Invest in innovation, not exploitation

The Thinker by Rodin

America is a supposedly country that rewards innovation. The trouble is, a lot of this innovation is really exploitation. I looked into this briefly a few posts back when I looked at Lyft and Uber’s “innovation”. The only really innovative part about these ride services is their app. They’re both cheaper and generally faster than taking a taxi. So much for the innovation part. The rest of it is pure exploitation, mostly of its drivers who get cash up front that doesn’t begin to pay a living wage, particularly if you consider the wear and tear on their cars.

These days much of what passes for innovation in our economy is finding newer and cleverer ways to exploit people, who are generally among the most vulnerable among us. Granted, this may be as American as apple pie. We bought Manhattan from the Indians for the price of some trinkets. These days, the exploitation is less overt. But even if you don’t use Lyft or Uber, you don’t have to look far to see examples.

At the macro level, large companies that pollute exploit us all. Their cost of business is discounted by using our air and rivers as a sewer, and we pay the price. Tens of thousands of Americans die from air pollution every year, and the Trump administration is doing its best to make sure more of us will die. Generally though it’s the poor and vulnerable that get exploited. This is our innovation economy at work.

Perhaps you saw John Oliver’s recent show on mobile home investing. This is exactly the sort of “innovation” that I wish we could outlaw. By definition, if you live in a mobile home you don’t make a whole lot of money. You might own your mobile home but in most cases these homes are not truly mobile. And if you wanted to pack up your mobile home and move it elsewhere, you probably can’t afford to do so. In most cases your mobile home sits on a lot that you rent. There are plenty of investor groups buying these properties and regularly jacking up rents, knowing they have a captive audience. Some say this is a great way to earn “passive income”. What you are really doing of course is exploiting the least among us. In many cases these people are skipping medications or food to pay these rent increases. Some abandon their property, which is repossessed and resold to the next exploited victim.

I’m not prone to anger but these sorts of schemes make me positively irate. They should be outlawed. There are all sorts of ways we pick the pockets of the poor among us: pay day loans with incredibly usurious interest rates, lotteries that take their money but rarely pay off, casinos with a similar idea, higher prices for substandard food because supermarkets won’t serve their communities and of course the traditional: substandard public schools that are grossly underfunded because wealthier school districts won’t share their wealth. If that’s not enough, we shame them for taking food stamps or trying to compete for the vanishingly small market of affordable housing.

Most of us though don’t distinguish between companies that make money via exploitation versus innovation. That’s because it requires research, thinking and our capitalist system sees nothing wrong with exploitation. Look at some of the recent IPOs. How many of these are really driving innovation? Lyft went IPO, but Uber was first to this market. Lyft’s app is not noticeably better than Uber’s. Both depend on exploiting drivers and frequently change their payment terms to drivers to increase their revenues at drivers’ expense. Both are working hard on autonomous car technology. They can’t wait to boot their drivers altogether because they’ve run the numbers and maintaining a fleet of autonomous cars is way cheaper than even exploiting their drivers.

Some companies are both exploitative and innovative. How should I feel about owning Amazon stock, which I probably do somewhere in a mutual fund or ETF in my portfolio? Most of Amazon’s model has been exploitative: they’ve undercut competitors by sustaining losses funded by investors until competitors are out of business. I can see the problem locally with so many vacant storefronts. These customers are using Amazon instead.

Amazon was shamed enough by Bernie Sanders so that they raised their wages to $15/hour, which is good, but it’s barely a floor for a survivable wage. Meanwhile, they are finding other ways to “innovate”, most recently by creating their own air fleet that innovates by screwing their pilots. But other parts of Amazon are truly innovative. Amazon Web Services was a completely new idea that Amazon figured out and which fundamentally changed computing, dramatically lowering computing costs, increasing uptime for connected systems and spurring all sorts of innovation in information technology. Its web services are now the most profitable part of Amazon’s business. It’s proven extremely profitable for Google and Microsoft too, who have pockets deep enough to compete in this market.

Ideally I would not own any stock in companies that are exploitative. But like most of you I suspect, I don’t own any stock directly. Instead, I own mutual funds, ETFs and bonds. Mutual funds and EFTs are collections of ownership in lots of stocks. I could own a commercial bond for a specific company, but even here most of these are amalgamations of lots of bonds funds. There’s no easy way to invest in pure innovation, and hard to avoid investing in exploitative companies.

It’s not entirely impossible, however. You can invest in “green” funds and there are some socially active funds that avoid investments in arguably “evil” countries, which include Israel, which is effectively an apartheid state. Kiplinger has some suggestions for this kind of investing. But it’s not easy and in some cases impossible.

For example, if your company does not allow you to invest your 401K in funds like these, you have no options and may pay a penalty for doing investing outside of your 401K, particularly if your employer makes matching contributions to your 401K.

Which is why in the end what you can do is limited, unless we had a progressive Congress that changed investment laws. At a minimum they could require companies offering 401Ks to provide options for employees who want to invest in funds that are innovative but not exploitative.

I am overdue for a talk about this with my financial adviser. Frankly, I wasn’t thinking much about this until my recent trip on Lyft. Much of our portfolio has moved with retirement from 401Ks to IRAs. These could be shifted toward funds that reward innovation and socially progressive. Fortunately, I have a call with him tomorrow.

Autocracy and why Trump’s firing of his Secret Service director is extremely alarming

The Thinker by Rodin

I’m getting the sick feeling that we are this close to an autocracy. Things seem to be going rapidly from bad to worse to ohmigod this is incredibly dangerous!

The feelings got real when I learned what Attorney General William Barr was planning to do with the Mueller report: redact as much of it as possible and work as hard as possible to keep the full report from ever getting to Congress. It got worse when I watched our petulant Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin brush off Congresswoman Maxine Waters: the idea of wasting his time talking to Congress when he had important things to do! Also, he seems to be aiding and abetting keeping Congress from getting Trump’s tax returns, even though the law requires it.

You don’t have to look far to find plenty of other signs. For example, Donald Trump is thinking of dumping migrants in sanctuary cities. Why? Because he thinks he can and he wants these cities to pay for having the audacity to oppose him. Then there’s his de-facto concentration camps that separate immigrant families and new reports that suggests he wants the U.S. military to build a whole lot more of them and run them, much like the German military ran its concentration camps. And if that weren’t enough, Trump was recently on the border urging CBP employees to break the law by not letting these asylum seekers in. Trump is implicitly saying: I can get away with anything, because Congress won’t hold me accountable in the end. And if you do break the law, I’ll pardon you!

All this is sickening enough, but then there’s the imperial way his administration seems to be blowing off the courts. He’s been under a court order for about a year to resettle these unaccompanied minors with their parents, or at least place them with relatives in the United States. Instead, most of them linger inside former Walmart stores under lock and key and out of sight. Recently, three congresswomen weren’t allowed in to inspect a detention facility for minors in Homestead, Florida. Trump doesn’t care that Congress has the responsibility for executive oversight.

More and more the Trump administration seems to be simply ignoring the courts. Until now, we’ve sort of assumed that if the courts tell you to do something, you must. More and more the Trump administration seems to be just ignoring the courts. After all, what can the courts do but issue more rulings? I guess there is the U.S. Marshal Service, which is supposed to enforce court orders if necessary. But the courts do not control it; it’s controlled by the Justice Department. And our new attorney general Bill Barr seems quite happy to take orders from Trump, even though he is supposed to uphold the law.

Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters? The constitutional remedy for executive overreach is congressional oversight, subpoenas and when all else fails impeachment. Trump’s lackeys are ignoring most congressional subpoenas. Nancy Pelosi has ruled out impeachment, mostly because she knows Trump has no possibility of being convicted in the Senate. And that’s not just because Republicans control it narrowly, it’s because Republicans are very clear that they don’t care about the rule of law. All they care about is expanding their power or, failing that, holding on to their power.

And it’s not like they feel the least bit compelled to follow the rules or precedent anymore. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, an erstwhile conservative, broke with more than 230 years of precedence to speed up the debate on the nomination of federal judges and no longer allows home state senators to block these nominations either.

Meanwhile, deeply red states like Alabama and Texas are going out of their way to turn their states more authoritarian. In Texas, they are debating a law that could potentially give the death penalty to women who get abortions. Wow! The breadth of this should be astounding, but it’s par for the course these days. Ohio’s governor just yesterday signed a law that outlaws abortions if a fetal heartbeat can be detected. These states are simply trying new tactics to see what might overturn Roe v. Wade now that Brett Kavanaugh is a justice. It’s all supposedly about being pro-life, but at least in Texas they are willing to kill people to do it. It’s all absolutely insane, particularly when you consider that not one of these states wants to give women contraceptives to not get pregnant in the first place, won’t subsidize their pregnancies and do their best to keep these kids off food stamps once they are born. Since so many are nonwhite, they’ll be happy to disenfranchise them when they reach voting age too.

Of course, these red states continue to do their best to gerrymander districts and suppress people of color from voting. Florida wants ex-felons to pay all judgments before being allowed to vote, essentially a poll tax, which is unconstitutional. Its state legislature is also working to overturn the referendum, which allows ex-felons to vote in the first place.

So it is crystal clear to me that Republicans will let nothing stop them from achieving their aims. Increasingly they are simply ignoring courts and Democrats in Congress. In essence, they are wholly abandoning democracy in favor of autocracy, and using inertia built into our system of checks and balances and Republicans open willingness to allow Trump to get away with stuff to bring it about.

Frankly, to me the most alarming sign of all was not Trump’s firing of his Homeland Security Secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, but his firing of Secret Service Director Randall “Tex” Alles. Think about it. Let’s assume that Democrats do win the presidency in the 2020 election. And it is ultimately up to the Secret Service to evict Trump from the White House. Will his hand-picked lackey evict him? When push comes to shove, who decides to hand over the nuclear codes to the next president? And if you have a Republican senate that won’t fight back on Trump against anything, if he refuses to leave, how do you get rid of him?

It all makes for a constitutional crisis already well underway that looks like it will come to a crescendo on January 20, 2021, but which is likely to all come to a head much earlier than this.

These are crazy, deeply dangerous and incredibly scary times. We are facing what looks like the probable end of a 230 year old democracy.

Liz Warren for president

The Thinker by Rodin

I recently wrote a post saying Democrats should concentrate on bigger issues like fixing gerrymandering rather than get swept up in the personalities over the many, many candidates running for the party’s presidential nomination. That’s not to say that the field so far is not full of interesting and exciting candidates. Yes, any of them would be more than acceptable as a nominee.

In 2016, I was a Bernie supporter. I correctly assessed Hillary Clinton’s major problem: she wasn’t likeable and was a poor campaigner. I incurred the wrath of many including my wife who despite liking his policies can’t stand Bernie. I’m not sure why this is. It could be that he’s a man, or is white, or since he comes from Vermont can’t seem to relate well to people of color. She’s still anti-Bernie although she concedes she would vote for him in a heartbeat over Trump or any third party ticket. At this early stage, Sanders appears to be something of a favorite in a very divided field.

Yes, I like pretty much all of them with a few exceptions. I’m not sold on Cory Booker because he’s voted like a corporatist for much of his senate career. Ditto for Tulsi Gabbard who is even more so. There are bunches that are technically running that seem to be on nobody’s radar: John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Wayne Messam and Tim Ryan. I bet most of you can’t even say who these people are and what offices they currently hold. Maybe they will distinguish themselves between now and the first votes but there is no particular buzz around any of these candidates. The bigger ones currently running of course are Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg (a true come from nowhere candidate), Julian Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

While any of them would be acceptable to me, as I ponder them in my mind I keep coming back to one candidate who is my heads on favorite in this crowded field: Elizabeth Warren. All candidates have strengths and minuses. Warren’s minuses are pretty well known, but are trivial. But as a potential president, she’s whom I would most like to next see in the Oval Office.

She also happens to be my senator, but I’ve admired her long before we moved to Massachusetts in 2015. Unlike all the other candidates with the exception of Bernie Sanders, Liz has the fire of commitment in her belly. But unlike Bernie Sanders, she understands the importance of policy, and her sets of policies are well thought out and address the root causes of the many issues facing our country. What you really notice though that truly sets her apart from other candidates is that she is egoless. You don’t hear from her that “only I can do this”, like you would from Donald Trump or many politicians. What you hear is an exposition on what the fundamental problems for our nation are and how she would fix things.

Fixing things is her passion. It’s what gets her up in the morning. And that’s what we need: a fixer, someone with determination, passion and persistence to move all levers of government to fix the fundamental problems with our governance. And what she correctly identifies as the most fundamental problem of all: getting corruption out of government. That is the one thing she would work on with the most energy because she realizes that all other things, including having a livable planet, depend on getting corruption out of government. Government must work for the people again, not the rich.

Listening to her, you so plainly hear this passion. It feels 100% real instead of faked. Moreover, we residents of Massachusetts see it from her every day. She lives it. She has never accepted a dime from corporate PACs. Her whole presidential effort is being run on a shoestring, depending on supporters to sustain her campaign. So if you want someone to change things, why not support someone who has given their all to do exactly this?

Why am I less enthusiastic about Bernie Sanders? It’s not that he and Elizabeth Warren vary that much on their positions and solutions. Bernie too knows what must be done and has the fire in his belly. What Bernie doesn’t have is Warren’s deep policy expertise. Warren knows not just how things connect and what levers to move to exact change, but comprehensively understands the steps to get there and how to do the work. This is because for much of her life she has been a policy wonk, which Bernie has not been. Having a vision for what America should be is of little use if you cannot connect the dots and move the levers of government to accomplish this.

If you have some time, listen to Crooked Media’s recent interview with Elizabeth Warren below to get a sense of what I mean. No other candidate brings this level of passion, depth and seeing all sides of an issue. So here’s hoping Warren’s candidacy takes off, and Democrats focus more on her than the many fly-by-night candidates good at theatrics but not so good at putting it altogether.

The gig economy model is exploitative and unsustainable

The Thinker by Rodin

I took my first Lyft ride the other day. I am pleased to say that the technology worked great! I picked up my luggage at baggage claim at Bradley International near Hartford, opened my Lyft app and within two minutes a driver was flagging me down and I was on my way home. I arrived home forty-five minutes later and just $55 poorer, but compared with taking a taxi I doubtlessly saved a bundle. In addition, my driver turned out to work part time for United Technologies configuring cloud services on Microsoft Azure for their customers. So we had lots to chat about and the drive went quickly. He fills his free hours driving people mostly to and from the airport and seemed happy to be a Lyft driver.

Until recently my daughter depended on Lyft and Uber to get around. She gave up her car a few years ago, convinced she didn’t need one in Washington’s far suburbs. If she needed to go somewhere, she’d either walk or use one of these services. Nonetheless, she snapped up the free car I offered her: my old 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid (now replaced by a Toyota Prius Prime). That was my reason for flying: I drove the car to Virginia to give it to her and took a United Airlines flight back. While normally my wife would pick me up at the airport, she recently had a knee replacement and couldn’t do it. So I experimented with Lyft, which I heard was the less evil of the two services. More to the point, it didn’t look like taking a taxi at Bradley was an option anymore. I didn’t see any I could flag down in Arrivals.

So it was a great experience until I thought about the model of Lyft and Uber in general. A lot of their drivers have too and have figured out that they are being exploited. Lyft and Uber are hardly alone using this model. In our new gig economy, the trick seems to be to create companies that find unique ways to exploit workers by making them not realize they are being exploited. In the case of Lyft and Uber, the first thing to do it not to label them employees. They are “independent contractors” who set their own hours and get paid fixed rates. One advantage to being a Lyft or Uber driver compared with being a Supershuttle driver is that they don’t have to rent a van from the company and probably aren’t working sixteen hours a day to keep paying Supershuttle’s franchise and leasing fees.

But they are getting ripped off. In the case of Lyft, they recently reduced payments to their “independent contractors”, which did not make them happy but did probably help lessen Lyft’s losses. Lyft went IPO last week but it’s bleeding money. Nonetheless, they aren’t too worried. Amazon used this strategy very profitably until their competition was either destroyed or bought out. Lyft is hoping for the same sort of success at this game. Its new shareholders don’t seem convinced yet as you can buy Lyft shares well below the $72/share price set at their launch.

These new companies exploit shamelessly and fight dirty. Customers tend to look the other way, basically because they don’t understand what’s going on. If you can save 30% or more with a Lyft ride compared to taking a taxi, you see a good deal plus in many cases they are faster and more convenient than a taxi. It’s clear to me though that these savings come principally from these “independent contractors”.

Taxi drivers are often independent contractors too. They usually aren’t employees. But they are regulated. Taxi commissions typically oversee these services and set rates that allow taxi drivers to earn a decent wage. In some cases they own their taxi, in some cases the taxi company owns them. But it’s a model that’s been working quite well because cities and towns have decided to make it work for both drivers and passengers.

Uber and Lyft decided to be disruptive, which was to just ignore these taxi commissions and brand their services as something other than what it is: a taxi service. The big difference is that their cars aren’t painted with the taxi company’s colors. You hop into one of these cars and hope that your driver won’t drive sexually assault you.

Doing background investigations on “independent contractors” of course raises costs. Hopefully both Lyft and Uber are at least doing cursory background investigations before offering contracts to these “independent contractors”. It’s more convenient to ignore these issues until it becomes too big a problem, and then hope to manage them.

But the real ones being exploited are not customers, but drivers. Basically they become drivers to get some quick cash to pay a few bills. What’s harder to see is the costs on their vehicles and how it eventually affects their bottom line. A car that was driven 10,000 miles a year that is now driven 30,000 miles a year will wear out more quickly and require more frequent maintenance. Neither Lyft nor Uber will pay for these expenses. You are supposed to figure that out as part of your business model, along with other things like withholding money for taxes and social security and Medicare, including the employer’s share. All these expenses plus the quick depreciation and higher maintenance costs on your car means that for most drivers, your effective wage per hour is below the minimum wage and you get all the hassles and costs of maintaining your car and paying taxes too.

These companies are prominent examples of this trend but they are hardly alone. Employers basically don’t want to employ: it’s costly, limits their ability to move quickly to market conditions and requires a lot of hassle. Amazon reluctantly raised wages for its warehouse workers to $15/hour, but it still hires lots of “independent contractors” who work for much less. Even my driver’s erstwhile day employer, United Technologies, is trying him out at part time wages and substandard benefits. He works from home and has to wait two more months before he is allowed to actually come into the office.

I don’t think this gig economy is sustainable. It endures until these “independent contractors” say enough and demand a fairer deal, which is hard to do if you have no union hall. Hopefully they will get a decent deal, but that will raises costs overall and make their whole business model less profitable.

But maybe it won’t matter. Like Amazon they hope that they will have gotten rid of the competition by then by hanging on as long as possible. This success though depends on cutting competition off at the kneecaps and exploiting people as long as possible. In the case of Lyft and Uber, so far it’s been decimating taxi companies. If ultimately it doesn’t work, they go out of business, leaving of course their “independent contractors” hanging.

In the case of Uber and Lyft, it’s clear this will happen eventually anyhow. The plan is to introduce fleets of automated cars as soon as the technology matures. And these “independent contractors” will be left holding the bag with cars with high mileage, lots of costs and no job.

Quantum computers will kill cryptocurrencies, but that’s just the start of it

The Thinker by Rodin

About five years ago I took my first gander at the BitCoin phenomenon. In that post I wrote:

In short, to trust a Bitcoin you must buy into its assumption that it can’t be hacked. Since the dawn of the computer age, hackers have demonstrated their ability to hack anything. They love the challenge. It’s reasonable to believe that Bitcoin is going to be hacked one of these days.

Five years later, BitCoin and similar cryptocurrencies are still safe, but they may not be much longer. This is because quantum computers, which are still-in-the-laboratory are going to fundamentally reinvent computing.

When I wrote this post on BitCoin, I was thinking some hacker would just figure out a very clever way to hack these coins that wasn’t so computationally prohibitive. Right now you can throw supercomputers for years at the problem and they won’t succeed.

Quantum computers though are leveraging actual quantum physics, and that looks like a game changer. If you follow my blog, you’ll realize I’ve been fascinated by quantum physics and its implications, most recently this post. Quantum physics is the study of the ultra tiny; it’s a realm so tiny it cannot be seen at all, but only inferred. The foundation of quantum physics seems ridiculous: it postulates that two things can be in two different states at the same time.

Quantum computers take advantage of this seemingly impossible fact of nature. By allowing a bit of storage in a quantum computer (an atom) to take on not just two values (0 or 1) but an extra value (both 0 and 1 at the same time), putting a quantum computer to a task that would challenge even a supercomputer becomes doable. As a practical matter, this puts the security of the Internet and most of our electronic trust-based systems in jeopardy. It looks like someone with the right quantum computer will be able to decode anything electronically encrypted without breaking much of a sweat!

One thing this will impact is digital currencies like BitCoin. Right now to “mine” a new BitCoin requires rooms full of servers. As most BitCoins have already been “mined”, creating new BitCoins gets prohibitively more expensive. With the right quantum computer though, creating new BitCoins won’t be a problem, even if there aren’t that many more that can be created.

But any digital currency that depends on this blockchain technology could be minted quite easily on a quantum computer. Effectively this means that the “preciousness” of digital currencies is going to go away. Quantum computers will be able to “mine” new digital currencies in whatever quantities will be desired. These currencies then move from being on something similar to a gold standard (a finite number of Bitcoins, for example) to a fiat currency.

But with fiat currencies like the U.S. dollar, some entity controls the creation of dollars (the Federal Reserve). With digital currencies, anyone with a correctly programmed quantum computer can create as many units as desired and the currency permits. In short, digital currencies will reach a point where they cannot be trusted and quantum computers should kill them.

Much scarier though is how easily these computers will crack passwords and encryption keys. Consider that electronic commerce is carried out over the Internet using pairs of public and private keys. The private key is retained by vendors like Amazon, and the public key is handed out, but you need both to make the transaction secure. If you can figure out the private key though you can certainly purport to be some entity that you are not, and once you have someone’s credit card or bank account number grabbing their money won’t take much effort. Of course, if you can easily figure out someone’s password with a quantum computer, not much remains private anymore, at least not in electronic form.

As bad as this is, it has much worse implications. Suppose North Korea or China get a leg up on us on quantum computers. Imagine the havoc they could create. Right now, China is leading on quantum computing. It’s not clear if the United States even has a strategy in this area. We have to hope the NSA is studying the problem and perhaps surreptitiously developing quantum computers too. Quantum computers will break the model of electronic trust that we take for granted. We will need something else that can’t be broken with quantum computers but which can still be done electronically. I can’t think of what can viably replace it. But moving whatever solution we come up with, we have to retrofit every system to use it instead.

The United States would be well advised to become the leaders in quantum computing, and quickly. Unfortunately, our tone-deaf Trump Administration is much more concerned about people seeking asylum on our border or getting rid of Obamacare than tackling a super-huge national security threat like quantum computing. Let’s hope that when the grownups are back in charge again, there is still time to gain the upper hand.

To get your head around this, watch this 3:44 video:

Presidential nomination theatrics don’t mean much. Here’s what really matters.

The Thinker by Rodin

Are you a Bernie bro? Or just a Bernie supporter? Do you go gaga when Liz Warren comes up with new policy solutions? Does Kirsten Gillibrand’s blonde hair make you swoon? Can you identify with Kamala Harris’ multihued skin and mixture of black and Hispanic heritage? Do you feel a magnetically drawn to Beto O’Rourke but don’t really understand why? Does Pete Buttigieg’s candidacy flag your interest despite your inability to pronounce his last name properly?

There is no lack of Democratic presidential candidates out there, even though the first votes for the nomination are more than ten months away. It’s natural for us Democrats to project our hopes onto a candidate. I just want to posit that exactly who Democrats nominate won’t matter too much. Any of them will be more than acceptable, so let’s stop obsessing over their personalities and positions. Instead, if you care, place your energy behind movements, and not a particular candidate.

In electing Trump, Americans bought into the fallacious idea that one person can fix what’s wrong in America. Trump was going to be our strongman. Using bullying he perfected over seventy years; he was going to set America back on the right course. Of course, just the opposite happened. But even if you bought into his nihilistic vision of Make America White Again, he’s failing miserably at it even using his own benchmarks. Trump can’t save America. None of the Democratic presidential contenders can either. No one person can. We save American by caring enough about it to give it the time, attention and resources it requires.

We save America by taking back our government. So let’s talk about how to do that, noting that in 2018 we made great progress by gaining control of the House in a huge wave election. It’s not like we don’t have a whole lot of things that need immediate fixes. Otherwise, come January 20, 2021, most likely there will be only another long, dispiriting slog ahead of us trying to make change. No bully president or bully pulpit can make change. Only we can.

Nationally though there is plenty of work ahead of us. Here are some things we can do:

  • The Electoral College has got to go. The only official way to get rid of it is through constitutional amendment. The unofficial way is for enough states to join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. We need states representing 270 electoral votes to join in. States that join it will pledge their electoral votes to the candidate that wins the national popular vote. We have 181 electoral votes representing 11 states plus D.C. right now. This legislation is pending in fifteen states, consisting of 158 electoral votes. Considering the Electoral College brought us George W. Bush and the Iraq War, not to mention Donald Trump, it’s an effort worth your time and support. We need 89 more electoral votes. Check the map and see if your state is considering it and if so get involved. Just take a few minutes to write your state senators and legislators and urge them to vote for the bill. And if you can, join with neighbors to do it as a focused group.
  • Similarly, we need districts that aren’t gerrymandered to give disproportionate power to incumbents. I give money to the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. In theory even a Republican who believes in this should support this effort. The committee is not trying to stack the odds to favor Democrats. They want districts that are drawn in a nonpartisan manner. Given them some money and time.
  • Elect Democrats to the Senate. Democrats need just 4 net seats to turn the Senate blue in 2020. It is doable since Republicans have to defend twice as many seats as Democrats in 2020. The Arizona seat is open and Arizona is trending blue. Easiest seats to flip are Maine (Collins), North Carolina (Tillis) and Iowa (Ernst). Holding onto Alabama (Jones) will be tough. It can be done, particularly in a wave election, but it requires good candidates, support from people like you and high voter turnout.
  • End the filibuster. The filibuster rules in the Senate are largely dead anyhow, but what remains keep most legislation from even being considered if it doesn’t get a sixty vote threshold. The exception is narrow legislation that meet budget reconciliation rules and many court vacancies. To wield a majority to affect real change, what’s left of it has to go. Vote for senators who pledge to end it. Otherwise initiatives like addressing climate change and voting rights are likely to die there regardless of who is president and how big our majorities are in the House.
  • Vote for change. Unless incumbents have a strong record for voting for the change you want to see, vote them out and vote for someone who will. This is true for state and city offices as well as for national offices. The one exception: do not vote for a third-party candidate for president. All you do is shoot yourself in the foot, as these voters proved again in 2016.

Test-driving the Bolt, the Prius Prime and the Camry Hybrid

The Thinker by Rodin

Introduction

It’s rare for me to buy a car. The last time I bought one was in 2004. My 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid is still moving me around, just not as nicely as it used to. Moving to Massachusetts has challenged it. Here the roads are bumpy and this time of year the potholes are plentiful and dangerous. I recently took it in to replace its rear struts, but driving around is still a bumpy and noisy experience. While I could probably drive it another ten years, it’s past its prime. It’s time for new car.

Back in 2004, hybrids were a new technology. Today they are old news. As I noted, electric cars are where it’s at these days, or at least where the hype is. Not all of us though can afford a Tesla Model S.

Our friend Mary came to visit us in her Tesla Model S recently, a car so large that it barely fit into our garage and only because its mirrors could retract fully inside the car. The Model S is currently something of a gold standard for electric cars. But even with the many Tesla superchargers between you and your destination, it’s hardly convenient. At best, a pit stop takes 45 minutes or so for an 80% charge. This time of the year when temperatures are cold, all electric cars lose range. Her trip that might have taken 8-9 hours in a car with a gasoline engine extended to 11-12 hours in her Tesla, which included two recharging stops.

While I like the idea of an electric car, it remains an iffy proposition as a touring car. Still, I wanted to get an idea if I even wanted one, which is why I ended up at our local Chevy dealership to test drive the Chevrolet Bolt Premium.

Chevy Bolt test drive

Back in 2004, I noted that driving the Prius seemed so futuristic. The technology certainly has changed since then, since the Prius’s dashboard now seems sort of sedate. The Chevy Bolt has an electronic dashboard behind the wheel and a separate monitor between seats for most of the other stuff. Screens change dynamically with the press of a button. These days even ordinary cars have this stuff, but to me it’s all new. I like simple displays for minimal distractions.

With the Bolt’s theoretical range of about 240 miles fully charged, during our cold weather test drive the predicted range was about a third less than that. This makes the Bolt impractical as a touring car. It can’t use Tesla’s superchargers. In the best situation you will have to wait about an hour for an 80% charge. This assumes there is no line at the charging station and a warm battery. But if you are looking for a commuting car, it’s a good choice, since most of the time you will charge it at home. But so are arguably electric cars with less range like the now-discontinued Volt.

Driving the Bolt otherwise surprised me. You expect it to be quiet and it was. Electric motors make little noise compared to pistons pounding inside an engine. It can achieve 60mph in less than seven seconds, so it’s Bolt name is particularly apt. Its high stance made it easy for me to get in and out. It feels more like a mini-SUV than a hatchback. The seats go way back and the steering wheel telescopes. It feels narrow but it’s no narrower than my Honda Civic. It doesn’t absorb bumps particularly well and perhaps due to its high stance it feels a bit hard to control at times. And the seats are not very ergonomic.

But at about a third of the price of a Model S, the Bolt feels something close to a bargain. Of course, it doesn’t pollute, unless you charge it from non-green sources. We have solar panels and get our remainder from wind power, so that’s not an issue. It would go a huge way toward making us carbon neutral. And arguably because it is all-electric, it is less complex. I could expect to save 50% or more on maintenance costs, and the cost per mile to drive an electric car will almost certainly save us 50% or more off the cost of gasoline. While there are other electric cars out there, at the moment it’s really the only practical electric car out there for the masses.

Toyota Prius Prime test drive

We also test-drove the Toyota Prius Prime, a plugin hybrid that can drive about fifty miles on electricity, but only if you don’t go too fast. It averages 50mpg in hybrid mode. It was reasonably easy to get in and out of but it helped to elevate the seat, which can only be done manually. The Prius Prime felt extremely solid with great steering control, and reasonably quiet too. Like the Bolt, it doubles as a hatchback. However its rear window with the line in the middle takes some getting used to and is arguably annoying.

Toyota Camry Hybrid test drive

We used to own a Toyota Camry. Today’s hybrid version averages 47mpg and packs a lot more technology into a fairly compact space. Driving it was quiet and comfortable. It too can drive some miles at lower speeds in pure electric mode, but its battery uses electricity that comes from the engine or regenerative braking. It’s not a hatchback, which is something of a drawback but does have a huge trunk and second row seats that fold back that allow you to transport some larger objects. The Camry remains an affordable car with a premium feel to it. You feel comfortable and kind of pampered, which contrasts with the practical Prius Prime. Its displays though feel a bit too packed with information and there are many little switches that can be hard to finger. Its monitor in the center is a bit small but functional. It’s got all the lumbar support you could want with motors to easily elevate or change the position of the seats. It is quite quiet and handles bumpy roads quite nicely.

Decisions, decisions…

There are other factors nudging us. There are sizable federal and some state tax credits available. The full $7500 federal tax credit for the Bolt expires at the end of the month. With that and a $1500 Massachusetts rebate, we can effectively get a Chevy Bolt Premium with all the convenience packages and the fast charging option for $26,565. It does mean that for long distance driving beyond 200 miles or so we’ll be driving my wife’s Subaru with its annoying manual stick. If we were to buy it, we’d also want to invest in a 240-volt car charger, probably with dual outlets on the assumption my wife would eventually have an electric car too.

All this amounts to a good dilemma, but still a dilemma. Dilemmas indicate who you really are. Am I the eco-green person I think I am? I that case I should buy the Bolt. Am I the practical guy that wants great efficiency in a car but still want to tour in it? Then I should get the Prius Prime. Do I want pretty good mileage car but a bit of pampering? Then I should get the Toyota Camry Hybrid, or some others in this market like the Toyota Avalon Hybrid, a large car which a remarkable 42mpg and one of the highest scores I’ve seen in Consumer Reports magazine: 98 out of 100 points.

I do need to either decide soon or risk some federal tax credits expiring.

Why is the right wing so threatened by AOC?

The Thinker by Rodin

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

Mahatma Gandhi

 

Newly minted congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) has been making quite a name for herself. This is amazing considering she’s been in Congress less than three months. It could be that she is only 29 (also my daughter’s age), making her the youngest person in a congress full of old folk. Nah, it’s not that. Maybe it’s because she’s of Puerto Rican ancestry, but it’s not that either and besides, Puerto Rico is part of the United States. It could be that she is a woman, and you are getting a bit warm there, but with roughly a quarter of Congress now comprised of women, she’s hardly a groundbreaker there. So what is it about her that has the press and the right wing so agog?

I’ve been analyzing AOC (she’s so well known that she is more often known by her initials) trying to figure it out. For whatever reason, she got the attention of the right wing when she handily unseated incumbent Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary for her district that covers the west Bronx and northern Queens burroughs. At this point, even Donald Trump must be getting jealous because it seems Fox News can’t stop talking about her, in a disparaging way of course, which means less attention on him. Based on their attention on her, the right wing judges her as a spectacular threat. She quickly went from being ignored before her primary, to laughed at shortly thereafter, to the “fight you” stage. The right wing sees in AOC something unique and chilling that they don’t fear from the many other liberal women who joined Congress in January.

My take is that she is breaking gender stereotypes right and left. Women are socialized to be nice, so some part of them must always project that stereotype. You can see it in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with her perpetual fake smile. It’s like she’s had surgery to permanent keep a smile on her face. That smile was key to how she managed to gain and retain power in Congress over many decades. She wielded her femininity quite adroitly by exploiting a number of female stereotypes (like always smiling) through her mostly male colleagues.

It’s not that AOC doesn’t smile, but she quite clearly rejects gender stereotypes. With AOC you see a person first, instead of a women first. More importantly, the right wing sees her as a person first, and that’s totally scary to them. Right-wingers by definition don’t like change, and while they don’t like liberal women, they tolerate them more when they act like they act like think women are supposed to act.

AOC though acts as herself. She really doesn’t give a crap what other people think about her, which is in contrast to other women like, say, Nancy Pelosi who carefully stage manages herself. AOC is so much her own person that I don’t doubt that even Nancy Pelosi is a bit irritated and jealous. AOC is changing the rules for how women “should” behave, and criticism just can’t seem to stick. It’s like water off a duck’s back.

Of course, if she looked butch or mannish, then perhaps their attacks would sting. But she also happens to be a beautiful woman. They can’t hate her for being a lesbian, as she is happily heterosexual with a boyfriend while using the newer term “cisgender woman” with unnatural ease. Frankly, they don’t understand a lot of what she’s saying, because she has mastered the code words of her generation. Right-wingers hate terms like cisgender. That’s in part because they don’t believe in gender; they believe that the sex you are born with is your gender, despite the vast mountains of evidence around them that say just the opposite.

So basically she makes them squirm, and this makes their level of vitriol grow. The real threat is hard for them to articulate, but I can. They can’t acknowledge that she is the generation that’s coming at them, and this generation is far more tolerant and far less likely to engage in stereotypes than their generation. She represents not just potential change, but actual change. This is why they are pulling out all guns (hopefully just metaphorically) to stop her, or at least undercut her. It’s just that nothing seems to work. And when she does deign to respond to criticism, she cuts to the chase with a tweet or a statement that underlies the real problem that they cannot even acknowledge to themselves.

The threat they perceive but can’t acknowledge is that AOC is a model. Lots of others in her generation, and even aging geezers like me, can see how she works and realize, Hey, I don’t have to play that game either. I can just be me, and it’s okay! With AOC you don’t see a man or a woman, you see a person: a person very much in touch with who she is who is not afraid to be herself and tell you what she thinks. She oozes self-confidence.

It’s possible she will screw this up somehow. She hopefully has a long career ahead of her and she is bound to make mistakes. When she does, her critics will be merciless. But as long as she projects confidence in herself, none of it should stick. Needless to say her critics will be doing everything possible to trip her up. Let’s hope AOC always stays one step ahead of them because she is truly inspiring in a way that few people ever actually attain.

Ilhan Omar is uncomfortably right

The Thinker by Rodin

New U.S. house representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) — our only female Muslim representative in Congress — got into a bit of hot water recently. At a town hall, she said “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is okay for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country.” She was speaking, of course, of the many people, particularly inside Congress, that seem to have at least as much allegiance to the State of Israel as they do to the United States.

Her remarks quickly went viral and drew a lot of condemnation because her remarks were “anti-Semitic”. Omar quickly apologized for her remarks without wholly apologizing for them. Omar’s remarks though did resonate with some of the new forty House Democrats, which the press noticed. Stories declared Democrats are now deeply divided about U.S. support for Israel. The House later voted to condemn bigotry as a response. The 407-23 vote was curious mainly for the 23 Republicans who voted against it. Presumably they are okay with bigotry. Well, their president sure is.

Before getting into Congress, Omar uttered other remarks that were interpreted similarly. These remarks though pale in comparison to Donald Trump’s many bigoted remarks against Muslims, Mexicans, Central Americans and basically any people of a non-white color. Uttering these remarks at his rallies always drives enthusiastic responses from the crowds. Thus, in context, Omar’s remarks seem pretty small potatoes. But to the giant Zionist lobby, of course they had to be highlighted and deplored. Otherwise, gosh, we might start thinking about whether Omar is right.

Is it bigotry to note that many Americans support Israel, particularly those in Congress with blind support that looks not like patriotism but nationalism? Basically these people are saying Americans should be pro-Israel. If you are not, you must be anti-Semitic. Really! I’m an American, and I’m not a Zionist. This makes me a Jew hater?

At best, the creation of the state of Israel has been a mixed blessing. It did give Jews a nation, but it did so by removing and killing many of the Palestinians living there. And it made the non-Jews in Israel effectively second-class citizens. I am supposed to be in favor of that? Why would any fair-minded American be in favor of that?

Well, I’m not. If you are a Zionist though, then by definition you believe that Jews must have a Jewish state. Maybe you think that’s okay because Jews have been historically oppressed and at times subjected to genocide. I’m obviously not in favor of genocide for any group. The effect of this policy though is quite obvious, and occasionally some prominent statesman like Jimmy Carter will state the truth: Israel is an apartheid state.

I wasn’t in favor of apartheid in South Africa either. That though was easier to see. If your skin was black, you were oppressed. It’s less obvious in Israel because if you didn’t know where someone went to pray you probably wouldn’t know if they were Jewish or Palestinian. The primary definition of a Semitic is:

of, relating to, or constituting a subfamily of the Afro-Asiatic language family that includes Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and Amharic

Jewish is the third most frequent definition for the term.

So to be anti-Semitic you really have to be against anyone of Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic and Amharic ancestry, which by definition includes Palestinians. Today though being pro-“Semitic” means you are pro-Jewish. If you say you are a Zionist, it’s not unlike Donald Trump and many Republicans wishing wanly for a United States populated entirely by white people, who presumably are also not Jewish. Imagine what Israelis would think of other Israelis that were for that.

Unquestionably the creation of Israel stirred up a hornet’s nest in the Middle East. I will grant you that even without Israel, there would be plenty of ethnic hatred to go around there. I will also grant you that as governments in the region go, Israel’s parliamentary form of government beats all the rest. Most of the neighboring Arab states are busy oppressing their minorities much worse than Israel is oppressing Palestinians among them and in some cases even the Palestinians on the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

I will also grant you that our government, particularly under Donald Trump, can’t seem to get the “equal justice under law” thing quite right. If you are white and rich you seem to get much better “justice”, as Paul Manafort’s recent sentence suggests. There is plenty of hypocrisy like this and downright apartheid acts inside many of the nations of this world. Most recently we are seeing it practiced by the Chinese against the Uyghurs in western China, more than a million of who are in concentration camps.

Regardless, apartheid in any form is evil. Apartheid generally amounts to overt racism, so it should be condemned, and (here’s the important part) should not be supported. Rep. Omar at least has the courage to state this. In retrospect, she should have also called out the vast majority of Islamic nations in the Middle East guilty of the similar policies. Israel though has a special relationship with the United States; in that it sure looks like that they can keep being an apartheid state only with our money.

If it were up to me, we would not give Israel a dime in foreign aid because apartheid in any form is wrong, and Israel practices apartheid.

 

Michael Cohen’s testimony heralds the beginning of the end of the Trump era

The Thinker by Rodin

Michael Cohen’s testimony this week sure was riveting. Cohen, Donald Trump’s “fixer” lawyer, allowed Trump to live the life of Riley. Whatever Trump was paying Cohen, it certainly was cheaper than the real estate taxes he would have paid had not Cohen helped him artificially discount the value of his property, or the damage to his image that would have come out had some of his many affairs prematurely seen the light of day.

Cohen’s testimony though simply confirmed what even Republicans accept about him: Trump is a bamboozler, cheat, liar and conman, but he’s their bamboozler, cheat, liar, and conman. So unsurprisingly, Republicans on the House Government Oversight Committee went to bat for Trump by trying to paint Cohen’s testimony as untrustworthy because he is a convicted felon.

Of course, none of them bothered to mention that the main reason he’s going to prison is because of crimes he committed on behalf of Donald Trump. Not one of these Republicans bothered to refute the evidence that he provided. They tacitly accept that Trump (like Cohen) is a bamboozler, cheat, liar, and conman. Unlike in 1974 though Republicans don’t plan to hold the president accountable.

It’s good to be retired though and to have the time to watch it live on TV. Curiously in 1974 when Nixon’s counsel John Dean provided testimony to Congress I was watching it live too (I was only 17 at the time). I was more than a bit crushed. I’m not sure if I was a Republican back then, but I did believe what Nixon said and thought he should be given the benefit of the doubt. And there was John Dean on TV proving that I had been a sap for trusting in Nixon.

Today’s Republicans though don’t feel crestfallen at all. They knew all along whom Trump was; they just didn’t care. He’s a means to their ends. Their ends are simply power: holding onto it and milking it for all its worth. They feel it slipping away, which is why they have no choice but to double down.

In reality, Trump is causing the end of the Republican Party. A party that wants to survive would heave him overboard, but they can’t because he genuinely does represent who they are. There are no more principled Republicans left, not that there were ever many of them. Republicans have demonstrated repeatedly that they don’t care about their professed goals like reducing budget deficits. They care about making the rich richer, the poor poorer, and stacking courts with conservatives who will force people they don’t like to do things their way. Most importantly of all, they care about retaining their white privilege. Sometimes they give away the store. As former Maine governor Paul LePage put it recently:

LePage told WVOM radio that allowing the popular vote to choose the president would give minorities more power and that “white people will not have anything to say.”

Thanks for clarifying that, Paul. But it’s not like these goals are mysteries; Trump has been the living embodiment of them. In the past though they were hidden behind code terms, like “states’ rights”. Now they are out in the open for all to see. Their racism is now explicit, not implicit while the nation keeps coloring up.

And yet, Cohen’s testimony feels like the beginning of the end. Cohen provided a tableau of people for Congress to call on to testify. With the House in Democratic hands, these people no longer have a choice on whether they want to testify. Deutsche Bank is now cooperating with Congress in its attempt to figure out how Trump was getting his financing, a supposed red line for Trump. Trump’s tax returns will soon be demanded and must be provided under law to the House upon request. Now the whole Trump Empire is subject to congressional subpoena and much of it can be examined in public testimony. “Rat” (a term Trump used that is only used by mobsters) Michael Cohen has provided many names, places to look and questions for Congress to ask. He should know, since he spent more than ten years at its center. We can also expect more indictments from Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York too, not to mention at some point a report from Mueller on his findings.

While it’s unclear if the Justice Department would charge Trump while in office, he can no longer realistically expect to escape justice. While Trump waits though, justice can still reach his underlings. It’s likely to reach Trump’s entire inner core including Roger Stone, Don Jr., Ivanka and son-in-law Kushner. And since justice takes time, it’s unlikely that Trump will be president when their cases could potentially become pardonable. And when Trump is out of office, he’s only pardonable by a successor, who is unlikely to be sympathetic to what looks like many crimes.

It took about eighteen months of testimony and work before the Watergate committees grew into the resignation of President Nixon. With his testimony, Michael Cohen has set in motion a snowball on a hill destined to crush many people beneath it as it cascades down the hill. Cohen demonstrated this week he knows just where to let his snowball drop. Now we just need time and patience.