Tuesday, 24 February 2015

On plans afoot

After much internal debate, I have decided to go to Puerto Rico for my winter vacation. Naturally, I will be bringing Leonardo.  The basic idea is to ride around the island including a visit to the Arecibo Observatory.  Some snorkeling is also in the plans. While I had considered to trip to see Izzy in England, various factors dissuaded me from doing so, including the fact that -20 C weather has been very common during the last two months here.

I wrote a bit about this trip a while back, but I will elaborate further. The genesis of this trip started in November 2012, the day after Obama was re-elected. On that day, I read that the Puerto Ricans had voted to become a state, though the vote was non-binding. This caught my attention as there hasn't been a new American state in my lifetime. As well, the fact that Puerto Rico is largely Spanish-speaking made for an unusual potential addition to the American political landscape. Since then, I have been keeping a weather eye on Puerto Rico and have been pondering the notion of a trip. Rather depressingly, one source I read suggested that Puerto Rico would likely end up being a state dominated by the Democrats, partly because of the Republicans' notoriously anti-Latin American stance. As the Republicans dominate Congress these days, it seems that the Puerto Ricans will have an uphill battle to gain statehood.

This will be the first time I have been to the Caribbean so it should be interesting. I am a little nervous, but then I always am. On Sunday, I took Leonardo out of the box I had shipped him in from Kelowna and replaced his suspect rear tire with a new one.  I then gave the chain a cleaning before putting him into another bike box, this one larger and reinforced with corroplast.  I had used the box before. However, I was surprised to see that it still had wheels attached to it from my previous trip with it in 2013.

Monday, 9 February 2015

On American financial primitivism

This post should have been written months ago, but I never quite got around to it.  It stems from various observations I made whilst biking in the United States last year concerning the American financial system and how different it is compared to the Canadian system and indeed that of other industrialized countries.

The first thing that struck me was how deeply and quickly the elimination of the penny in Canada has shaped my habits. Several times, I found myself instinctively rounding down or up to the nearest 5 cents when paying for things with cash, despite the fact the Canadian penny hasn't been gone for all that long. Pennies are surprisingly annoying once you have to use them again. While I was waiting out a rain shower under the eves of the C-store in Caspian, I overheard the cashier talking on her mobile to someone asking if they could get her some pennies as she was out and it was a weekend. I surprised her by giving her my stock of pennies (about 17 or so) on the random acts of kindness principle. A few days later at another, less corporate C-store on Highway 2 in Michigan, the owner told me that he rounded down prices to the nearest 5 cents. We had a discussion on the Canadian experience of the abolition of pennies.

In a similar fashion, I noticed that I was instinctively rustling my American bills in order to separate them as I do when handling the new plastic Canadian bills which are known to be somewhat sticky. The cloth paper American greenbacks seem almost an archaic throwback along with the absence of dollar coins or even two dollar bills. While both exist, they are rarely seen. The two dollar bill on account of prejudice bordering on superstition against them.

Another throwback is the way credit cards are handled. Rather than the now ubiquitous PIN reading machine (at least in Canada but also in the U.K. and Australia) such as the two transactions I did this morning, the procedure is the old carbon copy imprint and signature method. Likewise, Interac or other debit payment systems seem to be almost unknown. One visible effect of this is that it is obvious that people still pay for a lot of things by check, including gas. I saw a number of gas stations with signs limiting the use of checks such as this one:
I see this as a sign people aren't using credit or debit cards to commonly pay for things. As well, it also indicates a fear of fraud.

In thinking about these issues and trying to figure out the "why" of it, I tied it in with another phenomena that seemed odd to my eyes: the absence of major banking chains. When I rode through American towns, I rarely saw any familiar banks. By this I don't mean Toronto Dominion or Bank of Montreal, but a consistent  "big name" bank, à la Citicorp, Bank of America or the like. Instead, they banks I saw tended to be "First National Bank of Podunk" or "Mudville Savings and Loans." Evidently, they were linked to a greater network as their ATMs worked for me, but they didn't seem to part of a chain equivalent to TD or even Caisse Populaire Desjardins.  My working theory is that there is a bias against "them there evil Wall Street bankers" which translates into small banks. (I have since found out that interstate bank branching only became legal in 1994(!)) How the small banks tie in to the larger financial network is unknown to me.  However, I am prepared to speculate that this means the small banks don't have the capital to bring in the debit machines. From a grocer friend, I know that those things are expensive and would be more so if the parent bank was small. Thus these small banks represent a barrier to technological innovation. At least, that is my theory.

As well, I can't help but wonder if the separation of small banks dealing with consumers from the large commercial banks didn't contribute to the financial meltdown a few years back as financial instruments (such as sub prime loans) "traveled" more between institutions rather than staying put within a single large bank with many branches.

All this to say that financially, the United States seems primitive in many respects.