Mike Kueber's Blog

October 23, 2012

The undecided voter

Filed under: Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 3:40 pm
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As the presidential campaign goes into its final two weeks, Romney appears to have caught Obama in the nationwide popular vote and is closing the gap in the swing states – all riding on the momentum he earned in the first debate.  If I were a betting man, I would say that Romney is now the frontrunner (and he debated like one last night), yet the on-line betting cite Intrade.com lists Obama as having a 59% chance of prevailing, and that suggests to me that my optimism is unjustified. 

Because the election is so close, its outcome will turn on each candidate’s GOTV efforts (Get out the Vote) and his ability to persuade undecided voters.  Although the GOTV efforts obviously apply to much larger numbers of voters, the pundits in the media seem obsessed with the few remaining undecided voters.  In fact, they wonder how a voter can be undecided so late in the game.

I haven’t bothered to give the undecided voter much thought, but last week my brother Kelly posted something on my Facebook page about what he thought of the campaigns:     

  • I think people vote because of their dislike for one candidate and not because of whether they like the person they are voting for. Therefore if you do not listen or watch these guys you do not get angry towards any of them. Kind of like watching a sporting event, if you watch the whole game and your team loses a close one it can be upsetting but if you just catch the score after the game it is not as big of deal! My point is I do not listen to or watch the political talk shows any more so it does not bother me as much who wins the elections! But that is just me ,I know some people love that stuff!

Essentially, Kelly is saying that some voters don’t pay a lot of attention and don’t care who wins.  Back in my younger days, it was more politically correct to take assume that position; today, not so much. 

I can see how campaigning to win Kelly’s vote would be like herding cats.  That’s why Karl Rove gets paid the big bucks.


June 23, 2011

Privacy and office etiquette

Filed under: Business — Mike Kueber @ 3:20 am
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Since retiring from USAA more than two years ago, I have enjoyed a respite from corporate life.  However, during a recent visit to my ancestral homeland in North Dakota, I stumbled into a heated argument with my brother Kelly over privacy and office etiquette.

The argument started when my brother Greg and I were discussing privacy.  Seems he is offended when visiting relatives ask him how many cows he has and how much a calf sells for.  In his mind, that is comparable to asking Kelly, who works for an airplane manufacturer in Grand Forks, what his hourly wage is – no one’s business!

I told Greg that employees at USAA have a good idea of what each employee makes based on his title because pay ranges for all job titles (except executives) are widely known, but Greg was not persuaded.  He didn’t want casually curious relatives to know what his cattle operation was grossing, and he didn’t like them asking.

During this conversation about salary ranges of corporate employees being widely known, Kelly mentioned that he and his fellow employees were routinely told not to discuss their annual raises because such information would cause jealousy and disgruntlement.  USAA provided similar guidance to its employees when I worked there, but I disagreed on principle and told Kelly why.  In my opinion, an employee should know how an employer valued his services as compared to other employees.  If the employer is giving me a smaller raise than that of the slacker sitting next to me I want to know.  Furthermore, a 3% raise is good if the average raise is 2%, but it is not good if the average raise is 4%.

Kelly disagreed – all he wants to know is that his raise is 3%.  He doesn’t care how much of a raise his co-workers receive.  Kelly went on to endorse the management argument that knowledge of comparative raises will cause the under-achievers to be bitter and disgruntled.  He rejected my counter-argument that under-achievers should be put notice that they are being paid as under-achievers, which might cause them to elevate their performance.

Because the argument got heated, Kelly and I dug in our heels and quit listening.  If Kelly had been open-minded, I suspect he would have conceded that an employee should want to know how his raise compared to the company average.  If I had been open-minded, I would have conceded that this knowledge will result in a percentage of disgruntled employees who would have worked better in blissful ignorance.

February 4, 2011

DUI checkpoints in Texas

I’ve always been a rebel against authority figures.  Once in high school, I was threatened with expulsion for rebelling against the school dress code.  Although I don’t smoke, I stood in solidarity with smokers opposing anti-smoking rules, first by employers and later by municipalities.  And I joined my brother Kelly’s chapter of D.A.M.M. – drunks against mad mothers.

The latest assault on our liberty by the politically correct in San Antonio – DUI checkpoints.  According to an article in the San Antonio Express-News, the city’s police chief is pushing for legislation to authorize DUI checkpoints.   

DUI checkpoints were initially challenged as an unconstitutional “seizure” under the Fourth Amendment, but the U.S. Supreme Court approved them in 1990 in Michigan State Department of Police v. Sitz.  The Court held that the legality of such a seizure must be determined by balancing three interests – “the state’s interest in preventing accidents caused by drunk drivers, the effectiveness of sobriety checkpoints in achieving that goal, and the level of intrusion on an individual’s privacy caused by the checkpoints.

On each of those three points, the Court concluded:

  1. No one can seriously dispute the magnitude of the drunken driving problem or the States’ interest in eradicating it.”
  2. “Conversely, the weight bearing on the other scale – the measure of the intrusion on motorists stopped briefly at sobriety checkpoints – is slight.”  (Less than 45 seconds.)
  3. Approximately 1.6 percent of the drivers passing through the checkpoint were arrested for alcohol impairment….  By way of comparison… illegal aliens were found in only 0.12 percent of the vehicles passing through [a San Clemente checkpoint set up to detect illegal aliens]….  We sustained its constitutionality. We see no justification for a different conclusion here.”

Despite the Sitz decision in 1990, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in 1994 held that DUI checkpoints were invalid in Texas unless the legislature established procedures and guidelines.  

According to an article in CBSDFW.com, Texas is one of only twelve states that don’t authorize DUI checkpoints.  A similar article in USA Today reported:

  • “Legislators in Texas, which has one of the nation’s highest proportions of drunken-driving deaths and is one of 10 states that ban sobriety checkpoints, say they will introduce a bill next year to allow checkpoints. The measure has failed in the past because of resistance from ‘drunks, people who make money off drunks and civil libertarians,’ says state Rep. Todd Smith, a Euless Republican.  Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming also ban checkpoints, MADD says.”   

You could almost hear Representative Smith sneer when he said, “civil libertarian,” like that is a bad person.  Smith is the Texas representative who has proposed the legislation that San Antonio’s police chief is endorsing – House Bill 439.

House Bill 439 authorizes “sobriety checkpoints” only in the 18 counties with more than 250,000 (that should help secure votes from rural legislators) and only in locations with a history of alcohol-related driving violations.  The bill prohibits the officer from asking for a driver’s license or proof of insurance or asking the operator to leave the vehicle.  The bill requires that (a) a video and audio recording be made of each “encounter,” (b) the intrusion be minimized (no more than three minutes), and (c) the inquiry is “reasonably related to determining whether the operator is intoxicated.”

Unfortunately, I was unable to learn how an officer determines intoxication.  I suppose it is the smell of alcohol, slurred speech, or an admission of drinking.  Thus, if you have been drinking, it would be a good idea to roll down your windows before you face the officer and don’t admit that you have been drinking, even if the checkpoint is near a bar at 2am. 

Last summer, I encountered a similar situation during my annual pilgrimage to North Dakota.  After closing down my hometown’s only bar at 2am, I was driving home to the family farm when a highway patrolman stopped me for rolling through the city’s only stop sign.  He asked if I had been drinking, and instead of lying, I told him that I had.  (I did lie when he asked me how many.)  That response earned me a walk back to the officer’s car and a field sobriety test while sitting in his car.  Fortunately, he concluded that I was sober enough to drive and sent me on my way.

I don’t intend to diminish America’s problem with drunk drivers.  And I fully support the effort by the National Transportation Safety Board to eliminate “hard-core” drunken drivers, which they define as drivers with blood-alcohol concentration of 0.15% or repeat offenders within a 10-year period.  But their 11 recommendations to accomplish this objective belie their contention that they are focused on “hard-core” drunks: 

  1. Statewide sobriety checkpoints;
  2. Programs to identify individuals driving on a suspended or revoked license;
  3. Defining a repeat offender as anyone arrested on a DWI offense within 10 years of a prior DWI arrest;*
  4. Imposing tougher penalties, assessment and treatment for DWI offenders arrested with a blood alcohol content level of 0.15 or higher;*
  5. Using administrative license revocation;*
  6. Prohibiting plea bargaining;
  7. Prohibiting diversion programs;
  8. Establishing court-based sanction programs;*
  9. Using vehicle sanctions including ignition interlock devices and vehicle impoundment;
  10. Implementing alternatives to jail confinement such as home detention with electronic monitoring; and
  11. Requiring DWI offenders to maintain a zero blood alcohol content level.

The state of Texas is criticized for having adopted only four of the eleven items on the list (I have placed an * after each of the four items), but it has adopted the only two that are directed at hard-core drunks – #3 and #4.

I have a drinking friend who complains that they keep increasing the penalties and lowering the DUI standard to a point that potentially includes social drinkers.  We remember when driving with an open container was legal in Texas (pre-9/1/01). 

Social drinking is one of life’s pleasures for millions of Americans, and that is something worth defending against unnecessary government encroachment.  Go after the drunks, but leave us social drinkers alone.

November 2, 2010

Intestinal fortitude

Filed under: Finances,Investing — Mike Kueber @ 5:04 pm
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My brother Kelly visited me from North Dakota a couple of weeks ago.  It was the first time he had to Texas since 9/11/01.  On that day, I remember him calling down from upstairs to say there was something important happening on TV.  During a previous trip to San Antonio, Selena was murdered (3/31/95).  Fortunately, nothing traumatic happened during this trip, but Kelly did tell me about something traumatic that happened more than a year ago – the stock market crashed and his 401k became a 201k. 

Although I am an avid investor and follow the market daily, I am lucky to have a cool disposition toward its ups & downs; Kelly, not so much.  For most of his working life, Kelly worked as an accountant in Fargo, ND for a small chain of motels.  This chain not only didn’t provide employees with a pension, they didn’t even offer a 401k.  For long-term security, employees were left to their own devices except for mandatory social security.  About five years ago, Kelly went to work for Cirrus, an airplane manufacturer in Grand Forks, ND.  Although the company didn’t have a pension (very few companies do nowadays), it did have a 401k.

Kelly’s initial 401k strategy was solid, in my opinion.  Even though he was nearing 50 years old, he invested bullishly in the stock market.  Unluckily, his timing couldn’t have been worse.  In 2005, the market had been inflating for several years because of the boom in house prices (caused by the subprime mortgage fiasco), so Kelly was buying over-valued stock.  Then in 2008, as the housing market collapsed, the stock market crashed.  The crash caused Kelly and millions of other market newcomers to abandon the stock market.  As newcomers to the market, they thought that they had learned their lesson relatively cheaply, and that lesson was that the stock market is gambling at best and rigged gambling at worst.  In either event, it is something to stay away from.       

We’ve all heard the old saying about “buying low and selling high.”  And obviously, people who sold out near the bottom of the market in March of 2009 did the opposite – i.e., they bought high, sold low, and missed the big gains for the past 18 months.  But I appreciate how hard it is to stick to the time-tested fundamentals of investing, such as dollar-cost averaging, periodically adjusting your portfolio, and the most important – buy and hold.  In fact, disciplined as I am, I didn’t have the courage last year to re-allocate my stock portfolio to 40% international when its share dropped to barely 35%.  Instead, I rationalized that maybe I should have allocated only 35% to International from the beginning.  So what happened?  International has completely recovered to 40%, and I would have made a lot more money if I had re-allocated.

I had a similar failing in picking NFL games the past few weeks.  My initial strategy was to go with the Vegas line unless the line was close and I had a strong feeling that Vegas was wrong.  That strategy worked OK at the beginning of the year, but there were a lot of upsets, and I wasn’t in the top tier of players.  Because I lacked discipline (this was supposed to be fun), I decided to pick more upsets.  So what happened?  As some sports-gambling books have suggested, the Vegas line gets more solid as the year progresses.  In the last three weeks, the Vegas line would have earned one second-place finish and one third-place finish in the Hill’s & Dale’s pool.  My prognostications, laced as they were with upsets, have moved me toward the bottom of my pool.

The moral of this story is to apply solid fundamentals to your strategy, whether in investing or gambling, and don’t let short-term results distort that strategy.  I think that’s what they used to call intestinal fortitude.

October 12, 2010

NFL – the apocalyptic fifth week

Filed under: Entertainment,Sports — Mike Kueber @ 6:33 pm
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There’s a saying in professional golf that you can’t win the tournament on Saturday, but you surely can lose it.  That’s how I feel about week five of the Hill’s & Dale’s football pool.  Of the 14 games this week, I predicted the victor in only four of them – Baltimore, Atlanta, Detroit, and Indianapolis.  I was 4-10 for the week, including a heart-breaking loss on the last game of the week – the NYJets over the Minnesota Vikings. 

Although there were a lot of upsets – Vegas was 5-9 – the people in the Hill’s & Dales pool were not fooled.    Most people in the pool correctly picked the Jacksonville Jaguars to upset the Buffalo Bills and picked Chicago to upset the Carolina Panthers, and many correctly picked the Philadelphia Eagles to upset the San Francisco 49ers.  Only one of 38 participants had a worse record than me.  Twenty-eight did better than Vegas and five did worse.  The weekly winner, Ben Koebke, was 9-5. 

I previously quoted Bill Parcells for the oft-repeated line, “You are as good as your record.”  Although people routinely pay homage to the line, they more commonly ignore it, and the Vegas line last week was a perfect example.  Going into Week #5, there were four teams that had not won a game – Carolina Panthers, Detroit Lions, San Francisco 49ers, and Buffalo Bills.  But despite their horrendous records, Vegas picked all four to win, and I went along.  How dumb was that?  As Parcells would say, these stinky teams, with the exception of Detroit, continued to be stinky.  Normally a win by a stinky team is characterized as an upset, so it seems anomalous to call loses by winless Carolina, San Francisco, and Buffalo upsets, but that it what Vegas did.

Looking ahead to next week, my confidence is so shattered that I have asked my brother Kelly, who is visiting from North Dakota, to make my picks.  You may recall Kelly as the person who famously said in a previous blog post, “I could have achieved a 4.0 GPA in college if I had tried.”  Well, he feels the same way about picking games – i.e., he hasn’t been keeping track of his picks, but according to his recollection he foresaw a great majority of the upsets.  Thus, he will now have a chance to show, on the record, his prognosticating ability. 

From my perspective in the spectator’s gallery, the picks seem easy this week.  Kelly didn’t look at the Vegas line, but I did, and learned that his preliminary picks include only one upset – Atlanta on the road over Philadelphia.  I think I would have picked that upset to because Atlanta is 4-1 and Philadelphia is 3-2.  What more is there to know?

I am hopeful that a week of rest will enable me to come back stronger in Week #7.

July 8, 2010

I coulda got a 4.0 GPA.

One of my favorite quotes of all time came from an unlikely source – i.e., my younger brother Kelly.  One day, we were talking about the college experience, and our talk ventured into college grades.  That’s when Kelly dropped his show-stopper and said, “I coulda got a 4.0 GPA if I had tried.”  What a profound statement.  I wish I had a dollar for every time I interjected that statement into a philosophical conversation. 

On one level, the statement describes a simple truth – i.e., we usually could do better if we had tried harder.  We rarely feel like we gave something the best we had. 

On another level, the statement enables people who don’t try, or try half-heartedly, to have an exaggerated opinion of their own ability.  I am continually amazed how often people harbor a belief that they have been gifted with exceptional abilities (sports, dance, music, looks, or brains) that are waiting to be recognized.  But instead of exposing their ability to the world, the person stays in the shadows.  This reminds me of Teddy Roosevelt’s 100-year-old quote about the man in the arena:

  • “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

The TV show American Idol provides an opportunity for young singers to get in the arena.  For the vast majority of them, however, it means they will be bloodied by the battle, and they will be disabused of the notion that they are a great talent.

On still another level, the 4.0-GPA statement fails to recognize that most other people aren’t trying their hardest either.  A 4.0 GPA is a relative score, not an absolute score.  If my brother had worked harder to get better grades in school, he should expect that the people who finished in front of him would also have worked harder to maintain their relative position.  Thus, in dragging down his performance by not working hard, my brother was also dragging down the performance of everyone else, too.

All of this reminds me of Marlon Brando’s wail in “On the Waterfront”:

  • “I coulda been a contender.  I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.”