I’m betting on a recession

The Thinker by Rodin

In a recent post, I suggested leading a logical life. It’s logically the logical thing to do.

Of course, it’s hard to say what is logical, as there is a lot of murkiness in the world. To deal with the murkiness, sometime toward my late forties I hired a financial adviser who gave me all sorts of logical advice about how to manage our finances. It was good advice. He must practice his own advice because after he retired I found another financial adviser so the good times could keep coming.

His advice costs me a few thousand bucks a year, but I figure it’s worth it. I likely wouldn’t be as successful financially on my own, as the ins and outs of markets leave me bewildered. Markets really don’t make a whole lot of sense. One sensible piece of advice that investors will hear from reputable advisers is not to time the market. Find a sound financial strategy and stick to it. Ride the ups and downs in the market. Always think long term.

It’s been good advice. As I noted in previous posts, our wealth is a result of investing regularly, but it was greatly assisted by the collapse of markets in the Great Recession. By accident instead of design, I ended up buying lots of funds when they were grossly undervalued and watched them steadily appreciate over the last decade.

Buy low, sell high is great advice too, but you never really know when a stock or a fund is a good value. Currently the cost of buying into the market is quite high, by historical measures. I don’t trade in individual stocks. Like most Americans, I trade in funds: mutual funds and ETFs for the most part, along with various commercial and government bonds. It makes sense: any individual stock can have huge fluctuations. I find safety in market baskets of similar funds instead.

Every year when I think stock prices can’t get higher, I seem to be proven wrong. 2018 turned out to be a no-growth year because of a selloff in December 2018, but 2019 was phenomenal, with funds up more than twenty percent. It’s crazy but looking at our investments, since we retired in 2014 we’ve nearly doubled the value of our portfolio mostly by doing nothing but periodic rebalancing.

Given all this, it would seem foolish to start cashing in our chips. And yet today, that’s exactly what I did. I didn’t do it with our entire portfolio, just with the part I control. Our financial adviser oversees our assets in TD Ameritrade, but I oversee the funds in my Thrift Saving Plan (TSP), the federal government’s 401K system for its employees when I was one of them. Until now I’ve been mirroring in that fund the plan our adviser has been recommending in our TD Ameritrade account: 60% stocks, 40% bonds. Today I issued an order to the TSP to rebalance these funds to 40% stocks and 60% bonds.

Crazy? It might be. While no one can time the market, for a long time I’ve been queasy about being so highly invested in stocks. Our financial adviser said not to worry because my pension means that we can assume more risk, and thus reap greater rewards. And he’s been right. I keep waiting for this house of financial cards to collapse, but it doesn’t seem to be doing that.

While not an active investor, I do watch a fair amount of financial news and look at trends. Certain mega-trends that have me worried. What I keep seeing is that we’re doing the same stupid stuff that led to the Great Recession. It really looks like we have a credit bubble underway. If this bubble pops pretty soon, I’m going to look smart. If it doesn’t, I’ll look kind of silly. But consider these statistics:

  • Corporate debt is now higher than it was before the Great Recession: 46.5% of GDP in 2019
  • Credit card debt is at an all time high of $930B, which is $60B more than at its peak before the Great Recession
  • Auto loan delinquencies are at an all time high too, past the Great Recession rate. Some 7 million Americans are 90-days or more behind on their payments
  • Overall household debt is at a new high of $14.15T, as of the end of 2019
  • Student loan debt is at $1.4T at the end of 2019, and no one realistically expects most of these loans will be fully repaid
  • Wage growth has been mediocre. One percent real wage growth per year is certainly better than no wage growth, but it’s hardly a shot in the arm to the economy, which is probably why debt is up so much. The real cost of living is much higher than this mediocre wage growth which means most Americans are treading water financially. To the extent lower wage workers are doing better, it’s largely due to raising the minimum wage in more progressive states and localities.

The Fed is keeping the economy primed by injecting cheap money into the economy, which is encouraging the record high debt statistics. Because Trump’s tax cuts benefited largely only the rich, who can’t spend much of this new wealth, the Fed has to prime the economy instead.

On the plus side, mortgage default rates are half what they were before the Great Recession, which is probably because it’s still harder to get a mortgage than it was before the Great Recession, when pretty much anyone could get one with no money down.

All of this strikes me as showing that our economy is fragile and built on large amounts of unsustainable cheap credit. Certain sectors of our economy are in recession. Many nations are already in recession. Then there is the fallout from trade wars and now a coronavirus to worry about. Given all these risks and the huge credit bubble, my gut tells me that things are overdue to fall, perhaps spectacularly again. And when they do, the Fed will have few tools to use.

In general, stock prices strike me as crazily overvalued, pumped up by cheap credit and stock buybacks financed by cheap credit. All this cheap credit is encouraging unhealthy levels of debt by all sectors.

Obviously, I could be wrong on all of this, but reallocating about $100K in our portfolio from stocks and toward bonds lets us reap these inflated stock prices before most catch on that these assets are wildly overvalued. Also, when stocks return to more reasonable prices, we could buy them cheap again.

We’ll see what happens but I’m betting I made a smart move today.

Our constitutional crisis has arrived

The Thinker by Rodin

With the Senate’s “exoneration” of Donald Trump last week, and his subsequent but wholly predictable reaction to it, our constitutional crisis has now formally arrived.

I’ve been warning about it for years, twice in 2016 alone, but it’s now here. Unfortunately, there is no knight in shining armor to save us. Turmoil and a likely tainted election are ahead, with a good chance that Trump will try a constitutional coup before then.

You can see it in his increasingly unhinged tweets. He’s been posting over a hundred of these a day lately, but now that he feels he can govern with impunity, he’s off on a rampage. His rampage is likely to get much, much worse because we know what happens with narcissists with power. Arguably he’s got more power than any narcissist since Adolf Hitler. Like Richard Nixon, he’s got his enemies list, but unlike Richard Nixon he’s knows he can get away with pretty much anything now. In Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon got next in line Robert Bork to fire the special prosecutor investigating him, after his attorney general and deputy attorney general wouldn’t do as ordered, and resigned. Robert Bork, who later went up for an ill-fated Supreme Court seat, had no such scruples.

Trump already has his cabinet of sycophants, so he’s taking it out on those who testified against him. His Friday Night Massacre removed Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and his European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland for testifying truthfully. Also gone, just out of spite, is Vindman’s brother and identical twin Yevgeny, who also happened to work in the White House.

This is likely just the start. An enraged Trump has a whole host of other targets including Mitt Romney who had the audacity to vote to convict him on one charge, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressman Adam Schiff. Moreover, he’s been combing government looking for ways to make others pay. All New Yorkers on the TSA’s Trusted Travelers program are being punished because its legislature made it a sanctuary state; they can’t use it. But that’s not all. Exports of New York titled vehicles have been put on hold until further notice.

Schiff’s life has been threatened. Threats are reported against Mitt Romney, who at least is independently wealthy to ensure his own safety is uncompromised. Doubtless Nancy Pelosi is getting threats too. This is probably not new for her, but the number of them is likely increasing. Trump is determined to make as many people hurt as possible for his mental illness.

With all but one Republican dutifully voting to acquit the president, the Senate obviously won’t hold him accountable should the House impeach Trump again. The election is supposed to straighten this all out, even though it will be an even more unfair and tilted election than the 2016 election. Meanwhile, Attorney General Bill Barr says he has to approve all political investigations now and is setting up a channel for wholly discredited “evidence” “uncovered” by Rudy Guiliani against Joe and Hunter Biden to be considered for prosecution.

All this is because no one can tell Trump that he is wearing no clothes. With the possible exception of Mitt Romney, there’s not one Republican in Congress who’s got the balls to stand up to Trump. Oh, and by the way, lots of Republicans, including Donald Trump Jr., want to kick Romney out of the Republican Party. At least one member of the Utah legislature wants the legislature to censure him for his vote, even though it doesn’t have the power. Like Donald Trump, this Utah legislator doesn’t seem inclined to let law get in the way.

All this amounts to a huge rage by Trump but also from all those who support him. Trump has not only proven that he has a raging case of malignant narcissism, but his supporters have one as well. Evidence does not matter in the least. The Senate will let Trump do what he wants. Bill Barr has forced the Justice Department to stop applying impartial justice. And our conservative leaning Supreme Court seems content to stand on the sidelines.

I expect Trump to keep pushing the envelope. When he discovers that no one will hold him accountable, he will keep upping the ante. It will get worse and worse; mark my words. Losing the election is his only fear. If he loses power, he can be held accountable for his crimes and he cannot let that happen. So if it comes to it, he will make sure the election system is corrupted, or Americans he doesn’t like simply don’t get to vote. Or institute some sort of coup, if he can get the military to do it. I can see him shutting down the Capitol.

Our constitutional system of checks and balances has been shredded. Republicans have proven that they will put party over country and simply don’t care that in doing so we are no longer a representative government. Which doesn’t leave a lot of hope.

Mass protests will do little; Trump and Republicans have proven inured to them already. A huge economic downturn might help, but I hate to root for that. Change tends to happen only during times of great pain.

What I really hope for is that white knight. House Democrats have largely done all they can do. Mitt Romney though could go the extra mile. He could say the emperor has no clothes: that Donald Trump is very mentally ill, he is destroying our constitutional system of government, and his mental health should be assessed by a panel of nonpartisan physicians. It probably wouldn’t change anything, but it’s what I’m hoping for at the moment.

In truth, this black time is turning obsidian. Only Trump getting a sudden deadly stroke might change this around. From his crazy, rage-filled days spent tweeting about his enemies, who knows? His blood pressure must be sky high. It may be closer than we think.

I’m not a praying man, but it’s time for me to pray … fervently.

Live a logical life

The Thinker by Rodin

As you may have noticed, there are a lot of illogical people out there doing a lot of illogical things. It seems large portions of our population are into doing stupid and counterproductive stuff, making things bad if not for just themselves, then for the rest of us too.

It’s easy enough to start with Donald Trump, but you can throw in virtually the whole Republican Party as well as many Democrats. It’s easy to pander to your emotions because emotions are much more powerful than reason. This is being used against us.

For myself, while my decisions are not entirely logical, I strongly believe in trying to act logically instead of emotionally. I look at the world around me, look at my assets and do my best to make logical decisions. If I can’t get others to do the same (it’s not from lack of trying, and in many ways is the theme of this blog), then at least I can do it for myself.

Consequently, when we retired, my wife and I bugged out of town. Our house was paid off but we still bugged out of town. Part of our relocation adventure was simple restlessness; we had lived in the Washington DC area for more than thirty years. But it was also easy to see where things were going to go, as we were living with them even back then.

Life in DC’s burbs was expensive and getting more so. The climate was hot and muggy even thirty years earlier, but was worse now, along with the air quality. So the answer was pretty straightforward: move some place less expensive, more natural, less congested, further north where it’s cooler and somewhere safer in general.

We ended up in western Massachusetts. We endured about two years in a long adventure in retiring, selling a house and relocating, then setting up a newly constructed home. We’re living nowhere near a beach; in fact our new house is on a hill. So rising seas won’t affect us, but even massive flooding it shouldn’t affect us. The water should run downhill, thanks to our new house’s excellent drainage system. Earthquakes are almost unknown around here, along with most natural hazards. We’re starting to see an occasional tornado, but for the most part our lives should be hazard free.

Our big move was basically a once in a lifetime event. We certainly didn’t have this as a viable option during our working years. The good thing about the Washington area though was that despite its high costs and hassles, jobs were easy to find and in general they paid quite well. It was more luck than great planning that we ended up in that region, but once there we were at least smart enough to use the areas resources intelligently. We mostly lived within our means, mostly made sound financial choices and definitely stopped at one child. We ran the numbers and a second child would leave our standard of living significantly impaired.

You don’t have to choose to live life with the blinders on, but it seems to be the default for most of us. Maybe it’s exhaustion from all the other stuff going on in life that makes it hard to focus on longer-range stuff. The thing is though that only you can direct your life, and if you don’t do it intelligently and logically, you life is likely to end pretty messy and full of tremors.

We weren’t perfect. We had no master plan in life and went with common horse sense much of the time. If I couldn’t summon up the energy to create a twenty-year plan, I could summon the energy to redirect any excess money into paying down our mortgage or in getting a home equity loan to cut finance costs for many of life’s major expenses.

I have learned that by paying attention to life and investing time in thinking about your future, you can make your future. There are always unknowns and no guarantees in life, but if most of your actions in life are logical and follow a sound strategy, your odds of ending up where you want to end up someday greatly increase.

It requires time, clear headedness and hopefully some engagement. It also requires curiosity into how others are doing it successfully. Directing your life instead of letting it direct you can be very empowering.

Around 1990, I started tracking our household income and expenses. Simply doing this roused my curiosity in an area that I hadn’t thought much about earlier. I did know I was sick of having bills come due and not having enough cash handy to pay them. Thinking about our income and expenses meant we started planning. It was just a little at first, but as time and interest made possible, it grew into longer-range plans. As I thought about these goals, I had to measure them against what our lives were and think about to achieve them.

It meant some hard choices. For example, there was my decision to go to grad school while maintaining a full time job. For about three years my life was pretty hellish, but fortunately it paid off in promotions and more income. Surmounting this challenge also brought new confidence – I can do this – and led me to find the confidence to take some job risks that paid off.

After September 11, working in downtown D.C. looked simply dangerous. It wasn’t hypothetical, as I was working downtown when that plane hit the Pentagon. Our building was right next to the train tracks. I decided that this fear was telling me to find a job closer to home, without the commute, and I eventually succeeded. Turning my mind to the problem helped me build the future that I wanted. Being three miles from work instead of thirty turned out to be a terrific decision, and the job I landed was also just right for me.

Now I live something of a gilded retirement: financially secure, away from the more obvious threats in life, plus I found a new community that really agreed with me. But it didn’t happen from hoping and wishful thinking. It happened by being logical and by planning and listening to my gut.

I am hoping my country can wake up and do the same. It won’t be easy. It’s much easier to let your right brain run amok.

Opening Pandora’s box

The Thinker by Rodin

The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789. After the constitutional convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked what sort of government we were going to get. He famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Next Wednesday may be the end of our republic. That’s when the U.S. Senate is likely to acquit Donald Trump. The U.S. Senate is basically enshrining Richard Nixon’s assertion that if the president does it, it’s not illegal. Richard Nixon’s corpse would be smiling, if that were possible.

It will be an entirely predictable end to a trial in which no one seriously disagrees the president committed impeachable crimes, including the president’s lawyers. They just say that he has immunity from them. Republican senators seem to agree, setting the precedent that the president is above the law, or above any meaningful check by Congress. Senators can’t even be bothered to call witnesses. Many of them, rather than listening to the testimony presented, were caught reading books and doing crosswords instead.

So after his “exoneration”, it’s likely that if Trump wanted to arrest dissidents and deny them the right of a jury trial, he could get away with it. Because even if impeached again, the Senate won’t throw him out of office for offenses like this. There’s really nothing Trump won’t be able to get away with after Wednesday, and given his temperament you know he’s going to try. It’s likely to make all Republicans except the Never Trumpers giddy. It’s what they have been hoping for all along.

Oh, but there’s an election coming up! Voters will rectify things! Things aren’t so bleak after all! Since Trump’s election, Democrats have been on the upswing, winning the House, winning seats in the Senate and turning Virginia blue. But even if all of this happens, the precedent is now set. Congress has essentially voluntarily ceded power, allowing the Executive to become even more powerful, and itself more irrelevant. The script has now been tried and tested. Whether Republican or Democrat, the president can now simply refuses to respond to any congressional subpoenas. Unless two-thirds of the Senate agree to remove him from office, he or she has carte blanc.

A fair election in 2020 is problematic. There is the usual voter suppression and gerrymandering, which will be dialed up to 11 for November 3. The U.S. Senate is fine if other countries want to hack our election system or set up disinformation campaigns, even though it is explicitly against U.S. law. The U.S. Senate has effectively nullified lots of laws like this by simply refusing to hold accountable those charged with enforcing them. In short, the law means nothing to our senators, unless it can be used against their political enemies. Law is now meant to be applied selectively, and as a political weapon. Trump has an attorney general who agrees and who now states this as policy.

We are in a huge mess because our senators refused to do their job. Our system of checks and balances has proven able to be hacked. Our founders assumed that institutional forces would make these forces work. They did not want political parties, but we created them anyhow. As a consequence, 231 years later this system has proven fatally flawed.

The only chance of rectifying this is if Democrats win the trifecta in November: turning both houses of Congress and the executive blue. And even then there are institutional forces that make returning to a real republic problematic at best.

We can start with Donald Trump who you know will claim the election is rigged if he loses and will refuse to vacate the White House. Most likely he will see if he can affect a military coup to retain his hold on power. After all, if the election he is trying to rig goes against him, it must be illegitimate. Then it will be up to our military to resist the urge. I’d like to say I have faith they will resist, but we live in extraordinary times.

But even if Trump loses and goes, even if Democrats win a trifecta, there is a court system now full of cronies of Trump and Republicans designed to thwart any progress. You know the courts will find a reason to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Any universal health care plan that a President Sanders wants to put in place will be judged unconstitutional as well. A likely recession will weigh against a Democratic president and a Democratic congress, as the 2010 election showed.

Then there are the hosts of other issues that need addressing, with climate change at the top of the list. But since our constitution is now broken, it must be fixed too. That will require constitutional amendments that will be very hard to ratify. To start, the system of checks and balances needs to be changed. The impeachment and conviction process for presidents needs to change. The Justice Department must by statute and funding be under the supervision of the courts, not the executive.

It’s enough to make anyone despair. We cannot despair. Instead, we must get busy. We must reclaim our republic. Freedom is not free, and democracy is not free. We must fight for its return, with our blood if necessary.

Some surprisingly simple ways to actually grow the economy

The Thinker by Rodin

In my last post, I discussed why the soaring stock market doesn’t mean a lot to most people. Roughly half of us don’t have the money to buy into the stock market, and most of us that do can only afford to do so through a retirement vehicle like a 401-K or an IRA. The principle value of a rise in stock prices is to inflate the wealth of those who bought stocks.

So the rich get richer while those who can’t afford them have to hope that their wage increases will exceed inflation. And so far, that hasn’t happened. Real wages, accounting for inflation, dropped .1% drop November through December 2019. Another sign it doesn’t mean much: the USA’s growth rate is 1.9%, at least as of the last quarter of 2019. This should suggest to most of us that markets are overvalued, and are due for a correction.

If Donald Trump is going to run on his greatest ever economy claim, then two percent growth must be outstanding. It’s not a recession but it suggests our real economy is anemic, just growing a bit while most of the rest of the world’s economy is starting to falter or is faltering. During his first campaign, Trump made it sound like 4% growth would be the absolute minimum that voters could expect. He’s failing at his own benchmark.

He’s been trying to juice up the economy with tax cuts. But as with the stock market, these tax cuts hardly affected the bulk of us and in some cases raised our taxes, such as the caps on state and local taxes that you can deduct from your federal taxes. The tax cuts definitely cut taxes on the rich and gave them a whole lot more money to do things like buy more stocks. One thing the rich aren’t doing is juicing the economy with all this new money by actually buying stuff. The trickle-down economy was never more than this: just a trickle of prosperity coming down to the rest of us from our betters.

Still, if 4% growth were a true goal, I can think of pretty easy ways to do it. So can Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. To start, we could take those tax cuts we gave to the rich and redirect them to the poor and middle class instead, who will almost certainly go out and spend it. This will cause the economy to grow, certainly by more than it has in our trickle-down economy, because the money will be used to actually buy goods and services.

Even better, we could redirect those trillions for the rich into service for the public good. Republicans clearly don’t want to address climate change, and certainly not with our tax dollars. It won’t stop climate change from happening anyhow. Trump’s trying to jumpstart the economy by stripping environmental protections clearly isn’t working either, but it is shortening our lifespans.

But it’s a sure bet that if that money were redirected to improving the environment, it would both cause the growth we want and put it to good use. We could use it to build the clean, green infrastructure we need to survive. That sounds like an excellent use of money. It will stimulate all sorts of jobs. The obvious ones will be in industries like the solar industry, but to go carbon neutral will require investment and ingenuity across our entire economy.

Moreover, if we tax carbon polluters, we can use that money to also build a green economy. I am already a beneficiary of a carbon credit. By putting solar panels on my roof in 2016, I allowed carbon polluters to claim credit for my clean and green energy. Being green paid me $1830 last year. This is real money in my pocket.

Such investments just compound. It stimulates industries like electric car manufacturing, wind energy, geothermal energy, green computing and the manufacture of more energy efficient products. By cleaning the air and water, we improve health. By removing carbon from our environment, we help address climate change.

All this growth in turn helps makes these industries profitable, so dollars start to follow them. Just as the space program brought us microelectronics and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency funded the beginning of the Internet, these investments make a better future possible. And if we can do it sooner than other countries, we stand to gain a disproportionate economic advantage.

But even if you don’t think government should be spending money to do these things, you could still advocate for increases in the minimum wage. This will certainly put money in people’s pockets that can use it the most. As they earn a living wage, there is less need for them to use government services like Food Stamps. That saves the government money, grows the economy and also saves lives. If we were a nation that truly was pro-life, it would be an obvious thing to do.

In short, if Trump were a progressive and had worked for our interests instead of against it, he’d likely not be facing a trial in front of the Senate, wouldn’t need the help of Russia to get reelected and would probably have his election in the bag. Even Democrats like me might have voted for him. Instead, we get an egregious use of tax dollars for counterproductive purposes and the most corrupt president ever.

Let’s hope on November 3, voters act more enlightened.

A soaring stock market means little

The Thinker by Rodin

Donald Trump is hoping to win reelection based on the soaring stock market.

Good luck with that. A soaring stock market doesn’t hurt, but these days a soaring stock market amounts to more evidence that more income is being redistributed toward the wealthy. Why is that? It’s because you have to be relatively wealthy to own stocks in the first place.

To the extent most of us own stocks, it’s probably through mutual funds we own as part of a 401-K and/or IRA. We do this because these investments are typically tax-advantaged. Unless you choose a Roth IRA, you defer taxes on the gains of these funds until retirement, plus these investments are typically pre-tax dollars, meaning you subtract the cost of buying these funds from your adjusted gross income, which means you pay less tax.

The bottom line, according to a 2016 study by NYU economist Edward N. Wolff is that the richest 10% of households control 84% of the total value of stocks. About half of U.S household own some stocks, generally through retirement funds. The other half doesn’t own any stocks.

When markets rise, wealth rises proportionately toward those who own them. Since about half of households don’t own any stocks, there is no stock appreciation to reap, so the rich simply get richer, increasing income inequality.

Our household is definitely not in the top 10% but we do hold onto a lot of retirement assets, principally in bonds and mutual funds. Markets are up about twenty percent this year, but the rise is not as big as it looks. As you may recall, in December 2018 markets gave up their gains for the year, effectively making 2018 a wash on the stock market. Over two years then stocks have gained about ten percent annually, which is definitely good but by no means amazing. Stock market gains during Trump’s tenure so far do not equal Obama’s. Of course, in Obama’s case there was no way for them to go but up, as stocks were severely underpriced after the Great Recession.

People who don’t own stocks mostly don’t own them because they can’t afford to own them. Their money is going toward more important priorities: keeping a roof over their head and food, most likely. Rental costs generally exceed inflation, and food usually does as well. So they are being stretched more. Lower income people aren’t stupid. If they could afford life’s basic necessities, they probably would be investing in the stock markets. It’s simply not an option for them.

As we learned, investing takes perseverance. If you want to fully reap the market’s gains, you have to keep at it persistently, relentlessly, in good times and bad. As a federal employee, I rarely missed a paycheck. When I did, it was because the government was shut down. I never lost money when the government was shut down. Plus, I earned enough money to allow us to invest.

And that’s pretty much how we built wealth: through steady paychecks and doggedness. As I noted, we profited from the Great Recession. In retrospect, this was the biggest factor between retiring okay and retiring comfortably. We bought a lot of mutual funds when they were priced artificially low and kept them while market values increased. I’ve done the math. Were it not for the Great Recession, I expect that our investment portfolio would now be worth about 25% less than it is.

While many of my friends have and continue to struggle with this economy, today’s economy feels to me like an unearned gift. While hardly in the top 1%, I sometimes feel like we should pay a wealth tax too. A lot of our gains seem unnatural and surreal.

This increase in wealth is having me rethink how I want to use it. It still doesn’t mean I will buy a bigger house, a fancier car or a second home somewhere. It’s not quite that large. But as someone nearly age 63 with hopefully twenty-five more good years ahead of him, it does expand the possibilities.

For example, a year ago we were visiting Ecuador and the Galapagos. It was not a cheap vacation. The two weeks cost us at least $15,000, probably closer to $20,000 when you add in all the airfare and extras. It was amazing and incredible but we probably wouldn’t have done it without all this unexpected extra wealth. And it didn’t impact our bottom line at all. It seemed surreal.

Consequently, we are setting our sites further. We could have afforded two Hawaiian vacations for what we spent in Ecuador and the Galapagos. Now we are thinking: why not sail the South Seas? I hesitate to be away from home for too long, as we have two cats. But when they are gone, why not take a round-the-world cruise? Why not a month long train tour around Australia?

But if I were one of those in the fifty percent of households without any stocks, I’d feel resentful. They might want to visit the Galapagos too, or at least Hawaii, but it’s probably not an option. I would feel, rightly, like my pocket had been picked. That’s because it has. Their productivity has been swept up and placed in my pocket instead, but much more disproportionately into the pockets of the very wealthy who can’t begin to spend all of this new wealth. The difference is that I think I can use it to make the rest of my life much more meaningful. Rest assured a fair amount of it is going to help others too, roughly $400 a month or so.

To change this, we need that political revolution that Bernie Sanders keeps talking about. This comfortable retiree will be voting to bring it about.

Trump is bumbling his way toward getting us out of the Middle East

The Thinker by Rodin

Most of us were grinding teeth this week. After our country assassinated a general in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, we waited for the inevitable military response from Iran.

Shortly after Iran’s bombs hit two bases in Iraq where our soldiers were stationed, my Facebook page lit up with friends saying we were beginning war with Iran, or maybe even starting World War III.

In general, no one plans to start a world war. Certainly no one expected one after Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in 1914. Our political assassination of General Qasem Soleimani was more or less its equivalent.

We may still get one, but I noted on Facebook that Trump really listens to Fox News, and Tucker Carlson was against going to war with Iran. So ironically, we may have Tucker Carlson to thank for this not escalating this further, at least for the moment. But also, Iran showed more sanity in its response than we did when we killed its general, deliberately targeting its missiles at places on these bases away from American soldiers.

The strange thing is, the more saber rattling we do, the more effectively we push ourselves out of the Middle East. The Iraqi government’s response to our assassination on its soil is to send us packing. At the moment, the Trump administration is playing tone deaf. In reality, our 2003 war in Iraq has brought nothing but misery for the Iraqi people. As bad as Saddam Hussein was, they’d have been much better off had he stayed in power. Most likely most the 200,000 or so Iraqis that subsequently died would still be around, and their infrastructure wouldn’t have collapsed. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard probably would not be in the country. ISIL probably would not have arisen because there would have been no power vacuum. And of course thousands of our soldiers would not have died and we could have spent trillions of dollars on something else, probably more tax cuts for the rich.

Effectively, we made it easier for Iran’s paramilitary forces, not to mention its Revolutionary Guard (an official part of Iran’s government), to extend their influences west and south. This caused even more conflict, principally in Syria and Yemen, but also in places like Lebanon. For the real war in the Middle East is Sunni vs. Shia. Thanks to us, it looks like the Shia now largely control Iraq.

In a way this is good. Those who attacked us on 9/11 were not Shia, but Sunni-aligned. Ironically, the very nation that supplied almost all of the terrorists that caused 9/11 (Saudi Arabia) is now the getting more U.S troops so they can create more future Osama bin Ladens. So, effectively, Iran is winning a lot of ground in the Middle East, largely thanks to our country’s ineptness, and people who practice Shia Islam are occupying and controlling more territory.

None of this is good for peace or for the millions of refugees these conflicts have caused. And arguably it was counterproductive for Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and forces like ISIL related to al Qaeda. A lot of the success for driving out ISIL can be attributed to Iran-leaning paramilitary forces in Iraq and Syria. At times, our troops have worked somewhat awkwardly with these forces. At times, we have even working with General Soleimani, somewhat indirectly, to accomplish the same aims.

If Trump’s secret desire is to disengage us from the Middle East, he may be doing just that in his stupid and inadvertent way. If Iraq succeeds in forcing us to leave its country, at least they won’t have us to cause more death and destruction. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has proven quite effective at getting rid of ISIL. An Iran-dominated Iraqi government with the USA out of there may give Iraq something close to the peace it had before we invaded, minus the prosperity and liberality its citizens often enjoyed.

Withdrawing our modest forces from Syria is doing the same thing: making Syria safe for continued Shia domination. And without an actual war with Iran, which Trump seems now to want to avoid, the net effect of all of this is to extend Shia influence across the Middle East. It’s likely though that none of this had happened had not a headstrong George W. Bush plunged us into a war in Iraq, and our even more inept president Donald J. Trump had not bungled his way through the unbelievable complexities of the politics of the region.

All this of course is not so good if you care about restraining Russia’s sphere of influence. Trump’s actions seem all about letting Russia do just this. None of this brings more freedom and democracy to the people of the Middle East; in fact is does just the opposite. But if you truly want to make the United States more isolationist, Trump seems to be bungling his way toward accomplishing just this, while making his supporters think he is doing just the opposite.

And it will be a lot easier to be isolationist when increasingly the world community see us as crazy and radical as our supposed enemies. We’re not bringing freedom and democracy. We’re doing just the opposite instead. Reagan saw our country as the shining city on the hill. Trump sees our nation as a deeply isolationist one where only white people retain privilege and where we let the rest of the world fend for itself.

Trump is making our country an outlaw country like Iran, one increasingly not even subject to rule of law. Those looking for countries with real freedom and democracy best look elsewhere.

It’s likely to be a crazy 2020

The Thinker by Rodin

In case you haven’t noticed it, were in the midst of Future Shock.

Fifty years ago, Alvin Toffler wrote the book of the same name warning us that a cavalcade of forces were coming together that were likely to make our future a confusing and frightening mess. Future shock is basically the effects if too much change coming at society too quickly.

It’s painfully clear from the last few decades that we are winging this future shock thing. No one has really figured out how to deal with what we’ve unleashed, but there it all is in all its chaos and messiness, so we have no choice but to figure out how best to deal with it somehow. In our new decade, it’s likelier to get worse and get messier.

You might say the Trump Administration started the year off with a bang, by killing Iran’s special forces commander Qasem Soleimani in Iraq with a drone strike near Baghdad’s airport. Presumably this was in retaliation for the attack on our embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone, which seems to have been helped by Iranian forces in Iraq.

As usual, Trump didn’t bother to inform Congress of his planned actions, even though the law requires it. If Trump were smart enough to be diabolical, one might envision a strategy behind this. Based on what the polls tell us so far, he’s unlikely to survive reelection, even with all the voter suppression and election hijinks going on. So wars can be convenient if you can rally a nation behind them.

Some of us with longer memories remember how this all began: when President Bush unwisely invaded Iraq in 2003. Hundreds of thousands of lives and about a trillion dollars later, our latest headstrong president seems to be willing to follow the script that got Bush reelected in 2004. Without that horrendously bad and unnecessary war, yesterday’s killing probably would never have happened. It’s not even clear if Iran would still be our enemy.

So expect a lot more tit-for-tat now, but whether it can be deescalated at some point is problematic. A lot of Americans really have no idea why we should hate Iran anyhow. There are plenty of reasons why Iranians should hate us. We overturned its system of government twice and led many embargoes and other actions against the country over the decades. It’s true that to some extent they sponsor international terrorism, but plenty of other countries do too and anyhow so far they haven’t directed it at us. Iran is not nearly as evil as North Korea, and yet Trump told us he “fell in love” with its dictator Kim Jong Un. In general, Trump seems to love dictators. But perhaps he doesn’t like Iran because it’s not dictatorial enough. They do have a real legislature, after all, although its decisions can be overruled by their Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Their legislature may be more fairly representative than ours.

Anyhow, this killing is not a good omen, so we may look back on 2019 with some nostalgia. Our 2020 election, no matter how you look at it, will be bad. If Trump wins reelection, that obviously will be bad: he’ll have four years to govern with impunity because Congress will refuse to check him. If he loses, Democrats win, and Democrats take Congress, Trump probably will say the election was rigged against him, will refuse to concede, barricade himself in the White House and bring on a constitutional crisis that way. His supporters are already threatening civil war if he is impeached and removed – how democratic of them! But Trump has never been about democracy, he’s about authoritarianism. In short, November 3 is likely to be the most momentous day in our history since the real Civil War began, and might spark a new one. Happy New Year!

Meanwhile, we’ll probably look back on Trump’s 2017-2019 presidency as the good old days. His tweets get more numerous, threatening and blacker every day. His lying increases at exponential levels. Trump is scared of accountability, so he will pull all stops to get reelected and it’s likely his party will aid and abet him. We probably can’t count on the courts to help us, certainly not after Citizens United. Trump’s inevitable Senate trial will result in a partisan exoneration which of course he will tout endlessly.

I can take some schadenfreude perhaps in Trump’s misery, except that we cannot escape his misery: he inflicts it on everyone. My hope, such as it is, is that Trump’s ungluing conveniently coincides with an illness that makes it impossible for him to govern. I am absolutely convinced that he won’t live to complete a second term, and his obvious physical and mental issues may not allow him to complete a campaign. If he is nominated by the Republicans and he dies or becomes incapacitated, could Republicans still nominate anyone in time to field in an election? Laws will vary by state but that in itself could become a huge constitutional crisis.

We know that Trump is quite ill. The mental illness should be obvious, but he is also physically ill. Trump has heart disease, which means he has a moderate risk of a heart attack in the next three to 5 years. His mother and sister died of Huntington’s Disease, whose earliest symptoms are often subtle problems with mood or mental abilities. He’s likely got dementia. His father died from the same thing that killed my mother: Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, but also frontotemporal dementia. His recent “lab work” at Walter Reed coincided with him taking the back stairs out of Air Force One and having a White House physician accompany him, not just on trips, but in the presidential limousine.

So buckle up, mates. 2020 is going to be crazy. Let’s just hope that 2021 will be less so.

Christianity Today

The Thinker by Rodin

From the perspective of this non-Christian, Christianity today is a mess.

The magazine Christianity Today hinted as much with its December 19th editorial calling for Donald Trump to be removed from office. Needless to say, it didn’t go over well with Donald Trump, or the evangelical wing of Christianity which it supposedly represents. Trump quickly criticized it of course, calling the publication founded by Billy Graham a left wing magazine. Many in the evangelical community were shocked to find one of their own criticizing their political choices. Lots canceled their subscriptions but at least in the short term many more subscribed.

It was refreshing to find at least one voice in this community criticize not only Trump’s clearly unChristian behavior but many of those in the evangelical wing for supporting him. The editorial neatly laid out the long term issue with Christians who support Trump:

Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?

This is hardly a new problem. The rank hypocrisy of Christians on the right has been obvious for a long time, and is leading the next generation toward abandoning religion altogether. The world’s fastest growing religion is not a religion at all: its the “nones”, as National Geographic pointed out in 2016. The spread of this religion was accomplished without any of the usual evangelizing. No “nones” missionaries were beating on doors trying to convince people to stop going to church, believing in God, or embracing atheism. Yet the “nones” are beating out even the Mormons, with none of its missionaries and billions of dollars to throw into evangelism. Western Europe has been a principally “nones” region for decades. Hardly anyone there bothers to go to church anymore. It’s happening in Australia as well, and most ominously for evangelicals it’s picking up at a breathtaking rate here in the United States. “Nones” make up more than a quarter of the population in the United States now.

I see it here in Massachusetts. The Catholics seem the most dispossessed, but other protestant faiths are also heavily affected. Here in Northampton, church consolidation has been going on for a long time. The remaining Catholics all go to one church because the diocese closed the other three. They keep trying to sell these properties. When they sell them, it’s not to a fast and rising evangelical church. It’s usually to some retailer or condo developer. Mostly though they linger on the market, their doors barred seemingly forever.

Even I have been affected. Living in Virginia, I regularly attended a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I went to a few services at our local UU church, but couldn’t quite summon the energy to join a congregation again. The purpose that it held in my life seems to have been amply handled by many community endeavors that I am engaged in. It’s hard to know how to fit it into my life again, or why. My wife is rarely practicing Buddhist but is essentially a none. Rather than singing hosannas to God, she’s volunteering at a local survival shelter instead. Guess which activity is more Christ-like?

As I recall from my teens, smelling rank hypocrisy was one teenagers’ innate skills. No wonder then that modern teens look around them, see the hypocrisy that is much of modern Christianity and want no part of it. And sad to say, the evangelicals represent the worst of Christianity. It’s echoed in their largely unflinching support for Donald Trump, who emulates all the sins they are supposedly against. Sadly, most of them seem wholly unaware of their hypocrisy. No wonder they were stung by the Christianity Today editorial and attacked it. Who would want to admit they were taken in by this charlatan and that their values are so contrary to the ones they profess?

Who would have ever though the majority of America’s evangelicals would support the locking of immigrant children in cages? That they would cheer the arrest of other Christians who took Jesus at his word and leave bottles of plastic water in the desert along our southern border for migrants? That they could excuse Trump’s rampant and egregious sins. You would think that he doesn’t attend church might rankle them. None of his behavior seems to faze them in the least.

Rather, they want more of it. Because it seems the one true value of evangelical Christians is universal subservience to their moral law. They want a Christian society on their terms, and they will bend society to make sure it happens. If we have to give up a secular government in the process, it doesn’t seem to bother them in the least. They can’t seem to relate to anyone with a skin tone different from theirs who won’t parrot their values. In that they have plenty in common with Trump, so in that sense it’s no surprise that they support him so passionately.

It’s just that this is not the least bit Christian. In fact, it’s about the farthest thing from Christianity. Hate thy neighbor? The road to heaven is paved with riches? The first shall be first and the last shall be condemned to hell? It’s okay to cheat on your wives, grab women by their pussies, and bully people in person and on Twitter if it gets us some more conservative judges? It just gushes with hypocrisy. So no wonder younger people are rushing toward the “nones”. I was just in the vanguard forty plus years ago.

But maybe we are underrating the “nones”. It doesn’t look like they are going anywhere near houses of worship. But that doesn’t mean that many, if not the majority, still retain Christian values. It’s just that “Christians” today don’t recognize them. These “nones” live in a world that is multicultural and don’t feel threatened by it. It’s normal and they welcome diversity. Many are appalled by the cruelties and injustices in today’s world, pushed by many of these evangelical Christians. They figure the way to get this world is to stop going to church and start going to Bernie Sanders rallies instead.

Humility is also supposed to be the mark of a Christian. You’ll find little of that in today’s version of American Christianity. If Christianity in America is to reverse what looks like an inevitable demise, it might start with this radical idea: actually start acting like Christians again. Step one: actually read the New Testament again. Start with the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Trump is impeached. So now what?

The Thinker by Rodin

So yea, I got my wish: Donald Trump is impeached, and he’s become the first Republican president to earn the dubious distinction. (Richard Nixon was wise enough to resign before the House voted.) I should be dancing for joy except I don’t dance and this momentous event is really just one strategic chess move in a much larger chess board.

Not to spoil it for you, but we Democrats are down a queen and regaining the chess board is going to be tough. Impeaching Trump is like taking a rook without penalty, but Democrats are a long way from restoring a functional democracy again. And really, that’s what it’s all about for me. I don’t want Democrats to run everything; I just want a real republic again.

We don’t have that now. With the courts stacked with some 150 new federal judges since Trump took office, almost all very conservative, a 5-4 conservative-leaning Supreme Court, an Electoral College stacked against the majority and red states having contests to see who can purge the most Democratic-leaning voters from their voting roles, it’s a very scary time. Our republic is now in a very fragile state, and it’s abundantly clear that Republicans are using all their powers, and lots of dirty tricks, to get rid of it altogether.

That’s because unlike their chess board, they know our side could add more chess pieces to the board. But this takes time and it also takes a functioning republic. Demographics will eventually bite Republicans in the ass, but it only matters if we have a functioning republic. It’s clear that losing political power is not something they can allow if they can help it, so they will be pushing very hard to make sure it doesn’t happen.

So what’s next? A Senate trial, of course, which shows every likelihood of being a sham trial. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is already stacking the deck, not that it’s likely that twenty Republican senators will vote to convict Trump. McConnell has openly said he is working with the White House counsel, and he’s hinting that he doesn’t want any witnesses called.

So there will likely be no testimony from those key witnesses that Trump wouldn’t let testify, like his acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney or John Bolton, his recently departed national security advisor. In a real Senate trial, Trump shouldn’t be able to keep them from testifying. Or maybe he could, but the optics would look really bad with Republicans in control of the chamber. In any event, the Chief Justice presides and if Senate rules allowed it, he would require it. So better to not allow it in the first place, let each side bloviate their same talking points and then let pretty much everyone do what they were going to do anyhow: vote their political leanings.

If these witnesses do testify though, it’s likely to be damning; it just won’t make any difference. Because the new game is now the 2020 elections. It’s not news to most of us who pay attention that senators vote their prejudices and the interests of those who give them campaign money, with a few exceptions. If these key witnesses actually testify to what they saw, and testify truthfully, it is damning of Trump’s guilt. But it won’t make a difference to Trump retaining his office, but it may make a difference to voters.

A lot of hay was made of the U.K.’s Conservative Party winning a decisive majority in Parliament in their recent snap elections. Many pundits see in this a warning for Democrats here: pull to the center and don’t nominate a candidate for president on the liberal extreme like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

They may have a point. Or they may be missing the point. As best I can tell, the vote was much more about Britons being sick of the Brexit issue and just wanting it to go away. Brexit has been their own all-consuming national nightmare. It didn’t help that Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbin was even wackier than Boris Johnson, the current prime minister. Voters there may have thrown up their hands, not so much because they love conservatives and want to be separated from the European Union as they don’t want to deal with the issue anymore. Like Trump’s presidency, Brexit has been turning the U.K. into an ungovernable mess.

It may be that U.S. voters want to end our ungovernable mess in Washington too. If so, at least they will have a clear choice: go with a radical new government that disenfranchises many voters and gives power to those with money, or return to a saner time when government at least wasn’t quite so insane. Republicans like power but do they really want four more years of a seesawing Trump presidency? It’s just a chaotic mess. For Republicans in Congress, of course the answer is yes, but for a lot of Republican voters out there, about 15 percent according to most polls, the answer could very well be no.

So Joe Biden may look old and not the least bit shiny, but at least he’s not nutso, he’s not corruptible and he’s spent most of his career simply trying to do the right thing for the country and his constituents, albeit imperfectly. And he’s willing to work across the aisle, although it didn’t work at all for Barack Obama. He’s definitely not Jeremy Corbin. For those of us with longer memories, he’s much more like Hubert Humphrey: another happy warrior.

Trump will try to win the election the way he and Republicans won it in 2016: voter suppression, gerrymandering, spreading disinformation, openly seeking foreign interference and riling the base into a toxic stew. So things will just get crazier.

But it may be that while they get crazier, Americans in general will say “Enough of the crazy!” and toss the bums out. It could be our way out of our own Brexit. Or at least a move that bring Democrats a new bishop and a knight on the chessboard.

Stay tuned. The game is afoot.