Saturday, April 21, 2012


At least once a week, Mrs. Newby or I - and sometimes both of us - receive offers of loans, another credit card or a chance to remortgage our home. All this junk mail goes straight into our recycling bin, but we seem to be the exception that proves the rule.

There are about 610 million credit cards in circulation in the States - almost two for every man, woman and child. On average, cardholders have 3-4 credit cards each, and a large proportion seem to use them as an alternative to a bank loan, only ever paying off the bare minimum. As a result, they currently owe a total of $2.5 trillion on their credit cards, or $8000 per person.

Believe it or not, that's only the tip of the iceberg. If you factor in debt on real estate, Americans together owe a staggering $13 trillion, i.e. $42,500 each.

The recent US housing bubble was a stark reminder of how this debt system has spiraled out of control: because banks made a fortune bundling and then reselling loans, they offered more and more people ever larger mortgages. And when the greedy banks ran out of eligible customers, they gave 100% mortgages to increasingly unsuitable borrowers - eventually even those patently unable to repay them (these loans were called NINAs: no income, no assets). After all, they knew that if the debtors defaulted, the banks could seize the house and auction it off, presumably at a profit because house values had  increased steadily for decades.

When the bubble burst and house prices plummeted, thousands of people found themselves "underwater", that is, owing far more than the value of their house. So many did the unthinkable: they declared bankruptcy, handed their house keys back to the bank and walked away from their property. Some, like our own neighbours, simply packed all their belongings and disappeared overnight.

Suddenly, banks found themselves owning masses of property worth far less than they were owed and which they couldn't sell anyway because nobody had the money to buy them. "For sale" signs littered streets across America - ours included - as did empty homes with repossession orders pasted to their windows. Yet no-one ever bought these houses, so they stayed empty for months and even years.

Oddly enough, little appears to have changed. To prevent the banks collapsing, the government bailed them out, and now they are again offering 100% mortgages. And people continue to live from one month to the next, using one credit card to pay another off.

We recently came across a startling example of how insane this borrowing is allowed to become: last month, the 85-year-old father of a friend of ours had to sell his family home of half a century and move into a shared flat because he couldn't afford to continue paying off his mortgage.

He and his wife bought the house for $40,000 back in 1961. Having taken out a second mortgage and borrowed on his house repeatedly over the years, he still owed the bank $110,000.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Helmet Law Repeal

Hooray for freedom!

On Friday, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder at last repealed the state's motorbike helmet law, which had been flagrantly restricting the liberty of citizens and doing untold (albeit unsubstantiated) damage to the local tourist industry for 46 years.

Despite opposition from insurance companies, healthcare providers and other freedom-hating, big-government organisations, bikers in the "mitten" will once again be able to let their hair flutter in the wind, just as God intended.

Now I can't wait to win back the right to smash my face through my car windscreen and catapult my children to their certain death in an accident once that insane, draconian seatbelt law is repealed.

Las Vegas

"Sin City" is a crazy place undoubedtly modelled on Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights. Not surprisingly, therefore, people say "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas".

A mere 400 miles southwest of Salt Lake City, the capital of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, whose followers, the Mormons, neither smoke, consume alcohol or even drink coffee, Las Vegas is like the Devil come to tempt Jesus. And as if determined to prove this analogy, the city is slap-bang in the middle of a desert: the Mojave.
In contrast to nearly anywhere else in the US, you can drink outside and smoke inside almost everywhere in Vegas. And true to its moniker, the city seems entirely geared towards entertainment of one sort or another.

In all, there almost 200,000 slot machines in the city, spread across 1700 licensed gambling places. There are 37 perfectly green golf courses (this was a desert, remember), almost as many bowling alleys and hundreds of shows to choose from every night, from magic to music, including no fewer than five different Cirque du Soleil productions. Vegas is also a popular place to get married and the nigh-obligatory destination for stag parties. Companies seem to like the city too, given that some 19,000 conventions a year take place there.

Vegas is a city of superlatives in other ways too. Aside from 122 casinos, most of which seem to be open 24 hours a day, it has 350 hotels with a combined total of more than 150,000 rooms. Not only is there a half-size, 165-metre replica of the Eiffel Tower and a two-thirds scale model of the Arc de Triomph. More than 1000 fountains outside the Bellagio Hotel "dance" to music every 15-30 minutes.

Another of Sin City's earthly delights is prostitution, or rather, "escort services", as they are euphemistically known, which are touted openly by groups of mainly Latinos. Any man walking along The Strip, Vegas' main street, is likely to get lurid calling cards thrust into his hand at what seems like 10-metre intervals. Since most of these cards are quickly dropped the moment the person realises what he is holding, the street is littered with thousands upon thousands of pictures of semi-naked women every evening.

When we went to Vegas, my then 7-year-old son was fascinated by these cards, pocketing a selection "for research", as he put it. We thought it was a bit of harmless fun (they weren't pornographic, after all). But when he announced his intention to take them to school for "show and tell", Mrs Newbie offered him a deal: if he threw the ten cards away, she'd buy him ten Pokemon cards in their place.

"But there are pictures on both sides of these!" my shrewd businessman of a son replied. "I should get 20 Pokemon cards."

Luckily for our reputation at school, he got his 20 Pokemon cards. And the more unsavoury ones stayed in Vegas.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Daft & Dafter

The long drawn-out battle to become the Republican Party's nominee in this November's presidential election (which the satirical Daily Show justifiably calls "Indecision 2012") has the would-be candidates falling over themselves to appear more conservative than their rivals. And the race has certainly provided plenty of grist for the comedy mill.

By now, most of the whackier wannabe presidential nominees have dropped out: After leading the media on a seemingly endless self-aggrandising campaign, including a reality show and an extended tour across the States in a coach emblazoned with the text of the American constitution, will-she-won't-she former Alaskan governor and failed 2008 vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin decided not to the throw her hat in the ring after all.

Pizza magnate Herman Cain, who didn't know China had had nuclear weapons for half a century and justified his lack of foreign-policy knowledge by referring to "Uzbeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan" (sic!), was finally tripped up by his serial philandering. The spookily wide-eyed Michelle Bachman, the darling of the right, whose bizarre statements included demanding the closure of America's non-existent embassy in Teheran, also dropped out early. While Texas Governor Rick Perry, who proudly announced that his state had executed hundreds more prisoners than any other, couldn't remember the three government agencies he wanted to shut down, when asked about them during a debate. Perry's meltdown, broadcast live on national TV, was the kiss of death for his presidential aspirations.

Although he's trailing far, far behind the now presumptive candidate, Mitt Romney, the one crazy still in the running is perpetual also-ran Newt Gingrich, who has vowed to have a manned American colony on the moon by the end of his first term in the White House.

In their desperate attempt to woo supporters of the so-called "Tea Party", a radical though in part artificially engineered movement that has dragged American politics to the right for the last three years or so, Republicans have been making more and more controversial claims that would leave most Europeans incredulous.

You needn't even bother entering politics in the US unless you can prove you are avowedly religious. Now global warming is being disparaged as unproven. Evolution is increasingly dismissed as "just a theory". Environmental protection is decried as government interference that kills jobs in the US. Gun legislation, taxation, motorcycle helmet laws and even the right to healthcare are being routinely opposed, scaled back or abolished completely in the name of "personal liberty".

But the most bizarre trend of all, at least in my view, is the renewed effort to undo "Roe vs Wade", the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalising abortion. In an effort to undermine this landmark ruling, pro-life conservatives are going to ever greater lengths to claim that this should be considered murder. And even Rick Santorum, the candidate who withdrew from the GOP race only this week, asserted that women should give birth to the children of their rapists, saying that they should "make the best of a bad situation" and "accept God's gift".

Proponents of the "personhood" debate, which revolves about the point from which a person rather than a blob of cells is being terminated, have long advocated that life - and therefore personhood - begins at the point where an egg and a sperm merge. Not to be outdone, the Arizona legislature has now passed a bill defining pregnancy as starting .... wait for it ... two weeks before conception!

Meanwhile, a last-minute amendment to a "personhood" bill tabled in
Oklahoma this week (which admittedly ended up getting the entire law thrown out) would have made it illegal to deposit sperm anywhere other than in a woman's vagina.

Forget the potential for convictions for such heinous crimes as masturbation, oral and anal sex. Had it passed, this law would have forbidden all forms of artificial insemination, thus inadvertently undermining the very thing it was supposed to support: the production of American babies.

Unwitting Imposter

On a visit to Washington, DC, I spotted a cap in a gift shop that I simply couldn't resist buying: on the front it sported the logo of Air Force One, the US president's personal airplane.

Since then, I have been jokingly telling my friends that Barack Obama gave me it for managing to land the 747 on the White House lawn. If you've ever seen the president's official residence, you'll know that this is completely impossible, since there's barely enough room for Marine One (his personal helicopter) to touch down, let alone a 70-metre jumbo jet.

I was wearing this cap when I took my car in for an oil change last week. As I sat in the waiting room steeling myself for the inevitable news that they had found innumerable faults with the vehicle that absolutely had to be repaired immediately, one of the mechanics noticed my cap.

"Air Force?" he asked. "Put it there!" And before I knew it, he had grabbed my hand and was enthusiastically pumping it up and down with a big smile on his face, proud to be congratulating a member of the heroic American armed forces.

Embarrassed by such unwarranted praise, I meekly pointed to the logo. "You mean this?" I said. "Actually, it only means I'm a tourist."

"Oh", the man replied, turning to go into the toilet, where I presume he washed his hands very thoroughly.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012