Role of Governments: to Serve the People or to Control the People?

This recent podcast by NPR’s Planet Money reminded me of my own issues with the government, Episode 923: Good Teachers, Bad Deal:

A Department of Education program gives talented, up-and-coming teachers a grant, not a loan, to help them pay for college. The condition: After you graduate, you have to teach in a low-income school.

Thousands of teachers kept their end of that bargain but had their grants turned to loans anyway after sending in a required form a day late or accidentally missing a signature. Some are in crippling debt because of it.

Hearing about these teachers’ struggles reminded me of why people hate governments: governments act like they’re here to control or rule us, not to serve us (through the taxes we pay). It’s not supposed to be this way, at least not in the United States.

Chris Rock made a joke that when it comes to the police, you get what you pay for, and that got me thinking: if police were paid double, would you get more talent into the employee pool? Could we do more with fewer officers? People who would be open to trying new ideas, more efficient ways of keeping community? If job security were no longer a guarantee, as it is for many government employees, would that change how they treat people (who should be recognized as the customers)?

A year ago I received a citation from the City of San Jose about a car that was registered to someone with a similar name. There’s no number to call or person to talk to so you can resolve the issue directly. Instead, you are directed to pay first, and then appeal. I thought that was ridiculous, why should I pay first when this person is not me? There’s no proof it’s me included here either, like a title for the car showing me. I sent the letter below.

Dear City of San Jose,

I am sending this notice for your information. Previously, I was issued a parking violation citation issued under license plate ****.

As I mentioned before, I have no relationship to this vehicle. I have never heard of this vehicle (or owned or leased it) until I received the notice from the City of San Jose. Since then, I have conducted research with the DMV on this matter.

On Friday, February 16, 2018, I visited the Santa Clara DMV and called the DMV office at 1-800-777-0133.

Elvin (ID ****) and Georgett (Rep and Senior Technician) at the 1-800 DMV number helped me with the following information:

  • I have exactly one vehicle (2013 ****) registered under my name and address. This is clearly not the Red Nissan that was cited.
  • You may look up my vehicle information under license plate ****. I have included a DMV report of this vehicle (from February 23 CA DMV Visit in Santa Clara).
  • The release of liability for the Red Nissan lists a “Michael ****” and San Jose without a street address or additional identifying information. There is no information that ties the vehicle to me.
  • In the city of San Jose alone, there are 123 people under the name “Michael ****”. In California, there are 1191 people with my name.

I believe this provides clarity that your citation is a mistake.

Sincerely,

Michael ****

No response from the City. 1 year later, earlier this year, I received notice that San Jose made a claim on my taxes. I called the City to protest this. The person I talked to confirmed that they received my letter a year ago but since I had not paid the fine, they would not review my complaint. I reiterated everything mentioned in the letter and told them, but the employee had this “I don’t care, that’s your problem” attitude and could not give any evidence about why they believed the car was mine. She said there was proof it was mine, but did not go into more detail – her case was it’s your name, why would we be wrong? She said I could write a letter to the City, but in a “yeah right, good luck” way.

I asked her what she would do if she had gone through the process I had to prove that the person in question was not me, and she had nothing to say but to dismiss me.

I wrote the city again after that, and a few months later, I got a check for the amount that had been taken from me in the fine. However, there was no information in the letter, no message saying this had been a mistake, that the fine had been cancelled. My concern is what if I get another notice next year that I have another claim on taxes for an unpaid fine, how am I supposed to provide evidence that the issue has been cleared?

There’s no transparency, no responsibility for the government with its constituents. As a citizen, I’ve been treated like a pain in the ass the government is trying to get rid of, and when you listen to the Planet Money podcast, that’s exactly how it feels.

And this makes me question, why do we pay taxes, what is the government’s relationship with its citizens?

Finding the Harvey Weinstein in Me

As the Weinstein allegations start to go Cosby, I wonder about my role as a man. Am I part of the problem, part of the solution? How do I know, other than boosting my own ego thinking, “I couldn’t possibly be part of the problem!”

When I was living in Vietnam at the beginning of this decade, a friend told me of this story of Weinstein. I didn’t know the person involved, or Weinstein, but should I have done something? What could I have done?

Perhaps you’ve heard of the casting couch. It seems like common knowledge today that women, whether in show business or not, are going to be harassed / coerced / manipulated, but is having this knowledge improving anything in society? In the Vietnam incident, my thought was more along the lines of “Well, I guess that seems to be the price of admission.” I wasn’t happy or being humorous, but that seemed to be it in terms of my involvement.

My sister-in-law is a successful fashion model, and that’s where those thoughts return. While I want to be outraged at what’s going on (to women), at the same time, I just do not want to think about it because I don’t know what I can do.

I feel castrated in my possible reactions. What is the civilized way to fight back, to really have impact?

And yet, I’m not an innocent in this discussion. I have my own story of guilt: 20 years ago in high school, I was going online during the starting days of the internet, the time when people started transitioning away from AOL and finding the internet: Yahoo, Google, Excite. E-Mail was a miracle. This was Web 1.0, the early days of Geocities, where anyone could create his own website and show off a cool animated “hits” counter to show off the number of page visits.

As many teenage boys do, I gawked at the attractive girls in my classes. I had an idea of naming the most attractive girls in my year and putting it on a website for everyone to see.

I learned basic HTML, scanned photos from my yearbook and put it up. Scraping emails from group threads among classmates, I executed my first example of spam / mass emailing / grassroots marketing. I didn’t ask permission from any of the girls, being scared of them (never had I talked to most of them) and their possible responses, yet still wanted the site out there, getting attention.

As that was, perhaps it wasn’t so bad and I started to get some hits. I can’t remember all the details at this point, but I’m sure I continued working on the site, seeing how I could adjust things. Some friends of mine gave feedback, and this is where I made the wrong decision.

A friend mentioned (paraphrased) that one girl had a physical feature that would be great for oral sex. I don’t think I really knew what that meant, but I thought, hey, more content, and something to put on the website.

And so I did. I remember showing the website to my dad at this point, and he made a very astute comment (as usual) that I should reconsider putting comments like that on the website.

But I wanted the attention, I wanted people to visit the site and have a reaction (even though I truly feared a negative one), so I kept it. A few days later, some anonymous students had a negative reaction to the site and I was actually harassed (pretty stressful for my teenage self) for it. I do not know if they were doing so in defense of one of the girls, or some other reason. It does not matter.

I clearly put my need for attention over something that was not nice to put in full public view. It could have affected one of the girls negatively, and it was a form of harassment.

I don’t quite remember what happened after this. I am fairly sure I removed that one comment that was out of line, but probably kept the site up for some months after.

But…”I couldn’t possibly be part of the problem!”

The Post-MBA Guide to Buying a Used CPO Car

So you’ve earned your MBA and now it’s time to start working. Especially if you’re an international MBA, you probably don’t have a car and want to get good value for your dollar. After all, you need to look good, but you have to pay off your student loans too.

That’s what I’m here for: I’ll show you how to buy a certified pre-owned car and get the most bang for your buck.

Why Certified Pre-Owned (CPO)?

Manufacturer CPO vehicles are fairly new (within last 3-4 years) and in very good condition. Manufacturers will add additional warranty on top of what a car may currently have, and because of this, they are incentivized to carefully inspect a car before they certify it in order to end up profiting from the extra fee the customer is charged for this peace of mind. For you the customer, you want peace of mind because you’re going to be working so many hours in your new job, you don’t have time to be worrying if your car is going die out on you as you are stuck in rush hour traffic. Thus, unless you consider yourself a car expert who feels he can rate the internals of a car himself, CPO is a great way to go.

Sound good? Let’s get started.

For more about CPO programs and understanding which manufacturers offer good ones, see this article from Edmunds.

  1. Start with CarGurus. CarGurus can tell you how good the price of a car is relative to the area and similar vehicles. It’s a very good starting point for understanding whether something is a good deal. The only thing where it may lead you astray is if the listing on CarGurus is different from the official dealer listing – for example, CarGurus thinks there are a couple of options that are not in fact, in the car. Just double check. Also double check that the car is in fact manufacturer CPO – dealer listing is the official listing. A used BMW car cannot be sold by a Mazda dealer as CPO. It may be CPO by the individual dealer, but you only want manufacturer-CPO. A BMW manufacturer CPO means that warranty is covered by BMW as a whole and you can go to any BMW dealer for repairs.
  2. Here’s an example search I made for a friend who was looking for Mazda and Subaru crossovers. Here’s a starting link for you to enter in your own information. Remember to select “Dealer” as Seller Type and “Certified” under Condition. All cars that are filtered should be manufacturer-CPO.
  3. Before you begin, filter out (check the box) all the options under Photos in the left column. You do not want to see listings with frame damage or simply don’t have a photo.
  4. You want to focus on the Good and Great Deals. I pay attention to anything $1,500 below Market Value. Depending on urgency and how picky you are in terms of options, you may have to be more amenable to lesser deals.
  5. If you like what the car offers, call the dealer and book a time (ASAP) to see the car. Research the car in advance just so you know what you’re getting in terms of reliability, CPO terms, etc. A test drive really isn’t about seeing if you like the car – it’s pretty hard to judge a car on a 5 mile drive that you will probably drive conservatively. If you see a car you love and it’s a Great Deal, don’t waste time and put it off until a convenient time (weekend, holiday). Odds are it will sell quickly. There’s less dealer foot traffic in the middle of a week, so there’s an advantage.
  6. For the most part, don’t expect to really negotiate unless you have leverage (exact same car within 50 miles, similar miles and options). Most dealers now are on automated pricing in which they have enough inventory in enough areas to understand what they can sell at. The system regulates the pricing.
  7. If the car is listed as a Great Deal, it may already be under dealer cost, so no discount possible – also look up a car under NADAguides to better understand the value of a car. Another thing to look into is the Costco Auto Program. The program guarantees you an easy no-negotiation price for a new or used car. Costco will have partnerships with dealers in your local area. You may not get the absolute best price from Costco, but you will always get a very good price with no work or hassle – Costco is very emphatic about protecting its members from typical dealer BS.
  8. Do check out any student offers (usually a cash rebate from the car manufacturer, not the dealer – it does not affect dealer profits) for new graduates. This may be around $500-$750. You can see a rundown of discounts per manufacturer on CarsDirect.
  9. You’ll need insurance, a copy of your job offer (or pay stubs), and a copy of your MBA degree to finalize the purchase assuming you want financing and the student discount. For F1 Visa MBAs, some car financing units may to offer financing to F1 Visas – check in advance. Toyota does, BMW does not.
  10. You’re more than likely better off not buying any additional insurance / wheels / maintenance coverage. Those are always priced to be profitable (of course). You could negotiate it (there may be tips online) if you want to see how low they can go. Expect the car purchase to take 5 hours if everything goes smoothly – most of that is due to financing.

If you’re wondering, I followed these guidelines myself and purchased a 2013 BMW (F30) 328i sedan for $21,500 in the Spring.

My 2013 BMW 328i F30

More details:

  • Original MSRP: $42,000
  • Purchased with 25,000 miles, and with CPO Warranty, the car had warranty for nearly 3 more years or 75,000 miles at time of purchase. Free maintenance was active for an additional 10 months. For reference, a new BMW has a 4 year / 50,000 mile warranty.
  • $1,500 recent student graduate manufacturer rebate from BMW for CPO vehicles.
  • Price was listed at $22.9K. Before the student rebate, the car was shown as over $3,000 below market value, according to CarGurus.
  • Received 2% financing for 5 years, another BMW promotion.
  • No Costco discount – the salesman said, this is already below our dealer cost.
  • NADAguides listed the CPO pricing for a similar (mileage, condition, etc.) vehicle at $27,075, with the “Clean Trade-In” value, or what a dealer would pay if a customer traded in the car to buy another at, at $22,375. This latter value doesn’t include the cost for the dealer to actually inspect the vehicle, recondition any problem issues (for ex, my floor mats were replaced with new ones), and add warranty onto it.