If you’ve been vaguely aware of recent oil news, you may have heard conspiracy ideas and theories regarding the current administration’s dealings with Russia and OPEC (the oil cartel dominated by the Middle East), and how our administration is and may be attempting to coerce them into increasing oil output – thus lowering the price of oil, and very indirectly, the price of gasoline at the gas station.
Should we be conspiring with Russia and OPEC on oil matters?
That’s right, thanks to shale and fracking, the U.S. is set to produce more oil than anyone else! In an increasingly competitive world that buys, for example, fewer American automobiles, oil is now one of America’s top products, and it could easily become America’s flagship, top-selling product. What do you do when you have the most of something, and that something is extremely valuable and extremely finite? Well, what you don’t do is attempt to sabotage the price of that commodity, in what can only be characterized as the laziest, least-thought-out, most off-the-cuff policy in recent memory.
Through intelligent taxation, and intelligent supply cuts† coordinated with Russia and OPEC, we can charge the rest of the world much, much more for our extremely valuable, extremely finite oil reserves, and in doing so, balance our respective budgets, transform our yearly deficits into yearly surpluses, and ultimately, at some point in the future, we can have some hope of paying off the U.S. national debt.‡ (Moreover, as oil profitability increases, the United States’ transition to becoming a net oil exporter happens faster, becomes more pronounced, and naturally, becomes more profitable. This is the textbook definition of a “virtuous feedback cycle”, and in this case, it’s very, very virtuous. Conversely, in the case of low oil prices, we are projected to always be a net oil importer; i.e. be energy dependent on foreign nations that are sometimes hostile. This phenomenon is due to many variables, and the easiest one to remember is that our particular oil rigs have to shut down when the price of oil is too low; if oil is more profitable, they can afford to look for more of it, and perhaps build a new oil rig close to your property.)
My back-of-the-envelope estimate for the amount of profit¶ lost, over 30 years, when comparing the low-oil-price scenario to the high-oil-price scenario is $20 trillion ($20,000,000,000,000) – roughly our current national debt. I’m not an expert, and I certainly encourage you to come up with your own estimate.
Once our oil reserves are depleted§, that’s it! When it’s gone, it’s truly gone. We’ll never have it again, and we’ll never be able to sell it again! So why are we trying to deplete this trillion-dollar resource at the lowest possible prices!?
You can bet your life that once our oil reserves are finally depleted, but our gigantic debt and deficit remain, fingers will be pointed and limitless questions will be asked about why we didn’t make America stronger by taking full advantage of our potential oil wealth. The downhearted headlines will be predictable: “Squandered Oil Wealth Fades Away In Rear View Mirror As America Mired In Hazardous Record Debt”. (In fact, this is actually one of the main complaints that radical terrorists in Saudi Arabia have always had with their government. Everyone in Saudi Arabia knows there is immense oil wealth under the sand, but yet their country has perpetually carried oversized deficits and debts. For some reason they view this as incomprehensible!… And continuing yet even further with that side topic, entire books could be written on how terrorist organizations, and specifically terrorist recruitment, feed off of poverty and weakened economies. Meanwhile, to exaggerate slightly, Al-Qaeda’s cost for the 9/11 attacks was 10 or 20 plane tickets and a value pack of box cutters. With similar expenses for their other attacks, it becomes clear that, just as it is with every other oil issue, the solution does not exist at the lower end of oil prices.)
There are two things you can know with absolute certainty. One is that no other country will voluntarily pay down our national debt for us. The other is that they will all fervently – and, eventually, some of them violently – demand that we pay them when their American treasury bonds mature. We will need to find extraordinary sources of income‖, and charging foreign nations a higher (and arguably more fair) price for our precious natural resources is one of the few ways to achieve that goal.
Meanwhile, we are being sold a ludicrous self-sabotage strategy as an ingenious, indirect way of lowering gasoline prices by dimes, nickels, and pennies. This line of thinking hits every possible dead end, signaling that, as suggested above, it hasn’t actually been thought out. Feel free to follow along in the next four paragraphs if you’d like to see for yourself.
First, the voters who could theoretically be “bribed” by this Republican administration’s scheme are obviously lower-income citizens. Unfortunately, these Americans spend all their time making ends meet. They don’t have much time to keep up with current events, much less politicians. More to the point, they don’t vote, don’t care about voting, don’t want to vote, and have decided at some point that voting won’t improve their lives in any tangible way – at least not enough to make voting worth their time.
On the flip side of that coin, you have low-income citizens that do make the effort to vote. And these are 99.9999999% institutional Democrat voters.Registered Democrats and people who have decided in the past that what makes sense for them is to vote Democrat. These voters already know how they’re going to vote, and are not going to be swayed by a modest change in gasoline prices. (In fact, the modest change in gasoline prices will ultimately amount to little more than anecdotal water cooler talk.)
The last segment of low-income voters, who actually vote, but might not vote Democrat, are habitual Democrat voters who are disaffected. This demographic will defect or not defect based on the president’s many other grandiose policies※ – not the price of gasoline. (Similarly, the president was propelled into office by these grandiose ideas and policies – not the price of gasoline.) In other words, even within this ultra-ultra-low percentage, inconsequential voting bloc, it will still not make any tangible difference!
Finally, we have countless “tax credit” systems and schemes embedded into our local, state, and federal taxes. These tax credits are everywhere, and are used for everything. I’m being extremely sarcastic when I now ask you to brace yourselves and try to follow along: We simply take the enormous oil profits, and then give a small fraction of those profits back to citizens as a “gasoline credit” when they pay their taxes, or even as a yearly check (similar to the George W. Bush rebate checks). You are charging the rest of the world a much higher price for your commodity, and then using some of those profits to subsidize gasoline purchases made inside America. Not exactly rocket science.₡
In this specific case, one might speculate that our president may be more infatuated with the idea of being a populist, and the idea of hatching a hard-boiled, seemingly-scuzzy diplomatic deal to achieve some kind of indirect, minor populist outcome, than actually achieving tangible national goals that are much more significant, much more populist, and much less complicated. (Not to mention, much more “America First”. Why is the president promoting simulated “tax cuts” for the rest of the world, paid for by lost U.S. oil wealth? From now on, when you hear the words “oil price” and “the world” in the same statement, you can correctly translate that into a receipt indicating much money America received in exchange for its extremely finite oil. “High” means America tried everything possible, and we charged foreign nations the most we possibly could. “Low” means America got very little for it; basically a yard sale for our natural resources. Similarly, when you hear someone calling for foreign nations to produce more oil, that is correctly translated as increased competition for American oil exports.)
Why are we attempting to sabotage the price of one of our most valuable, most finite commodities? And attempting to do so at a very unique time when we have the largest amount of that commodity? This is not dominance. This is a major violation of our business, economic, and national interests.
† This would require a new regulatory agency to coordinate American supply cuts in a meaningful way that makes sense. The United States is a free market, except when we’re not. For instance, it’s illegal to have a powerful domestic monopoly, and our military industrial complex can’t sell weapons to North Korea. And the list goes on an on. When there’s a compelling reason for state intervention or guidance, the United States does not hesitate to act and make the necessary adjustments. The advent of America becoming a major oil exporter in a trillion dollar market is clearly way beyond the threshold that is required. It clearly makes sense to take the necessary steps that will benefit America and all American oil companies, collectively. Indeed, this is the very reason OPEC was formed. Oil exporting nations realized it made no sense to fight each other tooth and nail in the marketplace and in the process make very little profit. If OPEC can figure that out, I don’t see why we can’t.
‡ As it stands, America shows no credible interest in becoming financially solvent, and we pay off American treasury bonds by selling more American treasury bonds. Therefore, an impending corollary to the issue of our national debt, is the issue of who exactly is going to keep purchasing our American treasury bonds – effectively financing our existing national debt – if we cannot or will not show initiative – any initiative whatsoever – to become financially solvent. If America acts like a deadbeat consumer, then other countries will stop financing our national debt for us. The national debt is our national credit card. You can’t keep running up debt on your credit card without demonstrating to your lenders a credible plan for how you will become financially solvent; otherwise, they eventually cut you off, and if you then default, they send in debt collectors.
¶ Generally speaking, profit equals revenue minus costs, and as you’d expect, that’s the value that’s being estimated. However, regardless of how much it costs to produce a single barrel of oil, a healthy part of those costs are cycled back into the economy. Whether it’s more steel being purchased, or more oil rig workers being employed, there are maybe a dozen economic sectors that get “put to work” so that a barrel of oil can be produced. Said differently, the total price of a barrel of oil, and certainly each barrel that is exported abroad for sale, is as close to “pure profit” as you will find in the American economy.
§ There are many competing models that estimate when oil will run out. When it’s your well being on the line, it makes sense to be conservative and assume oil will run out sooner rather than later. However, it actually doesn’t matter. From America’s point of view, the same financial end result will occur once the world has transitioned to renewable energy, and this transition is already in progress. Either way, we will no longer be able to sell this natural resource for significant profit; the window of opportunity is right now.
‖ Hint: Since no interest group is willing to give up its special project(s) or operation(s), the solution, realistically, is to find new, extraordinary sources of income, hopefully matched with improved efficiencies in existing projects and operations.
※ Taking a look at just one of these huge, sweeping policies, we are now in the middle of a bitter trade war with China. Superficially it’s over legitimate trade disputes, but under the surface, it’s also about confronting a strategic competitor. (My only opinion on the matter is that we should either have the trade war, or not have it. Having a muddled, implication-less skirmish makes little sense to me.) And so, what I do not understand is why, in the middle of this huge, strategic confrontation with China, this anti-China administration is simultaneously angling to have our extremely precious oil practically given away for free to China – allowing them to continue development at breakneck speeds, on the cheap, thanks to us?… I can only refer back to the original thesis for this blog post.
₡ Not surprisingly, this is exactly what Saudi Arabia does. Since they’re a major oil exporter, they don’t sabotage their own oil industry in order to shave cents off the price of internal gasoline usage. Instead, for that particular objective, they simply set the price of gasoline inside Saudi Arabia – and in the past it’s been extremely cheap. In our case, I suspect a rebate or tax credit system is much more workable – funded by taxation on oil profits above a certain baseline. Although it’s an extraordinary measure aimed at bringing down the price of American gasoline, it’s no less extraordinary than the haphazard, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants self-sabotage of America’s energy industry. If we believe the price of American gasoline is that important, then by all means, we can afford to take extraordinary measures, but let’s make sure they actually make sense.
The Contrarian View Happens To Be Correct: No, Don’t Go Vote Just For The Sake Of Voting!
“Go ride a motorcycle.”
“Go discharge a firearm.”
“Go climb the Annapurna mountains.”
“Go run a prison.”
“Go do brain surgery.”
“Go run a nuclear reactor.”
The previous six statements have something in common. Can you guess what it is?
Just like “Go Vote”, they are all imperative statements that are extremely incorrect. No, you shouldn’t do any of those things unless you believe you are competent to do them. Failure to heed what is normally considered common sense will result in the despair, dismemberment, and death of not only you, but others too.
There are few things more obnoxious than feel-good, pat-yourself-on-the-back ads telling people to vote, regardless of whether they feel competent to vote or not. Competency doesn’t imply any particular economic status, nor any other demographic alignment. It means you believe you are making an informed, competent decision; that it makes sense for you to vote.
Furthermore, just because you have the right to do something, it doesn’t mean that doing it is correct, intelligent, beneficial, or that you should do it. In the U.S., everyone has the right to either vote or not vote. Not voting has historically been a sign that the individual is content with the overall system.
But even if the system were in desperate need of repair, sending in random people to do the repairs is hardly an improvement. I certainly wouldn’t call random people to come fix the plumbing in my house. Nor would I take out cheery ads that read “Go Fix The Plumbing In My House!”.
We should take voting at least as seriously as the plumbing in our homes.
If an election has twice the voter turnout, but the other half of the voters have absolutely no idea what they’re doing, then how has the system improved? I’ve voted exactly twice in my lifetime, and the last time I voted, I left all but five of the choices blank – intentionally. I’ve never once felt sheepish or unpatriotic for only voting when I believed it made sense for me to vote.
In fully succinct terms, an incompetent action is worse than not acting. An incompetent vote is worse than a non-vote. In most cases, arguably much, much worse.
On the eve of another U.S. election, we see ads everywhere commanding people to go vote, regardless of whether they believe they are competent to vote in this particular election. I can respect ads telling people to vote for a particular candidate. I would certainly respect ads encouraging people to become competent to vote. I will never respect ads telling people to vote just for the sake of voting, and neither should you.
One hallmark of idiocy is doing the same thing incorrectly over and over again. Recently that badge of dishonor belongs not to slain civilians nor to police officers, but to so-called civic leaders who for some reason can’t seem to identify and execute the world’s most obvious solution to the recurring problem of legally ambiguous police shootings.
The problem is apparently that police departments are still in the stone ages with respect to weaponry. Individual officers do not have the tools necessary to dial down force to non-lethal levels. For the most part, they’re issued a lethal pistol to carry in their holster, and then they have additional lethal weapons in the trunk of their vehicle. It would be like showing up to a job site to build an entire house from scratch, and only bringing a hammer.
Unless they want to rename these divisions “Death Squads”, it doesn’t make any sense at all for police personnel to have only one weapon to choose from – with just one lethality setting.
How much would it cost to supplement each officer in each police department with a taser/electroshock gun? With respect to overall budgets, who would really care or oppose this?
On the other hand, continuing to spend millions of dollars on trials arguing whether shootings meet the letter of various highly-subjective laws is about as constructive as arguing over what shape you see in the clouds.
I just finished How to Stay Out of the Hospitalby Lila Anastas, and I don’t think I’m overemphasizing the book’s value when I suggest it could be one of the most important books of the century, if not the most important book!
How to Stay Out of the Hospital is a blistering – but not off-balanced – critique of the medical community and society’s current role with it. The book concludes with the following mental model, which could have served equally well as a back-cover blurb: Primary prevention is avoiding the medical issue altogether, secondary prevention involves early detection of an affliction, and tertiary prevention is the fight against a full-blown medical malady. Doctors receive almost all of their training in tertiary prevention, and it’s also where they stand to make the most money, but also where your odds are the worst.
We are all indoctrinated from an early age that – not to worry – one simply checks in to the hospital to fix medical problems. However that concept is outrageous-to-loony once you consider the flaws in any human enterprise, not to mention the fact that it’s the most inefficient possible way to further your survival – akin to hoping the fire department can prevent your house from burning down. The scope of the inefficiency is hard to wrap your head around once you finish this book, but one of the most obvious problems with that medical model is that you are attempting to fix a medical problem by relocating to a building filled with sick people; in an environment necessarily filled with serious medications, invasive instruments, and highly consequential treatments; in a world where Murphy’s Law is free to prevail! Sadly, shockingly, and even horrifically, this has led to a statistically non-trivial level of serious problems. And yes, sometimes those mishaps are fatal.
The book goes far beyond common-sense axioms (e.g. don’t smoke & don’t drink). It’s filled with all different types of gems and food for thought. Page 173 offers the following suggestion: “If [you know ahead of time that] you’re going to be a patient in a medical center hospital, avoid being admitted on or near July 1, because this is the traditional day when new interns and residents arrive at the hospital and begin training.” I knew teaching hospitals obviously admitted new trainees, and it does seem like summertime would be the most logical time for that to happen, but I would never have connected those two dots if I hadn’t read this book.
Do not overlook this book! You will not look at hospitals the same way ever again. With such little fanfare and publicity, it would seem strange for me to keep heaping on the superlatives, but the truth is that this book is easily a seminal work from a survival point of view, right up there with 98.6 Degrees.
The book was written in 1986, so it’s slightly dated, but very, very far from obsolete. Could the most important book of this century actually have been published in the previous century?
Cryptocurrency Epilogue: Please, No Cryptocurrency Bailouts!
In a previous post, I expounded on why I felt cryptocurrencies were one of the worst ideas and worst investments of today.
I realized I didn’t go far enough. We as a society need to draw the line somewhere for when we’ll bail people out of their own bad decisions, and cryptocurrency is a good place to start. I believe that cryptocurrencies are so stupid, that when cryptocurrencies do crash, people that are hit the hardest should not under any circumstances be bailed out. I think it would be very appropriate for the U.S. government to go on the record and explain that.
I also noticed recently that what’s perhaps the most cryptic of all is what you can actually buy from anyone or from any business with cryptocurrency. You can find anecdotal tales on the internet of one thing or another being purchased, or that some franchise somwhere accepts a particular cryptocurrency, but invariably those relevant business websites never advertise anything for sale in terms of cryptocurrency.
It dawned on me the other day that one reason – perhaps even a huge reason – that New Year’s Resolutions don’t work for many people is because the notion that adjustments, changes, and drastic transformations should only occur once a year is completely incongruent with the correct mentality: they should occur whenever they’re deemed beneficial.
Thus, that subconscious mental dissonance poisons the effort from the very beginning. For starters, the aspect of the effort that’s “gimmicky” is never fully shaken; it remains there like a cloud, infusing a lack of interest and a lack of seriousness all throughout the effort.
My attitude towards cryptocurrencies (e.g. Bitcoin) is very similar to my attitude towards pyramid schemes. However, I think there might be a silver lining in the cloud! Cryptocurrencies might finally awaken everyone to the ludicrous nature of so-called “precious metals” (e.g. gold and platinum), as well as their priceless cousins (e.g. rubies and diamonds).
Cryptocurrencies are digital currencies that are kept rare to a certain specification, and they are not backed by any military in the world, and you cannot force a storekeeper to accept your cryptocurrency when you want to buy food. In much the same way, you can show up at Walmart with gold and diamonds in the back of your truck. However, the Walmart manager is not going to let you buy anything with it. U.S. law states that businesses must, at the very least, accept U.S. currency. U.S. law states that U.S. currency must always be accepted for public and private debts, which essentially guarantees it will hold its value and be accepted by private businesses for regular transactions. No such law exists for precious metals, or just as dubiously, for cryptocurrency.
Furthermore, even if the Walmart manager wanted to trade for your geological rarities, he would not have any equipment on hand to verify the authenticity and purity of it. You would have to wait around in the parking lot, hoping someone would eventually show up who believed that gold and diamonds were, for some reason, worth U.S. cash, and would trade for them. If nobody showed up, you would be stuck with near-useless geological artifacts in the back of your truck, and no way to buy the groceries you need.
(It should be noted that gold actually has a use in electronics parts, and diamonds have a use in drilling machinery. However, the value in those aforementioned uses do not come close to justifying what those commodities trade for.)
Petroleum is rare, and it’s also extremely useful. Barring a new and unexpected discovery that reveals an amazing second use for people’s jewelry, the same cannot be said for precious metals. In just the same way, cryptocurrency has no intrinsic use or value. It’s (artificially) rare, but it has no inherent use and no inherent value, nor is any value imbued into it by a national military. Like precious metals, your only hope is that someone else will think that, against all facts, it might be worth something in the future.
If there is to be a silver lining in the obvious cloud of cryptocurrency, it’s that once it crashes, people might start to realize their jewelry is surprisingly close to worthless.
This is an easy-to-make veg*n recipe. The amount of added sodium is close to zero, and it goes great with anything.
something like canola oil to help prevent food from getting stuck (this could potentially be left out)
2 cups parboiled rice (some expert sources maintain that parboiled rice is nutritionally superior to whole grain rice; Walmart-brand has worked great)
5 cups water
about 5 jalapeños, chopped and sliced however you like
about 5 tomatos, chopped and sliced however you like
1 package of sliced mushrooms
1 package of baby carrots
copious amounts of pure garlic powder (KirklandSignature works great and usually has the best price)
copious amounts of curry powder
a very moderate amount of Dave’s Gourmet Insanity Hot Sauce, to taste and safe tolerance
WARNING: If you’re not used to working with these ingredients in a cooking environment, wear safety glasses. Under no circumstances can you allow the hot sauce to come into contact with your eyes. Stay clear of the steam and don’t splash the contents of the frying pan.
Put everything in a very large frying pan, stir well, and then turn the heat all the way up.
When the water is clearly boiling, turn the heat down to the minimum setting and then cover the frying pan with a lid.
It will take about ten minutes. Check back and turn the heat off right before the water is used up. If you’re a little too late, some of the food will be stuck to the frying pan.
And that’s it! There should be enough food in there to last quite a long time, and feed quite a few people.
I just dealt with an order for a “set of 2 tires” from Walmart.com. They’re wheelbarrow-size tires that were supposed to replace tires on a cart that hauls stuff.
Instead I received one tire. Mistake #1.
I contacted Walmart.com customer service, and they said I should accept a replacement order for the same product. Against my explicit admonition that this could quite probably lead to the same problem again, and that I would be further entangled in a Walmart problem that I didn’t want to deal with, they said “don’t worry”.
I received one tire again. Mistake #2. That’s now two mistakes in a row against me as the customer…
Of course I now had two tires, but the first representative had told me that I would be charged again if I didn’t return the first order… I contacted Walmart.com customer service again, and after wasting time with the 1st-level representative, I asked to be transferred to the supervisor on shift. Believe it or not, this final conversation was the only thing in the whole affair that truly disgusted me. The supervisor said I would now need to re-package up their two incorrect orders, and then take their merchandise over to a UPS store to make a return. Otherwise, I’d be charged for two orders! Apparently because I should have mystically known that the product description was wrong, even though twice it said it was for a “set of 2 tires”, and there was nothing anywhere on the product page that seemed to contradict that, even to the point where the very first representative thought it was a shipping department problem.
Here’s the thing that disgusted me. The supervisor was still acting like this was all business as usual! She was still in that business-as-usual mode. She acted like it was my distinct responsibility to clean up the mound of problems that had been saddled upon me, even against my own warnings and recommendations… When you commit one mistake against the customer, it’s certainly bad, but I suppose it could occasionally happen. But when you commit two mistakes in a row against a customer, in the same transaction, there is one and only one mode to be in: RED ALERT. Red flags and alarm sirens should be going off inside your head!!
That’s not something I can teach anyone at Walmart.com. It’s not something that can be instilled into that customer service supervisor. It’s common sense that you either have or you don’t have.
We’ve all heard that Walmart wants to compete with Amazon, and even dethrone Amazon. The only thing I could possibly tell Walmart is that there is no universe or reality in which that will over occur with employees and especially supervisors like that.
Inside those lists of purchases, I’ll try to sprinkle in some thoughts, opinions, and words of wisdom.
If you happened to read my previous post about the unseemly seller side of Amazon.com, it should have been immediately obvious that it’s pretty messed up. Nearly every aspect of the division is plagued with quality control problems. However, what you might not have taken away from that post was the fact that it’s also incredibly annoying!
How annoying is it? It’s so annoying that you start to resent the entire Amazon company!… Believe it or not, it’s so annoying that you start to actually enjoy the simple, mundane act of making purchases at other websites. I’m not kidding – the simple act of making a purchase at another website actually becomes strangely satisfying – that’s how annoying it is!
So to that end, I’ll be happy to show you a year-long un-Amazon diary of sorts. This won’t be a normal blog post. It will be a living blog post that gets updated every once in a while when new purchases of interest are made. For at least one year, and possibly much longer than that, I’ll be looking for better-than-Amazon deals and purchasing strategies. (And so far, it hasn’t been difficult.)
And on a side note, you either like this sort of stuff or you don’t. I’m not sure what it is, but I enjoy optimizing money management. It’s just the way I’m wired. For others, though, it’s their personal anathema. You’ve been warned. That said, I will also add that this is a very useful exercise for anyone, even if they’re not particularly annoyed by Amazon for one thing or another. First, it’s beneficial knowledge and it doesn’t require you to stop shopping at Amazon. Second, you might easily become annoyed by Amazon in the future. Third, it’s critical that these individual corporations never seize a monopoly in the marketplace.
For me, the unseemly experience with the seller side of Amazon was actually a good thing, as it prompted me to do what I should have done a long time ago. I had been a frequent Amazon customer since 2000. Now I can see that I had been on auto-pilot for too much of that time. These days there really isn’t much of a reason to shop at Amazon as a matter of habit.
And finally, the title implies I won’t be shopping at Amazon for a year. That’s not technically true. What I’ve been doing is shopping anywhere else whenever the price was better, equal, or just slightly worse. If Amazon has a much better deal, then I place the order there. (So far, this hasn’t happened often.)
The blog post will definitely wrap up after one year, but like I said, I’ll probably keep this up for a lot longer; most likely, indefinitely.
First, it might sound petty, for example, to spend 3 minutes to save $3 on a $300 purchase. But if you actually look at it, that’s an hourly rate of $60/hour, with zero risk. Usually the rate is much higher than that. Often times, it’s astronomical. It’s nearly often the easiest money you’ll ever make. That’s the general motivation.
The set-up work for much of this stuff (e.g. setting up a few new accounts) is where most of the time is spent, and truthfully it’s not really that much of an investment. (Think about how long it took you to create an Amazon account.) Then, after everything is set up, the purchases get done as quickly as ever.
General concepts to be keep in mind are levels of recourse, and levels of cash back. Ideally, you want maximum levels of both. For example, if I purchase an item on eBay, using PayPay, and I use a credit card as my payment method on PayPal, and I used a coupon from the online coupon industry when making the purchase on eBay, there’s multiple things going on.
First, I’m getting paid three times for my purchase: credit card cash back, coupon cash back, and eBay cash back (“eBay bucks”).
Second, I also have two (maybe even two-and-a-half) levels of recourse. If something goes wrong with the transaction, I would dispute the transaction starting with eBay, then with PayPal, and then with my credit card provider. (eBay has tried to make it so you can’t dispute a transaction with both them and with PayPal, but they’re separate companies, and so it’s kind of murky.)
(Note that Amazon is very stingy across the board. They don’t integrate with PayPal. The coupons they provide to the online coupon industry are extremely poor. They also have no internal rewards system.)
Moving on, what is the proper sequence of a purchase? Let’s say you want to re-order an item that you had purchased from Amazon in the past. First, find the item in your Amazon order history. Check the current price. Copy and paste the name of that item into your favorite search engine, and then see what the results look like. Chances are, you’ll find an equivalent or even better deal somewhere else… Now, if it’s an item you’ve never purchased before, Amazon is a good place to start in terms of evaluating reviews… but never assume those reviews are genuine. There have been various Amazon pay-for-review scandals over the years. I myself have had the misfortune of receiving awful products that had incredible Amazon reviews… Same goes for seller reviews. Amazon itself is implicated when it comes to this! Take a look at the below image. Amazon is currently erring on the size of voiding any and all negative reviews against sellers who partner with them via “FBA” (Fulfillment By Amazon). FBA is sellers partnering with Amazon, where Amazon will pack and ship their products for them (i.e. fulfill the order). Independent sellers rarely get negative reviews voided, but Amazon will look for any excuse to void negative reviews against Amazon-partnered sellers. Be warned!
Next, out of the entire online coupon industry, I’ve found that CouponCabin is very good. RetailMeNot looks promising, but I haven’t had a chance to use it very much. In both cases, I went in thinking it would be a super-sleazy experience, but it was just the opposite. You just need to create a password for your account, and then provide an email address that’s associated with your PayPal account. You get paid via PayPal, and they simply use the email address you provide. You can associate multiple email addresses with PayPal, which makes it even easier when you want to give one out to a site that you’re not that familiar with.
Other things to keep an eye out for:
A ShopRunner account. I received this as a free benefit with one of my credit cards. If the website integrates with ShopRunner, you can log in to your ShopRunner account when making that purchase, and you’ll receive free 2-day shipping, free returns, etc. on that purchase. It’s kind of like an independent, decentralized, alternate version of Amazon Prime.† It’s a decent idea and I’m hoping more websites integrate with it.
un-Amazon Order List:
7/5/2017: Purchased a new laptop at HP.com. HP actually had the best value for the laptop I wanted. It’s been ages since I shopped directly at a manufacturer’s website! (Note that shopping for computers on Amazon is OK at best. It’s probably a decent reference point.) In the past, I’ve usually made this purchase at BestBuy.
7/25/2017: Purchased brand new bottle of my preferred vitamins at eBay. Better price than Amazon. Checkout very easy. Similar in nature to Amazon’s checkout.
7/26/2017: Purchased preferred vitamins at SwansonVitamins.com. They had the best price on these vitamins, and I’ve shopped here before. Checkout easy and painless since they take PayPal. Google Reviews was a handy thing that gave this website credibility when I first started ordering here. After this most recent order, I decided to finally create an account here.
7/29/17:Bulk order of toilet paper was ~1cent/roll cheaper at Walmart.com. Plus additional savings through online coupon industry.
7/30/17: Walmart.com had the best price for a particular chicken coop. It was the same price at Amazon, but I received additional savings through the online coupon industry at Walmart. I’m also thinking it will be easier to return this chicken coop to my local Walmart if necessary. It’s also worth noting that Walmart is very wise in leveraging their physical store holdings, and offering free delivery of many items, without a minimum purchase, to your preferred local Walmart. It seems unlikely that Amazon will catch up on that front.
8/7/2017: HomeDepot.com had the best value (that I could find online) for non-expired, name-brand (or at least semi-name-brand) AAA batteries. Beat nearest price by 50 cents per 100 batteries. Another 5% discount on top of that with online coupon industry.
8/7/2017: 144 pack of Dixon #2 pencils at Walmart.com is price matched exactly to 144 pack of AmazonBasics #2 pencils. However, I get an extra 2%cashback through online coupon industry at Walmart.
8/15/2017: Purchased an MP3 on iTunes. Same price as Amazon, but you do have to jump through a few more hoops, to say the least. (Buying MP3s is slightly convoluted on Amazon as well, just not as much.)
8/20/2017: Purchased mailing boxes at Staples.com. Actually, Amazon never has good prices on mailing boxes. In fact, I’ve never bought mailing boxes there. Additional 15% cash back through online coupon industry.
8/22/2017: Purchased custom soap from Target.com. Same exact price as Amazon, also free shipping, but I also received 8% cash back from online coupon industry. Integrates with PayPal, which Amazon does not. But really, the Target website is very smooth. It was fine the last time I used it, but now it’s very nice. It seems smoother than Amazon’s website… When I had ordered this from Amazon in the past, the soap had arrived busted open and spilled on other package contents. (What a surprise – I guess the crumpled wads of brown paper randomly placed inside a huge cardboard box weren’t enough to protect it.)
8/24/2017: Purchased three new bottles of my my preferred curcumin supplements on eBay. The price was $7.96 cheaperthan the exact same order would have been on Amazon.
In addition, I received $6in eBay bucks.
In addition, I’ll also receive 1% ($0.74) cash back through the online coupon industry.
In addition, many eBay sellers also provide positive feedback to you as a buyer. Although these feedback ratings are ultimately dysfunctional, it’s still something small to weigh. Amazon doesn’t provide any sort of public mechanism that tracks your history and credibility as an individual in the marketplace. Said differently, out of the two dysfunctional feedback systems, I know which one I prefer.
8/29/2017: Read the reviews (which included custom tips and tricks) at Amazon, and then purchased new ignition spark tester at eBay for $1.38 less. Additional cash back through online coupon industry.
8/30/2017: My preferred potassium citrate supplement (it’s supposed to counter some of the negative effects of sodium, and at low doses there should at least be no downside) is at SwansonVitamins.com. It’s price matched exactly to Amazon’s price, but with an online coupon, each new bottle is $0.51 less.
9/11/2017: Went to Amazon.com to read the reviews for a battery charger. Sifted through the reviews to eventually locate critical and definitive information that was copy-and-pasted straight from the product’s manual. Then purchased that new battery charger at Walmart.com; it was price matched to Amazon’s price, but it also provided 2% cash back through the online coupon industry… I also had a well-reviewed (and completely forgotten) residue remover in my Walmart shopping cart. (It had the lowest price online [and it was $3.57cheaper than Amazon].) It was sitting there waiting for another Walmart purchase to round that order up to free shipping, and so this was it.
9/19/2017: Purchased my preferred supplements containing cocoa flavanols at eBay. The price for each new bottle (with an acceptable expiration date) was $7.08 less than the Amazon Prime price. Plus some cash back in the form of eBay bucks. Plus additional cash back through online coupon industry.
Reliability: Myths and Methodology
There may be a misperception that Amazon is a more reliable marketplace, or that eBay, for example, is less reliable. I can tell you without any hesitation that that notion is a completely false.
First, Amazon as a vendor and fulfiller of its own merchandise is not especially reliable. I’ve had just about the same number of issues with their orders as I have had with other big online stores. If you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe the numbers. Amazon’s internal division, “Amazon Warehouse Deals”, regularly has a feedback score of less than 80%!
Now, you always expect a certain amount of phony negative reviews, but sub-80%??! That points to a serious lack of quality control.
As for it’s principal competitor eBay, you have to understand the actual issue at hand. In any marketplace where 3rd party sellers are allowed to sell, the critical issue is the 3rd party sellers themselves. Is the specific seller reliable? eBay has policies that facilitate more sellers selling more types of things on their site. Not surprisingly, a non-trivial percentage of those additional sellers have lower reliability. What it all boils down to on any site (including and especially Amazon) is the reliability of the 3rd party seller.
Below are some of my all-time favorite screenshots of sellers on Amazon. Not only does this illustrate my basic point, it also demonstrates how Amazon is absolutely negligent in addressing clearly unreliable (and even blatantly fraudulent) sellers on its site.
(For the record, I’ve never seen anything this shocking or ludicrous at any other shopping website.)
So, how does one best deal with uncertain reliability in the online marketplace? Obviously, form the best educated guess you can regarding the reliability of individual sellers. This will often times require probing beneath the surface and going beyond the tidy facade of previous seller reviews. Second, if at all possible, don’t order something you need at the last minute! If you need to re-order vitamins, for example, do so several months before you actually need them. This gives you plenty of time to deal with unexpected problems.
9/27/2017: Reviewed old order information at Amazon.com, looked up and confirmed an item to re-order through Amazon.com, but then purchased the new pressure cooker at Walmart.com.It was price matched exactly to Amazon’s price, but I received free 2-day shipping with Walmart, plus $3.80 cash back via the online coupon industry… This is a very common workflow. Amazon currently has one of the better websites to find items. However, as I’ve demonstrated repeatedly, it’s almost always a better deal somewhere else.
10/22/2017: Ordered my second T-Fal Ultimate Hard Anodized Titanium Frying Pan. My first is still going strong after several years; it’s by far the best frying pan I’ve ever encountered. Despite the poor reviews on their own website, I would definitely recommend T-Fal’s “ultimate hard anodized titanium” line… Price was $2.43 less at eBay, plus additional savings through the online coupon industry.
11/2/2017: Purchased more 9V batteries at eBay instead of Amazon. 16 new batteries with a good expiration date was $2.08 cheaper at eBay, but after taking into account a credit card rewards promotion currently active with Amazon, the savings was slightly over $1. Additional savings through online coupon industry, and of course, some more “eBay bucks” were earned.
I chose the best price on eBay for name brand batteries (Panasonic), and compared it to Amazon’s best price on a name brand or their house brand (Amazon Basics). So I suppose one possible additional advantage is I also wound up with Panasonic batteries instead of generic house brand batteries, but of course only rigorous battery testing can actually substantiate which brand is better.
11/2/2017: Purchased 6 new bottles of a supplement for vegetables. SwansonVitamins.com blew away the competition, including Amazon (which actually had a very good price). Saved over $5by buying at SwansonVitamins.com, even taking into account the previously mentioned credit card rewards promotion currently active with Amazon. Additional savings through the online coupon industry.
A supplement for vegetables may sound kind of crazy, but they’re cheap, and aside from the price, there’s no known downside to the particular product. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m willing to be a little loose with my money when it comes to vitamins and supplements, as long as I’ve researched the product to my satisfaction, and have a high degree of confidence that there’s no health downside to the particular product in question. Said differently, I’m willing to roll the dice and risk small amounts of money in exchange for possible health upsides – as long as there are no potential health downsides.
12/29/2017: Made my second-ever purchase at Boxed.com, and I’m very impressed with their website. It’s the smoothest shopping website I’ve ever visited. They’ve clearly invested heavily in it. Today I noticed my American Express credit card was offering $20 off any $75 order at Boxed.com, and so I checked, and their price on Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars 49 Count is still very unbeatable at $15. I re-ordered several boxes, and to round the order up to $75, I also purchased one Benefiber Fiber Supplement 26.8 oz, which appeared to have the best price online (except for Sam’s Club in this case; however, I don’t want to be in any fee-based shopping clubs†).
Within a few minutes I received an email from American Express informing me of the successful promotion redemption.
So, looking back, the purchase itself was roughly $5.00 cheaper per box. I apparently earned$0.84in Boxed.com website rewards. I also earned6%+ cash back from the online coupon industry. I earned standard American Express credit card rewards for the purchase (in this case,1% cash back). And finally I earned another$20in cash back from American Express.
A higher-level analysis might be that since Boxed.com is a newer shopping website, you can expect their promotions to be sweeter. I can tell you that their prices are often times not the best. However, it’s clearly worth checking out.
2/13/2018: Purchased several tables at OfficeDepot.com. It had been a while since I had looked there for stuff. To my surprise, each table in my order was dozens of dollars less than the same table at the nearest online competitor – and way, way less than Amazon. An even bigger surprise was the single shipping option that I could choose from: Free 1-day shipping. And that’s exactly how they were shipped! I guess I still don’t understand their shipping philosophy for those tables, but I can’t complain.
5/15/2018: Purchased some new jars of Benefiber on eBay, and the prices appeared to be the best online. Due to an ongoing promotion, I received over $10 in eBay bucks, plus an additional 1% cash back from the online coupon industry.
By virtue of buying in bulk, I received an additional promotion: a FREE Google Home Mini. Although I have no idea what it does, and I would never buy one of these talking devices, I’m guessing it has something to do with Amazon’s line of talking devices. It’ll be a small adventure seeing if it’s worth using or not. However, the bigger observation here is that eBay has clearly decided it’s in their best interest to make sure Amazon does not have a monopoly on little talking devices in your home. This is probably a very wise decision on their part, and it actually reminds me of the whole net neutrality debate.
5/31/2018: Purchased some shipping boxes on quill.com, and the prices for these specific boxes appeared to be the best online. (Amazon doesn’t seem to really compete when it comes to shipping boxes, which is strange because they clearly make and use a lot of boxes for everything they ship.) quill.com had a $50 off $200 promotion, so I purchased supplies in bulk, and I received an additional 3.5% cash back from the online coupon industry. And as always, there’s additional cash back from my credit card. The lowest cash back rate with my cards tends to be 1%, and that’s what I’ll receive in this case: $1.50.
I always tell everyone it’s to their advantage to use credit cards for purchases (not for credit) – for many reasons. But what’s interesting is that the more people use them, the better the rewards will tend to be. That’s because if everyone uses credit cards, then the credit card companies will have a much better position to negotiate rates and fees with merchants, plus they’ll just have more profits from which they can give more rewards back to consumers. Conversely, if only a few people used credit cards, merchants would wisely not accept them. When combined with all the other features and benefits, one thing is certain: Credit cards are a powerful tool for the consumer!
For anyone reading in the Rio Grande Valley, listen up! The Walmart Neighborhood Market store in south Weslaco is incorrectly ringing up credit card purchases with the ‘Discount Store’ merchant code. While that makes little difference to Walmart, it does allow credit card companies to pay out fewer rewards. If you live in the Rio Grande Valley and want to maximize your rewards, call that store, ask for the manager, and request that the transactions be rung up with the proper code: ‘Grocery Store/Supermarket’. Until they make that change, H.E.B. will tend to yield better rewards. The difference for me would be +4% in additional cash back.
6/13/2018: Sears.com easily offered the best value for an impact socket set. A 55-piece Craftsman set at $140 total, shipping and tax included, with an extra 6% cash back from the online coupon portal BeFrugal.com, and a whopping $50 in Sears cashback (must be spent in 30 days) is nearly impossible to beat.
Orders At Amazon
Order Placed At Amazon.com Since 7/5/2017: 14
7/27/2017: Purchased a sign. Merchant got the order wrong and sent me a magnet instead. They had to send me a second sign.
8/7/2017: Purchased 1080 count of Vanity Fair napkins. Just so you know, those are the best napkins I’ve ever purchased. Amazon’s price beat all other online prices, by far.
8/11/2017: Purchased the sign I actually wanted. (If you have a choice, buy from Highway Traffic Supply. They provide the correct quality. FYI, they’re also a seller on eBay.) Also ordered a cheap book by an independent author; book wasn’t really being sold anywhere else.
10/18/2017: Purchased a 32 oz. dishwasher rinse agent with “cosmetic damages” (presumably to the bottle) from Amazon Warehouse Deals. The price was significantly lower than any other price anywhere for this item. (Furthermore, I’m surprised this hadn’t been snapped up already… who would care about a dent in their bottle of dishwasher rinse aid?) At the same time I also purchased two new bags of dishwasher salt. They happened to be moderately cheaper at Amazon, at when combined with the rinse aid, my order reached the free shipping threshold.
10/19/2017: Purchased document repair tape from an independent seller at Amazon. It was $2 less than any other price online… It was also about 30 cents less than the Amazon “Buy Box” seller for that product.
Amazon “awards” the Buy Box (basically the ‘Buy’ button for a product page) to vendors based on a secret algorithm. Unbeknownst to many, when one clicks ‘Add to Cart’ for a product, often times the vendor is not Amazon, but instead a 3rd party seller who has been awarded the Buy Box. You have to read the fine print at the top of the page to figure out if Amazon is the actual vendor or if it’s a 3rd party merchant… Regardless of which vendor is behind the Buy Box, often times there is another seller who has not been awarded the Buy Box, but who is offering the same exact product for a lower price. To view those sellers, you have to click on the ‘New and Used…’ link, also at the top of the page.
11/4/2017: Was looking to re-order dishwasher tablets. Target had set their price to Amazon’s price. (This has been a very common occurrence. Target is clearly setting out to compete with Amazon on price.) However, Amazon also offered one of those strange $2 coupons that you have to click on. Since those little coupon buttons are right there at the very top of the product page, I’m not sure why they don’t just lower the price…
Actually, whatever the reason is, perhaps it actually thwarts price matching from competitors like Target. A human in charge of price matching might miss it, or ignore it. Or, a programmer writing an algorithm for automated price matching might miss it, or ignore it, and/or the UI format for the coupon could be modified much more frequently to thwart the algorithm (kind of like those “I’m Not A Robot” CAPTCHA tests). End result would tend to be competitors not price matching correctly.
12/1/2017: My online calendar sent me an email notification saying my last batch of Potable Aqua Water Tablets was about to expire. Amazon still seemed to have the best price, and so I re-ordered with them… The product “[m]akes questionable water bacteriologically suitable to drink”! Thankfully I’ve never had to use a single tablet. It’s the proverbial case of something you’d rather have and not need, instead of vice versa. I believe the next best alternative is a bleach solution.
2/9/2018: The freezes hitting Southern Texas with extreme wind chill finally motivated me to get better winter working gloves. The last straw was my hands throbbing in pain and then going numb while wearing my best winter gloves, and all this while working outside for only minutes. After searching online, the best reviewed gloves also happened to be cheapest at Amazon, and by just enough to motivate me to place the order with them.
2/24/2018: Amazon was the best marketplace for two additional purchases:
I realized that the only thing better than space-suit-style bee gear is a second layer of protective gear underneath that. These extra-long head nets are perfect for the job. They’re plenty long enough to tuck into your shirt, and they’re also slim enough to fit underneath the space-suit bee gear. This gives anyone working with bees two levels of protection. You just need a regular fishing/bucket hat to go along with it, to keep the inner head net (and thus the bees) away from your face. (It really is kind of crazy to have just one layer of protection when you’re working with bees that could kill you if that single layer failed. And I’m kind of surprised I’ve never seen this simple $20 idea mentioned anywhere else.)
Payphones are slowly fading away, but they say that payphones will never vanish entirely. To that end, I realized a $10 calling card with no expiration date wasn’t that bad of an idea. The idea is that in the event of a catastrophic sequence of bad luck (e.g. no phone, or no phone service), having the means to make calls could be pretty useful. I looked it up, and it’s worth noting that collect-call services are becoming more rare; it’s possible these services could eventually vanish. It’s also worth noting that calls at a payphone typically use a landline, and as far as I know, that system is completely separate from over-the-air cell service. In other words, it would be useful in the event of cell towers going down.
5/20/2018: Amazon was the only marketplace selling the Realtree Camo Mens Lined Clogs in size 11, and so I purchased some. These are the best shoes ever, and size 11 is extremely hard to find! They’ve been out of stock everywhere for the past year.
5/31/2018: Had to purchase a particular monitor and a 3rd party seller at Amazon had the best price for that monitor anywhere online. I’ve found you can usually find some good deals on monitors if you’re willing to accept a scratch on the screen or a few missing pixels.
6/1/2018: Purchased a dual display docking station at Amazon. It allows you to add monitors to your computer beyond what your video card supports. In this case, an old PC needed a second monitor, but there was no native way to support that. The price was slightly better at Amazon – just barely enough to justify the purchase there.
6/2/2018: Purchased a complete series set of DVDs for a comedy on HBO. Best price online, and well worth the money too.
Since it had Spanish audio in addition to Spanish subtitles, it remains on my top shelf of curated DVDs. They say repetition is the key to learning, and that would certainly apply to learning a language. What’s intriguing at times are the cultural biases and prejudices, and even the issues and agendas, of the translators.
6/12/2018: Based on the hype and a moderate interest in “survivalist culture”, I purchased Season 1 of The Walking Dead. It was the best price online.
Extremely, extremely over-hyped. I do not recommend Season 1 at all. I barely made it half way through the season before putting it in the DVDs-to-sell-on-eBay box.
If I can count right, I made 14 orders at Amazon over 12 months, which is a little over 1 order per month. That I placed that many orders at Amazon, while trying – out of spite – to not place orders at Amazon, is kind of telling. I guess they really are the shopping behemoth that they’re made out to be.
On the other hand, I placed many, many more orders outside of Amazon. Many more than are listed here. And looking back, I think there is a moral to the story. Shopping exclusively at one location is definitely not optimal! Furthermore, if the average consumer performs this same exercise, they will be better for it in terms of money saved, options discovered, and quality delivered.
This exercise definitely reinvigorated, retrained, and re-honed my online shopping skills, and if you find yourself stuck to the same shopping portal, you ought to consider whether these results are something you’d like for yourself.
In closing, I believe this final advice is the most unheralded, and perhaps the most shocking. With the advent of smartphones, there may be the tendency to perform online shopping through only a few select apps, or even just one single app. This is unfortunate, because smart online shopping is the job of an information worker; it requires a mouse, a keyboard, and at least one monitor that supports movable windows. Smartphones aren’t well suited for this. And naturally, Amazon (or any other shopping website) wants you to use their smartphone app most of all, because they’re betting that over time you’ll become more and more locked in to their app – regardless of how much money you’re losing by not shopping elsewhere. And again, this is because it’s cumbersome-to-impossible to shop smarter with your smartphone… This marks a pretty interesting property that can best be visualized with a bell-curve-type graph: In the age before the internet, we were all dumb shoppers. When the internet arrived, we became much smarter shoppers. And now in the age of smartphones, we are once again becoming the dumb shoppers that we originally were… Now, the average consumer might say they don’t need a regular computer, since they can do everything on their smartphone. This is a false economy, since I’m pretty sure I saved more than the price of several computers, in one year, through smarter online shopping!
† For me personally, I have figured that the amount I would pay for an Amazon Prime membership, without hesitation, is $5. The reason is that I almost never need expedited shipping. I also know exactly what I’m looking to buy, and pretty much never buy random stuff just because it’s on sale. However, I still think the idea of ShopRunner is a good one. It basically decouples the major benefits of Amazon Prime from the Amazon company. The fact that my ShopRunner membership is a free benefit courtesy of my American Express card makes it all the more lucrative; I don’t even have to pay that hypothetical $5 to have it.