Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Epidemic of More Hair

Here's a quote I find fascinating. It was in an opinion piece for Indymedia in San Francisco, attributed to an unnamed reader of Mortgage News Daily. "If we don't do something [about the foreclosure crisis] we are going to have an epidemic of homeless people who are fed up and commit crimes this winter begging to be housed in Jail."

First of all, it's good to see that we are now capitalizing Jail, just like we have learned to capitalize Mother, God, and the Right Honorable So-and-So. If you incarcerate a higher percentage of your population than any other country in the world, it's time to start paying Jail some respect, in the sort of way Germans respect Himmel and Heimat. We capitalize White House and only one family lives there, and all it means is "white house." More than one in a hundred of our adults live in Jail; that counts for something. I'm also in favor of capitalizing Toilet, for the same reason.

The thing that really fascinates me about the quote is the notion that as soon as good law-abiding citizen homeowners become homeless they will immediately give up on all that and start breaking laws, loving Jail and the lawlessness that gets them there. This view does not describe my own bouts with homelessness.

I was homeless for an accumulated total of three and a half years before I started to think breaking laws would be a fun change of pace. For the whole time up until that I was actually, amazingly, the same fastidious, conscientious, law-abiding person I had been in all my previous (by that time) 45 years.

When I finally did consider breaking a law, it wasn't me that had changed; it was the law. It had become against the law to sit down on a sidewalk no matter how tired you were.

But maybe today's homeless people are different. Today's homeless people were born into a different world than we were. They haven't had Eisenhower to ground them and give their lives meaning. They smoke better weed. They have more hair and faster reflexes.

I was thinking about all this when I found a story in an online Florida newspaper titled "Homeless man charged with exposure of sexual organs." Actually the man, "Jimmy," was drunk and had an extremely full bladder, and therefore it wasn't his sexual organs, per se, that he exposed, it was his bladder-relieving organs, properly speaking.

Jimmy's real crime, it turns out, was not sexual in nature, but being so drunk he thought the New England Cafe in Jensen Beach was the Toilet.

So, how drunk were the owners of the New England Cafe of Jensen Beach, Florida, when they decided they were in New England?

Next, how drunk was the reader of Mortgage News Daily, to think that having your house foreclosed will make you want to live in Jail and do all the things it takes to get there?

Whenever people use terms like "epidemic" or "chronic" in connection with homelessness they reinforce the idea that it's a disease you catch. It's no wonder, with the government using such language all the time, that housed drunks, like that reader, would think that if you catch homeless cooties your personality will change and all your principles will atrophy and fall off after one cold night in a doorway.

It never occurs to housed drunks that the Jimmies out there who are now homeless drunks pissing on cafe tables in Florida were once housed drunks just like themselves, pissing on the coffee table in their living rooms just before passing out on the living room floor, and just hours after writing a stupid letter about homelessness to a newspaper.

Exercises For Advance Credit

How drunk was the writer when he wrote this column?

Which of the following comes closest to the writers point? a) "We're all just people, everywhere," b) "We're all drunks, under the skin," or c) "I need to lie down."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

No Market Cookie

Let's talk about the failure of the housing market! Housing statistics are about the most boring things I can think of, after corn futures! So let's go for it!

Seriously, my heart raced a little last week when I read the following 2 successive Harper's Index entries: "Chance that a U.S. home is currently vacant: 1 in 35," and "Rank of this among the highest recorded vacancy rates in U.S. history: 1." That's sounds informative, I thought! What does it mean?

I had no clue, so I did what Harper's must have done, namely consult the US Census Bureau data. The picture that emerged from that excursion into surveys, tabulations, and estimates was surprisingly interesting, as I will now attempt to convey.

The 1 in 35 bit refers to homes that would ordinarily be occupied by the owners, rather than rentals. Just that much vacant housing of that type alone accounts for something on the order of 2 million vacant homes, nationally. Given that there are only about 700,000 Americans homeless at any moment, says HUD, that means the entire homeless population could fit in said housing, one each to a vacant home, and still have enough left over to house the homeless of Canada, England, Australia, and probably Western Europe in the same plush way. Since the average home is meant to accommodate somewhere between 2 and 6 residents, you could probably house 10 times the US homeless population in the vacant homes we are talking about, even if HUD's counts are way off.

Now, that's not fair, because every market has to have unused stocks of goods to keep it fluid. But when you look at rental vacancies it's a whole different situation.

A full 1 in 10 of all rental units are going vacant in this country. That means that even though less than half of all housing is rental housing (now we're counting apartments, but NOT motel or hotel rooms and NOT summer cabins and NOT rooms at shelters) we're talking about a terrific mondo quantity of vacant units. Altogether, counting all such vacant units and adding in the vacant homes, 18.6 million units of housing are going unused in this country, as of the 2nd quarter of 2008, while the aforementioned homeless people try to find nice bridges to sleep under.

That means there are more than twenty empty housing units for every person in the country who desperately needs housing.

That's way too much unused stock.

What's a market failure?

A market failure is an American-style supermarket opened up in the middle of a Third World slum offering tomatoes at $3 a pound to people who make $3 a month.

A market failure is a Chad street vendor trying to sell jalape├▒os to drought victims.

What we have here is a failure of the US housing market to deliver affordable housing. To paraphrase someone I wish I never heard of, you don't house the people you want, you house the people you have.

Fun Exercises -- Learn Through Play!

1. Henry Ford had the idea to pay workers high wages to make cars so cheap the workers themselves could afford them. It worked. Why is that idea called liberal now? Why don't conservatives want to own the ideas that have been proved to work in the past? Isn't that what "conservative" means? Keeping what works?

2. This writer has offered no explanation for the failure of the US housing market. Try to think of your own. Here are a few suggestions: a) Aliens did it. b) We've been too chummy with the People's Republic of China, blame Nixon. c) We've been too chummy with the Saudis, blame the Bushes. c) Government housing regulations have something to do with it. d) Al Qa'eda.

3. An exercise in perspective. List twenty successful markets in America. Here are a few to get you started: The Japanese appliance retail market. The banana market. The energy drink market. The potato market. The politician market.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Exploit Me, Please

I'm a big fan of exploitation. I think exploitation is great. So long as it's rational exploitation, of course. The main model of irrational exploitation would be the killing of the goose that lays the golden egg; the main model of rational exploitation would be the not-killing of said goose. I think more rational exploitation all around would be hunky-dory.

A cool example of rational exploitation is the REX Agreement. This is something you learn about if you watch too much late night TV. Say someone, I'll call him Mark (first name: The), has equity in his own home. REX & Co. will give him an "interest free" cash loan, in return for a percentage share in the future appreciation of the house added to the loan value. If the house goes up in value REX & Co. exploits Mark. On the other hand, if the house goes down in value, REX & Co. shares that loss, the percentage of the loss is subtracted from the lump sum owed, and Mark exploits REX & Co. If housing prices plummet throughout the country REX & Co. will hurt badly. They're betting that won't happen.

Note Mark can only exploit/be exploited this way by NOT being homeless. Homeless people are rarely exploited in any decent rational way, and that's one of the reasons being homeless sucks.

Last week a rare exploitation of homeless people was reported, involving some Los Angeles area hospitals. The hospital CEOs allegedly schemed to present homeless patients with mild health problems as sick enough to need a hospital bed for two or three days, in order to collect government payments (from Medicare and Medi-Cal, for examples.) The homeless patients would agree to it, for the deluxe temporary shelter. By the goose-model-analysis this was a rational exploitation. No geese died. Even the governments that were tapped are still alive. The only problem: the goose-model-analysis leaves out the issue of illegality.

Son of a bitch! It's against the law to defraud federal, state, and local governments!

What's a hospital for? Hospitality. Who needs hospitality the most? The hospice-deficient. Homelessness is actually a debilitating condition, as demonstrated by statistics that show that the average age of people who die on the streets is under 50. If I have a disease that can take 20 to 25 years off my life-span, and the only known cure for the disease is housing, why can't doctors prescribe the cure, and Medicare pay for it?

The real tragedy here is that the patients only got to stay up to 3 days in a hospital bed. That's like treating starvation with a single Holy Wafer. "Take this, eat it !-- It's the Body of Christ! -- Now, beat it!" -- was that Al Yankovic or Michael Jackson? I have confused my own self.

So let's get this antiquated law off our books and make it legal to defraud the government in this way. Better yet, let's be even more rational and put most of the homeless people into regular housing, and save the expensive hospital beds for those who need the full 24-hour nurse and needle treatment.

Questions for Further Exploitation

1. If We, the United States of America, made a REX Agreement for our whole country, how much money would we get? Then, assuming we finish selling our country to China and the United Arab Emirates in 2020, what would we owe REX & Co.? I'm guessing nothing (because we won't be worth anything in 2020, because we won't have invested in our own people), so let's do it! Daddy needs a big-screen TV and an iPhone!

2. Last week we talked about the Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. Communities that cooperate with HUD by collecting data on homeless people get HUD funds. The homeless people, whose data is worth so much, get ripped off. They're lucky if 10% of the HUD money eventually reaches them in the form of actual housing. But, hey, it doesn't kill them, right?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

The Joy-Full

Consider how many chronically cheerful people you know.

I mean really, how many? Three? Eight? Sixty-two? I want a number.

I'm not talking about the temporarily cheerful. A chronically cheerful person is one who has been cheerful continuously for a period of one year, or who has had at least four episodes of cheerfulness in the past 3 years. A person has an episode of cheerfulness if the following holds for at least 30 consecutive days: 1) they are able to get up each morning, AND 2) they smile outwardly at least once each day (inward smiles do not count) without simultaneously expressing contempt or Schadenfreude. (Chronic amused contempt and chronic Schadenfreude are separate categories.)

Of course, you can't always be there to see the smile. So we need to adopt a "methodology" to assess the definition's satisfaction, absent direct evidence.

[Right: Schadenfreude is excluded.]

You could ask each person you know, "Are you chronically cheerful?" If they say yes, add one to your count. If they say no, add zero, and continue to the next candidate. Of course this should ideally be done with all your friends on the same day.

The problem with that approach is, you don't know if the persons you ask understand the question. A better methodology would be to read the definition of chronic cheerfulness first, and then ask.

In a still more accurate methodology, candidates would report smiling behavior daily and you would keep a record and make your determinations accordingly, rather than relying on the subjects' memories and limited self-awareness. You could computerize the process and call it a CIMS (Cheerful Information Management System.)

Can you see how the different methodologies could give different totals? The Bush Administration could and has seen that. That's how they lied to you last week.

Here's the scam that just went down.

February of just last year, 2007, HUD instituted an Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to the Congress. The AHAR presents, among other things, an assessment of the number of chronically homeless people in the country at a given time, namely one day in January of two years previous (for the first report, Jan. 2005). Since HUD doesn't have the manpower to do its own counting, the actual counting is done by many service agencies that have signed on to this enterprise.

The methodology used to determine who was chronically homeless, in 2005-2006, for the 2007 AHAR, was generally speaking, nonexistent. Some communities didn't do a count in January 2005 because national one-day counts weren't established yet, so they reported previous numbers and estimates. The 2005 numbers were in turn not based on a consistent national methodology. Every agency did it their own way.

No problem, thinks HUD. That was just the first AHAR. Each year they should get better.

The second AHAR came out just one month late, in March 2008, based on the count in January 2006. The numbers of chronically homeless were down. Hooray!

That report did say that the lower numbers could be entirely due to changing methodologies of counting. Specifically the HMIS, the Homeless Management Information Systems promoted by HUD, were just beginning to be used in some areas. Other areas continued to use the method of reading the definition to people of chronic homelessness and asking people if they were such. The report admitted that just those changes in methodology could account for the entire drop in numbers.

Evidently, when the Bush Administration saw the numbers dropping because of changes in methods, they saw a chance to lie big.

I know that because the third "Annual" Homeless Assessment Report came out last month! Seven months ahead of schedule!

Look at the even bigger drop, they said! It's because we're ending homelessness, not because the methods of counting are changing, trust us on that, they said!

They couldn't wait to take advantage of the confusion. If they'd waited until the report was due out, Bush wouldn't even be president any more.

That will have to be our consolation.