today’s standards, it’s not a luxury car.

Ten years later, my dad bought a 1980 Chrysler Cordoba, which he let me drive most of the time. That was the swankiest car Chrysler made in 1980. Leather seats, everything adjustable… It was still  awfully nice in 1991. The car my sister drives puts that Cordoba to shame. Leather seats, but these are heated. And my sister’s car isn’t a luxury car either. It’s mid-range.

I can’t quite afford the last house my dad bought. Give me a couple of years. I could afford the  next-to-last house my dad bought pretty easily. I don’t see the point–I’d just fill the place with computers and books, and I’d have to drive longer to get to work. I like where I’m living now.

Compared to my dad, I’ve got it good. Real good. And my dad was no pauper. He was a successful doctor. Not a high-priced doctor like a brain surgeon, but he did fine.

This weekend, I was talking to my good friend Tom Gatermann. He was talking about a friend who’s  about to marry a girl from the former Soviet Union. Her hometown is just south of Siberia. His friend was talking about living conditions there. Indoor plumbing is a luxury.

I spent a couple of weeks on a Navajo reservation in 1998 and 1999. Out there, a telephone is a luxury. Sometimes electricity is a luxury. Usually, those who go without budget so they have  electricity during the hottest parts of the year, then shut it off during the mild months.

For me, budgeting involves raising or lowering the thermostat by about 5 degrees if I’m going to be  gone for a few days. Or if a month looks like it might be particularly tight for some reason, I’ll  move my thermostat and turn off all but one of my computers. I did that last year, around tax time. Comparatively, that’s not a big deal.

No, wealth isn’t about possessions. I learned that in New Mexico. Wealth is about gratefulness. My  friends down there are much wealthier than I am. They’re grateful for just about everything they  have. I take my car, my computers, my phone, my indoor plumbing, my lights… I take all of that for granted pretty much. I complain when my DSL connection isn’t working right. Meanwhile, miles away, there’s someone walking half a mile to use a neighbor’s telephone, or someone walking outside in the dead of winter to an outhouse.

My generation’s spoiled. The generation after mine is even worse. We take everything for granted. Those younger than me take everything for granted and many of them want it handed to them. And if we  don’t have something we want, it’s always someone else’s fault. Eight years ago it was George Bush’s fault. Now it’s Bill Clinton’s fault, or those mean-spirited Republicans in Congress. Or maybe it’s Bill Gates’ and Larry Ellison’s and Warren Buffett’s fault, because they’ve accumulated all that  money and won’t share.

My cubicle neighbor agrees. We talked about that the other day, and he asked me the same question my  mom asked me last week: How do we fix it?

I remember my grandmother was grateful for everything she had, which by today’s standards, was zilch. But she never thought of herself as poor. Never. She lived through the Great Depression. People who  lived through the Depression looked at things very differently.

So I told my cube neighbor and my mom the same thing: We need a good, long, hard depression.  Capitalism gave us everything we ever wanted. But we changed the rules and said it wasn’t what we  wanted. We don’t know what we have, and we won’t all make a pilgrimage en masse to see how great life  is in Siberia. The only way for us to find out what we have is to struggle for a while.

So, was my English teacher right? Are we better off than our parents? NO.

I’m very sad to say I couldn’t prove her wrong.

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