8 Things That Bug the Shit Out of Me on Facebook

1. Promoting your company or employer

There’s a reason Facebook has business pages—it’s so your friends can choose whether they want to connect with you on Facebook or with your business.

Realtors, I’m primarily talking to you, since you guys are by far the worst offenders of this. Most of you post a never-ending stream of news stories about how now is the best time to sell or buy (depending on the week), along with listings of all the properties you’re pimpin’. Well I’m not buying or selling a house anytime soon. So I want to turn off this feed, but since you’re posting this noise from your personal account, I’m forced to turn off your stream. For the love of God, set up a business page for this stuff.

2. “I Wonder Who Will Bite…” status updates

“I’m waiting.”
“Only three more hours.”
“I couldn’t be happier.”

Stop. If you want your friends to know something, tell them. Don’t force your friends to ask for more details.

3. Insanely long personal revelations

I’m sure Facebook never intended status updates to be a substitute for treatises or Ph.D. dissertations on your struggle to understand the human condition.  If you want to write long paragraphs about your epiphanies, START A BLOG. THEY’RE FREE.

4. Notices about what apps you’re using

I don’t care what you’re reading, playing, watching or listening to through an app that shares data with Facebook. Even if I wanted to check it out, often I’d have to sign up with those apps to access your article, song, video, etc.—and I don’t want to. Please, disable all those annoying notifications.

5.  Inspirational quotes overload

Yes, you can do it. We know. We all know. An occasional inspirational quote is fine. But if I wanted one every day, I’d sign up with one of the dozens of websites that offer daily inspirational messages.

6. Checking-in EVERYWHERE

Oh, really, you’re at the gas station? Need some company? Are you trying to coordinate a meet-up at pump #7? Are you hoping your friends are also at that gas station (and maybe you just can’t see them)? Do you need everyone to know you get your gas at Chevron, not Mobil?

7. Change my status update for an hour in remembrance of someone I never knew, let alone heard of

No, I won’t.

8. People who “like” their own check-in’s or posts

Seriously?

A Bag of Nines and a Refried Jew

Last night I met a 9th-10th grade English teacher at an Austin public high school. He shared with me an “essay” written by a student of his. The assignment was to write about the different experience Jewish and non-Jewish children had in Nazi Germany. Students had two hours to complete this, in class (using Microsoft Word, so they could of course use spell check), and were allowed to use the Internet for research. Below is the verbatim text submitted by one student. If you ever meet someone who questions whether we have some “issues” in our educational system, refer them to this masterpiece.

Well the effect of the holocaust on the Jew children and non-Jew was very different and children. was especially vulnerable in the era of the holocaust and also the Nazis advocated killing children of un wanted ands the non Jew was refried to as the other ands they had about 1.5 millions non Jew and most people were not aware of any other non Jew and during the holocaust eleven millions viewable like was lost. Six millions of these were polish citizen and half of these were non-Jew. And like the adults the kids were only a mere bag of nines with out muscles or fat. And the chances for survival for Jewish and some non-Jew adolescents 13- 18 year old were greater as they could be deployed at forced labor. Children were killed immediately after birth or in institutions children born in the ghettos and camps who survive because prisoners hid them. And children usually age 12 who were used as labors and as subject of medical experiments. Some kids in the ghettos died from starvation. And exposure as well as lack of adequate clothing and shelter because those kids was UN productive they also use twins for experiments. Things like this should not be done because ever person have rights and people who insists of killing people and making people hurt should be killed and should not get a time or day to say any thing cause if they could put so many people in pain they should not deserve to live.

Fix It Again, Tony (FIAT)

In my previous post, I noted that Chrysler fared dismally in Consumer Reports‘ brand reliability study. They have no data on Fiat models, of course, but the strangely named journal Which? Car (WC) in the U.K. does. As quoted on Autoblog.com:

WC’s annual survey of ownership experiences in the UK rates vehicle models up to eight-years-old, and keeps track of all the standard quality metrics (breakdowns, unscheduled repairs, etc.). … Of the 38 brands listed last year, Fiat ranked 35th on the list, with Renault, Land Rover and Chrysler/Dodge filling the bottom and garnering a “Very Poor” rating. Jeep came in 29th, just missing the lowest designation, but still walking away with an overall rating of “Poor.”

This obviously bodes well for Chrysler’s future in a Chrysler/Fiat mash-up. Not.

Chrysler: Doomed to Fail

Some friends have asked me what I think about Chrysler, so I’ve prepared this FAQ.

Why is Chrysler in the trouble it’s in?
The immediate issue is that Chrysler is essentially out of money. That’s the problem the government has been trying to resolve by loaning it a seemingly unending stream of cash. Your cash.

But obviously, if you peel back the onion one layer, the reason Chrysler has run out of money is that for years it’s been building notoriously unreliable, quirky, uncompetitive cars that fewer and fewer people want.

So will bankruptcy help Chrysler?
No. The government argues—and they’re about the only ones who claim this to be true—that Chrysler’s key problem is cost structure. In other words, if Chrysler could only cut its expenses dramatically, then it would be profitable, and thus would be a viable business.

Yes, Chrysler’s cost structure should be reworked: it has too many employees, too many plants, too many dealers, and it pays its UAW workers an uncompetitively high wage. That’s the expense side of the equation, and it’s a fixable problem. But the government apparently missed Accounting 101, where one learns the equation:

Profitability = Revenue – Expenses

Chrysler needs to increase revenue, otherwise it won’t be profitable and simply cannot continue operations.

So how would Chrysler increase revenue?
They need to make (a) better cars that (b) people want. These are distinct issues. (A) is doable. There’s a lot that goes into (A): good engineering, good styling and good reliability, to name a few. But Chrysler has a mixed bag of product goodness.

Its most mainstream car, the 300C, is actually a fairly well-engineered vehicle with some solid (albeit dated) Mercedes-Benz underpinnings. But its sales have been hindered by, among other things, the car’s love-it-or-hate-it styling, and the fact that it’s too big for the most popular mid-sized car segment. Moreover, it has nothing significant to offer over the Camry or Accord, the two mainstream cars everyone in the auto industry benchmarks.

The smaller car in Chrysler’s lineup, the Sebring, is a product engineering disaster, with absolutely no stand-out qualities versus the competition. It’s really no better than the cars it replaced, the Cirrus/Stratus twins, that were launched in 1995.

On the truck side, Chrysler has a stupidly large portfolio of quirky vehicles. Like the Nitro, which is a tiny, goofy-looking and underpowered mini-SUV that somehow replaced the acceptably decent Neon, which was a compact sedan. Huh?

Chrysler once led in the minivan class, but today Chrysler’s minivan offerings typically rank dead last against the now wide field of competition. And minivan sales are dropping, anyway.

Thank God Chrysler Never Produced This

Thank God Chrysler Never Produced This

There’s one surprising bright spot in Chrysler’s portfolio, which is its new Ram pickup. In a comparo of full-size pickups by Car and Driver Magazine, the Ram took top honors. Its biggest and perhaps only downside: deplorable fuel economy. Woops.

Oh, and speaking of bad product: in Consumer Reports’ latest survey of vehicle reliability, Chrysler ranked 32nd out of 34 overall among all brands sold in the United States, beating only Saturn and Land Rover. And referring to overall product quality, in April 2009 Consumer Reports wrote:

“Chrysler is at the bottom of the class, with a drop in its overall score and average reliability rating. Most models from the manufacturer have noisy, inefficient, unrefined powertrains; subpar interiors; and poor visibility. Chrysler is the only automaker with no models on our Recommended list.”

As if Chrysler’s poor product lineup wasn’t problem enough, (B) is the much, much harder piece to execute. Do you know anyone who owns a Chrysler product and would buy another? I don’t, either. And now that Chrysler has been tarred and feathered in the media, coupled with bankruptcy concerns, do you think anybody wants to give Chrysler money? And does Chrysler make a single vehicle you would seriously consider over a competitor’s product?

(B) boils down to a marketing problem, and frankly, as a marketer myself, I don’t know if this one can be solved. Ford and GM have been struggling with this for decades, too, and all I’ve seen is that strong marketing in this industry can blip sales up for a short time, but in the longer-run market share has continued to erode. Don’t be surprised to see some kind of “This is the New Chrysler” campaign. It won’t work.

Okay, so how does Fiat fit into all this?
If you didn’t notice, Fiat has no U.S. operations. They haven’t sold cars here in decades. But like any automaker, sales success in the U.S. is critical to growth because Americans (except for the last year) buy a lot of cars. So Fiat wants in. To do that, they need North American manufacturing and parts suppliers, and a dealer network. This is called a supply chain, and it’s really hard to develop one from scratch. So, Fiat is thinking they could piggy-back on Chrysler’s supply chain.

So would that help Chrysler?
Nope. Fiat’s product line-up has a problem similar to Chrysler’s: a bunch of quirky, uncompetitive niche vehicles. Chrysler has told the government that Fiat makes incredibly fuel-efficient cars, which meets the Obama Adminstration’s desire that the Big Three make more environmentally-friendly vehicles. Well, yes, Fiat makes some respectably fuel-efficient vehicles. They’re fuel-efficient because they’re tiny and have underpowered engines—a recipe Americans don’t want. They also look quirky or boring, depending on your point of view, and have few, if any, product advantages over smaller cars from brands that have gained traction here. Nobody will buy them. I mean, really, do any of these Fiat gems available in the U.K. appeal to you?

As a particular example, Chrysler has talked about selling the Fiat 500 here—a tiny car that looks, well, ugly to me. Yes, it gets great mileage. But that’s its only selling point. Interestingly, Ford sells the Fiat 500 in Europe as a rebadged Ford Ka. Ford studied whether the Ka would sell in the U.S. and decided it wouldn’t. If Ford—which hasn’t collapsed like Chrysler—couldn’t figure out how to make money on this Fiat model here, why would anyone think that Chrysler/Fiat could?

And let’s not ignore that the majority of corporate mergers—particularly in the auto industry—fail miserably, for a variety of reasons. I don’t see why Fiat/Chrysler would be any different.

But does that mean Chrysler is doomed?
Yes! The problem is timeline. Consider:

  • Car sales are not going to pick up dramatically for at least another year.  During this time, Chrysler can cut expenses until the cows come home, but the revenue variable in the profitability equation will continue to drop.
  • Chrysler—whether or not they’re tired up with Fiat—could theoretically start developing competitive cars right now. But they don’t have the money to do so. It costs billions. Moreover, it takes 3-4 years to get a car from the drawing board into production. By then, Chrysler will have long been deceased. And, to date, Chrysler has not significantly invested in the development of a small, fuel-efficient gasoline, or a viable hybrid model, or an electric vehicle. They’re already way, way behind the competition.
  • Fiat can give Chrysler a cash infusion and some additional product to sell. Cash could fund new product development, but it would take years to see the fruit of that. And again, nobody on this side of the pond will want to buy anything in Fiat’s product portfolio.

So what should Chrysler do?
Liquidate! Chrysler does have some salable assets, albeit few. Like the new Ram pickup. Pickups will always be in demand, and several foreign brands need one. Maybe Nissan? Their Titan pickup is uncompetitive. So they could literally takeover production of the Ram and call it their own.

Or the Jeep brand. From an engineering perspective, they’re terrible vehicles, but the brand has a cult following that may never die. Maybe that’s what Fiat should take over, and only that. It’s a very strong brand in Europe, too.

Really?
Yes. I’m sorry, folks, but Chrysler is dead, and has been for some time. Cause of death: suicide. It’s time to move beyond the denial stage and just accept it.

Why You Need an Online Savings Account

In case you somehow missed it, interest rates have fallen to almost zero. That’s bad news if you’re parking money in interest-bearing savings or money market accounts. At Wells Fargo, for example, the best rate you can get right now—if you open a savings account with at least $10,000 and maintain a balance of at least $25,000—is a paltry 0.65%. If you have less than $25,000 and don’t link your savings account to a checking account, you’ll earn a truly pathetic 0.05%. As turbulent as the stock market is these days, you could do better than 0.05% by randomly picking stocks. In fact, if you play the stock market with just a little bit of forethought, in most cases you could beat the 0.05% you’d make in a year at Wells Fargo within one hour.

CDs (Certificates of Deposit) pay only a tad more than bank savings accounts. But most require large minimum investments, and CDs tie up your money for anywhere from six months to several years. The best you can do at Wells Fargo right now: 3.0% if you invest at least $5,000 and keep it there for 39 months. In this economy, who wants to tie up their money for over three years?

If you don’t want to lock up your money, don’t want to take risks in the stock market, and still want a good return, you can have your cake and eat it, too, with an online savings account (OSA). My account with Shore Bank Direct (https://www.shorebankdirect.com) currently pays 3.15%, with a $1 (yes, just one dollar) minimum investment, and no bizarre maintenance fees.

The OSA concept is about a decade old now. These accounts pay much higher interest rates because small banks can leverage the reach of the Internet to attract capital from all over the country, giving them more money to loan out at higher rates, and because banks have little costs associated with supporting these accounts. These accounts are established and managed entirely online and through email—there are no brick-and-mortar branches, no teller salaries to pay for, no paperwork, and no mailings.

These accounts are backed by “real” banks, and your money is FDIC-insured up to $250,000. ShoreBank, for instance, is a regional bank based in Chicago that was founded in 1973. (ShoreBank has retail branches for a certain type of customer, but not for OSA customers.) It’s not taking TARP money and is not in financial trouble. In fact, the big banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of America don’t even offer an OSA, and why would they? It would cannibalize their traditional savings accounts business, on which they make billions (and then lose it all on bad loans, hence the need for TARP money. But I digress.).

There are about a hundred OSAs out there, and they all essentially work the same way. You apply online, which takes 10 minutes, and you get approved immediately. You link the online account to your traditional checking account, which you use to make deposits and withdraw cash. Then, you go to the OSA website to withdraw funds from your checking account or transfer money back into it. Transfers take 1-4 days, depending on the OSA provider. Most OSAs limit the number of withdrawals you can make per month to something reasonable, like six, though none will place limits on the number of deposits. You can check your balance and make transfers 24 hours a day, and elect to have all notices and such sent to you by email. It’s all very simple.

Many people use an OSA as a secondary, backup savings account, or as a “goal” account (i.e., they put money into it every month until they have, say, the $2,500 they need to buy a new plasma TV). I say, forget that—use an OSA as your only savings account to maximize interest income.

Since all OSAs work the same way, you should shop primarily for the one that pays the highest interest rate (this is about making money, after all). However, you also need to judge the quality of the OSA’s website for ease of use (ShoreBank’s isn’t great, but it works), and be sure to read the fine print about fees, if there are any.

Keep in mind that interest rates paid by OSAs can vary at ANY time, without notice. ShoreBank is paying 3.15% today, but tomorrow it could be 2.50% or less. In fact, ShoreBank is the fourth OSA I’ve signed up for. The first three were all the highest yielders at the time I registered, but for various reasons their rates have fallen, and when they fell too much relative to their peers, I pulled my money out and put it in a new OSA that paid more. There are no fees for applying or transferring funds, so this money-shifting game costs nothing to play. My advice is to check competing rates every few months to make sure you’re earning the most you can.

A good place to start for comparing rates is the continuously-updated MoneyRates website (http://www.money-rates.com/savings.htm). Again, be sure to read the fine print of the sites you consider.

I hate to sound like a cheesy ad, but go start making more money today!

Stimulating

Let me cut to the chase: I believe the stimulus bill won’t have any material positive impact on the economy whatsoever. It will have a clear negative effect, though, which is adding hundreds of billions to our national debt for very little in return. Though well-intentioned and containing a few good chunks, overall it’s a clusterfuck piece of legislation.

But let’s back up.

I believe the government can and should play a role in jump starting the U.S. economy by investing in carefully selected projects—if and only if they directly or, with a high degree of certainty, indirectly create jobs. As Obama and dozens of economists have said, the key is to create jobs. Jobs drive consumer confidence and enable consumers to spend, which is precisely what will get more cash flowing in this economy.

Republicans generally favor tax cuts over direct spending. I get the argument: if businesses have lower taxes, they would hire more people. In a strong economy, I believe that’s true. But in a weak economy like the one we’re in, businesses are letting people go for reasons that have nothing to do with taxes. Moreoever, businesses are struggling to be profitable right now, and if they’re not, they don’t pay taxes, anyway. Same is true for individuals: I don’t care if my personal tax rate drops if I’m not making enough to pay taxes, anyway. Still, for companies weathering the financial storm fairly well, tax cuts can only help and certainly not hurt.

So, yeah, I think the Democrats’ basic position that we need spending/investing instead of tax cuts is for the most part the right approach. So far so good for the Obama administration. But there are three major problems with the plan.

The first two problems—too little money over too long a disbursement period—are closely linked. $800 billion or so dished out over at least two years is not enough to make a sizable dent in the U.S. economy, no matter what the money goes into. If it were divided evenly over two years ($400B/yr) into our $13 trillion per year economy, that would be a net injection of 3 percent per year.  I draw an analogy to an obese frat boy. Giving him a couple of light beers won’t get him drunk, nor would giving him two strong beers every few hours.

What’s the right amount? I don’t know. Nobody does. But my guess would be that it’d have to be in the low trillions. Yes, as in, two or three trillion dollars, and it needs to be dished out quickly. Hold your horses, though. I fully realize that if Obama had requested that much, Americans would go ape shit. So I come back to my frat boy. If the goal is to get him hammered but we can’t afford a keg of Live Oak Pilz, I’d say we shouldn’t even try. This is not a case of “doing something is better than doing nothing.” No, doing nothing is preferable to doing something incredibly expensive that won’t be effective.

But then there’s the third problem: what the stimulus bill actually directs money to. As a thought experiment, ask yourself what would drive job growth. Some things that immediately come to my mind would be hiring construction companies to rebuild our nation’s road, bridges, airports, ports, dams and so on. That would be politically popular, too. We could invest in large-scale alternative energy project construction.  We could fund job training and re-training programs. Certain tax cuts could help, too; we could give businesses generous tax breaks for every new person they hire, or simply reduce the payroll and/or self-employment taxes.

Or we could throw money at programs that might be wonderful but have absolutely nothing to do with job creation. I haven’t scrutinized the final bill (has anyone?), so maybe some of these things dropped out of the final bill. But the original proposal included these gems:

  • $380 million to set up a rainy-day fund for a nutrition program that serves low-income women and children
  • $300 million for grants to combat violence against women
  • $650 million for activities related to the switch from analog to digital TV, including $90 million to educate “vulnerable populations” that they need to buy a converter box
  • $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts
  • $380 million in the Senate bill for the Women, Infants and Children program
  • $4.2 billion for “neighborhood stabilization activities”
  • $2 billion for federal child-care block grants
  • $450 million for NASA, as long as the agency spends at least $200 million on “climate-research missions”
  • $87 million for a polar icebreaking ship
  • $150 million for producers of livestock, honeybees, and farm-raised fish. Bees?

If anyone out there is still arguing that this bill isn’t full of pork, you’re out of your mind. Again, it’s not that I’m necessarily opposed to some of these projects. Maybe we really, badly need an icebreaking ship. But now is not the time to go shopping.

Now, to be fair, there is a lot of jobs-relevant stuff in the bill. Let’s generously assume that 50% of the bill actually funds projects that might directly or indirectly create jobs. That drops the “percent injection to our economy” figure from 3 percent to 1.5 percent. Now our frat boy is drinking a Dixie Cup full of Pearl.

And hey, don’t take my word for it. I watch CNBC all friggin’ day. They’ve done a great job of bringing out a virtual parade of CEOs, industry analysts, and financial experts and asking them the same question: will this stimulus package create jobs? Not one said yes. When CEOs of companies like Caterpillar say publicly that they’re not going to hire more people because of this bill, what more debate do we need on this issue?

While you’re at it, ask your neighbor if they support this bill. The most optimistic sentiments I’ve heard from my friends are along the lines of, “well, it might help some people…a little.” Wow, that’s re-assuring.

So, go look your children in the eye (if you have any; otherwise look at your imaginary kinfolk) and explain to them why, when their country was in one of the worst economic downturns ever, their government was mortgaging their financial futures to help producers of honeybees.

Saving the Auto Industry: A Radical Solution

I plan to write a series of posts on the issue of bailing out the Big Three. Let me cut to the chase on a couple of points.

First, yes, I do think we need to save the car companies. The primary reason: if they fail, the U.S. would be looking at a near-term loss of up to 3 million jobs, mainly in Midwestern states that are already beaten down economically. Given the fragile state of the economy, the consequences of this would be nothing short of catastrophic.

Second, I don’t think a bailout of the form the government is currently considering would be much help. Yes, it would buy the car companies some time. However, given that the Big Three are collectively burning through about $6 billion per month, “bridge financing” bailouts in the $25 billion range would buy them only four months. Nothing in the economy is going to change in the next four, or even six to ten months that will suddenly propel car sales and again secure the finances of the car companies. And I don’t think our country can realistically afford yet another bailout in the $100+ billion range.

So, what can be done? I have two radical suggestions. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Option 1 is for the government to buy a controlling stake in the three companies. The combined market caps of three car companies is now only about $10 billion (Chrysler is privately held; I’m guessing its value is $3.7 billion, which may be high). If the government were to buy a controlling 51% stake in these companies for all of $5.1 billion (or less), it would be able to select Board members and directly influence corporate policy and finances in whatever direction it sees fit. In fact, it might be able to do the same with much less than a 51% investment. When the economy recovers, the government would simply sell its shares on the open market and make a nice profit, which it could return to taxpayers in the form of a tax refund.

There already is precedent for this. Unless you missed it, the government now owns (or soon will) pieces of several financial institutions. And one could argue that the government also effectively owns “corporations” like Amtrak and the Post Office through tight regulations and by controlling their funding sources.

Option 2 is to offer Americans a $10,000 refund on their purchase of a new car. Instead of taxpayers footing a $25 billion tab to help the automakers—which has no direct benefit for the average Joe—I’d rather the government take $25 billion and give it back in the form of a discount to car buyers. 2.5 million people could get a dirt cheap car this year. Why would this help? Because, by keeping U.S. car factories running at full capacity for months, no one would be losing their job.

I would add a few stipulations. First, the car or truck must be assembled in a U.S. factory—but it can be a foreign nameplate. This specifically keeps U.S. manufacturing jobs intact, but keeps the playing field level. Honda will still be rewarded for making Accords in Ohio, Toyota for making the Camry in Kentucky, and so on. Remember, this is about American jobs, not GM, Ford or Chrysler jobs.

Second, optionally, we can add fuel economy sticks and carrots to the size of the refund amount. More fuel-efficient vehicles or those with key technologies (hybrids and electrics, namely) could get a bigger refund, and certain gas guzzlers could be exempted from a refund altogether.

Third, to avoid price gouging, I would add a requirement that manufacturers cannot suddenly raise their cars’ prices above list.

The beauty of this approach is that everyone benefits. Consumers get a new car at a bargain price, and still have the freedom to purchase a foreign nameplate. The car companies get their much-needed cash infusion. Manufacturing jobs are preserved. The government can provide a viable incentive for consumers to choose more fuel-efficient vehicles, thus helping to advance a sensible environmental agenda. States will get a boom in sales tax revenue. And I would expect that the stock prices of the car companies, their parts suppliers, and all the companies that support the auto industry will rise, as well, thus helping drive the broader U.S. (and world) economy.

Obviously, Option 2 is a one-shot deal, good for 2009 only. Which is why I like Option 1 in conjunction with this plan. My biggest objection to bailing out the car companies is my fear that even if they cross the chasm until the economy recovers, they still won’t be any better managed and will be doomed to repeat the mistakes they’ve made over the last three decades. Can the government do a better job by controlling their Boards? I’m not sure, but I think it’s time to try something new.

Please share your thoughts by adding a comment.