The Thinker

In the midst of chaos, plenty of reasons to be hopeful about the midterms

In my last post, I intimated that Trump Disorientation Disorder was striking close to home, affecting my wife’s mental health. I’d like to say she’s doing better but at least she’s getting treatment. I doubt she is alone. Every week in this presidency feels like being on a roller coaster in free fall, but some weeks are freakier than others.

This week certainly was one of them. Trump’s cruel policy of separating children from families at the border grew slightly less evil when he decided to rescind this policy, a policy he said could not be rescinded because somehow it was all the Democrats fault. To kind of cap off a freaky week with a bit of humor was this nugget from a Washington Post story. Apparently our “stable genius” president doesn’t know that only Congress can change immigration law. He thought he could do it by decree.

A cascade of awful news is not great politics. Trump apparently thinks that being awful pays political dividends. The dividend he is looking for is to turn out his base in the midterms. He may or may not succeed in doing so. But he can’t win by just turning out his base. He won the presidency by turning out coalitions, including a lot of Obama voters who didn’t like Hillary. Also, a presidential election is much different than a midterm election. In a presidential election, you can win while losing the popular vote, which was his case. In a midterm the playing field is more even. Senators are elected or reelected based on the popular vote. Gerrymandered districts make it harder for incumbents to lose reelection. A recent Supreme Court ruling suggests at least for the moment the court sees no reason to declare these crazily drawn districts illegal. In any event, happy people rarely have motivation to go to the polls, while unhappy people have plenty of incentive.

So the more Trump piles on the unhappiness, the more motivated its victims have to go to the polls. Moreover, Republicans are doubling down on deeply their unpopular policies. Just this week the House narrowly passed a bill that would cut food stamp benefits. It’s unclear if this bill will become law, but we do know that Trump has initiated a wholly unnecessary trade war that’s already affecting blue-collar Trump voters and is likely to affect many more of them as the midterm approaches. Indeed, countries experiencing American sanctions have created targeted sanctions narrowly focused to rile Trump’s prime constituencies.

Republicans in Congress sure have noticed. This is a party of free traders but their complaints to Trump on these tariffs are falling on deaf ears. It’s one thing to target policies affecting people that Republicans don’t like, such as immigrants. It’s another thing entirely for them to affect their own voters.

But it won’t be just them of course. It will be lots of us. Tariffs raise prices while reducing competition. To some extent it’s affected my purchasing decisions too. We are considering adding some solar panels to our system, but panels are now subject to steep tariffs. With no chronic need to buy them, it’s easier to wait until tariffs disappear. The price of panels should drop anyhow but there’s no reason for us to pay a premium now. It’s not good for solar companies however, which are already suffering and shedding jobs. Most of these jobs are steady blue-collar jobs too, likely worked by a lot of people who voted largely for Trump.

If Trump truly wanted to help his base, he would not have put up this tariff in the first place. Solar jobs have been climbing steadily and are almost the ideal blue-collar jobs of the future. As prices decrease, demand for solar will only increase, plus will be replacing a dying coal industry with clean solar power. It’s a no-lose proposition.

This of course is only one of many ways Trump is pissing off his own voters. He and the Republican congress still seem intent on destroying the Affordable Care Act, despite its popularity. He said he was going to replace it with something better that costs less, but hasn’t. So premiums will be on the rise right before the election instead. People are already losing health insurance and rising premiums will price many out of the market too. The lack of a penalty to have health insurance also pushes up premiums. Health care availability and affordability is the top issue right now on voters’ minds. In short, their policy is deeply counterproductive to staying in office.

Trump of course ran on a platform that in many ways sounded quite progressive. He complained about big business and the elites. Once in office though he populated his administration with these very people. Trump’s core voters won’t give up on him, but he will peel away plenty of marginal voters. From special elections over the last two years, it’s clear that voters are voting their pocketbooks, which explains why Democrats have been winning so many of them.

If nothing else, tariffs will have an inflationary effect. We’re likely to see the unemployment rate tick up between now and the election too, most likely due to Trump’s tariffs. Those who are victims may find themselves with less of a safety net to fall back on: less in the way of food stamp benefits and unless their state has expanded Medicaid no health insurance too. These factors will lead to economic uncertainty. It’s hard to say if it will cause a financial crisis before the election, but it certainly might. In any event, despite the tight labor market, most employed Americans have actually lost income during this administration. And since fewer than half of employed Americans have a 401K or own any stocks, they are not profiting from upturns in the stock market.

To me this suggests 2018 will be a wave election that will swing the country decidedly in a blue direction. There are few signs that Republicans can point to that are to their advantage. It’s sure not their immigration policy, which is deeply loathed by all sides. But of course it will be pocketbook issues that will be motivating voters the most, and voters will have plenty of motivation to vote in their best interests.

 
The Thinker

Trump is literally making people sick, including my wife

I call it Trump Disorientation Disorder (TDD), and that’s being kind. Whatever it is, Trump is making people sick. I am not talking about just the children who have fled with their parents to our border hoping to present their case for asylum, only to be cruelly separated from their parents. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can’t even be bothered to identify the family unit before separating them, making it difficult if not impossible to reunite the family in the future.

Trump is also making my wife sick. It actually started before Trump’s election when my wife had a premonition of his election. I happened to be out of town during the election. When I spoke with her on the phone the next morning she was crying, disoriented, hadn’t slept and could barely function. I got home as soon as the airlines would let me but the truth was that I too was suffering from TDD too. For both of us, after Trump’s election the country we thought we knew was gone with the wind.

Granted that the country we thought we knew was always something of a delusion. Moreover, we both came down with a milder case of TDD in 2000, then known as BDD (Bush Disorientation Disorder). BDD though took a few years to fully settle in, particularly after our disastrous invasion in Iraq. With the election of Barack Obama in 2008 though it seemed that some common sense had returned to our country again.

I think I know why TDD is so bad in my wife. It’s because she came from a broken home and I didn’t. Lately, just hearing stories about these child refugees on our borders being put into what amounts to tent cities and cages have deepened her depression. One way of coping is to get a massage. Her back is a mass of extremely tight muscles. It works for about a week then it invariably comes back. The crazier the news gets, the faster symptoms reappear.

They’ve been coming back quicker since Trump’s new zero-tolerance policy was announced. When she was six or seven, her father abandoned her, leaving it to her mother to raise her and her brother. These news reports have resurfaced very painful memories of being literally kidnapped by her father at this tender age. Fortunately, it didn’t last very long but fifty-plus years later the scars remain and this new policy and graphic images on TV have resurfaced them. She doesn’t need to imagine what these kids have gone through; to some extent she has lived through it herself.

She longs for an ordered, kind and predictable world where our government is benign, not evil. This is one of the reasons in retirement we relocated four hundred miles away to Massachusetts. Here things are better-ordered, less crazy and mostly safe. But the arm of the Trump Administration is very long and even around here with our sensible gun control laws and progressive taxation, undocumented immigrants have been swept up by ICE. Many churches have offered sanctuary to these people, including one right here in our city.

Had she grown up black instead of working class white, perhaps she would be coping better. Black people know systemic racism and discrimination. They obviously don’t like it, but they have gotten used to it and have learned to cope with it. Whites like us have often lived pretty insular lives where you took things for granted, like there would always be a floor beneath which you could not fall. Trump and the Republican Party are doing their damnedest to ensure there is no floor. Your only chance of avoiding misery is by acquiring wealth. Republicans of course make it virtually impossible to climb the financial ladder as they keep removing rungs, not only above you but behind you as well.

Here’s how she spends her days: sleeping in late, moping around, watching videos on YouTube, mostly on the volcanic eruption on the Big Island in Hawai’i. She tries to avoid other news if possible. If I turn on NPR she will often ask me to turn it off. She simply can’t cope with the awfulness in the news. But in truth there is no place for her to hide. She has to confront it because it is everywhere. And Trump’s extreme egomania and the press’s willingness to keep it constantly in our faces make her sicker and more miserable every day. The crazier it gets, the more depressed and anxious she gets.

It’s clear to me though that this new policy on the border has caused her condition to reach a new phase, one she struggles to everyday to get through. Trump’s brash upending of governmental and societal norms has her feeling off kilter every waking hour and inhabits her dreams as well. She showed me this story of a woman who was birthed at home and can’t get the federal government to give her a passport because it won’t recognize her birth certificate. She shows me a story of permanent resident that may be deported to Mexico for an assault he was convicted of in 1990. Even naturalized citizens are sometimes not immune from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) actions. The portrait is one of an administration and an agency wholly out of control willing to break any law they don’t like to see if they can get away with it.

It’s pretty clear where the Trump Administration wants to go: dictatorship. Trump admitted that he wants to govern as a dictator. That congressional Republicans refusal to hold Trump accountable for almost anything indicates that this doomsday scenario is closer than we think.

It’s possible though improbable that this latest policy of separating families at the border and permanently scarring innocent children will be a bridge too far for Trump and his administration. Republicans are beginning to call for a change to this policy but so far Trump is predictably doubling down.

I grant that cruel actions like these are not unknown in our past. During World War II, for example, we placed Japanese Americans in internment camps, a horrible thing to do but at least families were kept intact. We refused to let in Jews who were escaping Nazi Germany. Those Indians we did not inadvertently kill through disease and war we forcefully moved to reservations far away where they struggle to survive to this day. All these actions mirrored what we now see from the Trump Administration: keep America safe for white people, but not safe from crazy and ill-informed white people.

There are times when I wonder if my wife will be a casualty of TDD too. She is already a victim. Perhaps November elections will bring her some relief but everyday she seems to be less functional and inhabiting ever-darker places.

 
The Thinker

Thoughts from belatedly watching the first and most of the second season of Grey’s Anatomy

  • Interns work crazy long hours
  • In spite of working 100+ hours a week, they are all horny toads
  • Doctors may be doctors but they have no qualms about enjoying unprotected sex and getting VD from each other
  • If you get horny at work, grab a doctor or nurse and go into one of the semi-private rooms with bunk beds and get your rocks off. It’s apparently a perk of the job.
  • It’s okay to have an affair with a married man providing you didn’t know he was married. Also, he’s blameless for not telling you he’s married if he caught his wife cheating and moved to the Left Coast (Seattle) to get away from it all.
  • After working 20 hours a day, doctors get plastered at a bar across the street then rise at 5 AM and start it all over again
  • You want to work at Seattle Grace Hospital because they regularly get the most unusual cases, including a two parter I watched yesterday where ammo from a bazooka ended up in a person’s body cavity causing much of the surgical ward to explode
  • Boy, for the most part doctors sure are skinny and attractive and yet oddly you probably have better morals than they do
  • For the most part, doctors and nurses will date/sleep/screw only each other
  • Seattle Grace Hospital is basically General Hospital but it’s for prime time and done more artfully with pretensious dialog by its star at the beginning and end of each show, with rock tunes that meet the theme of each show
  • The only character I identify with is George, the intern with the wild hair and apparently the only one at Seattle Grace with a lick of common sense
  • The only important doctors are the surgeons and apparently they are the only ones you need to run a hospital
  • Unlike, say, “Scrubs”, at Seattle Grace for the most part the minutia of worrying about things like “am I insured” never come up, so you want to go there if you don’t have health insurance, plus you get the top docs

If this sounds like your cup o’ tea, if you missed the series you can catch it on Netflix.

 
The Thinker

Republicans opt to follow Trump … right off the cliff

Donald Trump is really not that hard to figure out. If Obama was for it, he’s against it. This is because in 2011 President Obama publicly lampooned him at the White House Correspondents Association Dinner. Not used to being publicly humiliated and having an extreme case of narcissism, Trump of course dialed it up to 11. He used every opportunity since then to undercut Obama. His way of getting back at enemies is to get even. Thus his presidency and while in office using every opportunity to destroy Obama’s legacy. Thus we have an EPA chief Scott Pruitt trying to turn it into the Environmental Destruction Agency and an acting head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Mick Mulvaney working hard to make it do absolutely nothing related to helping consumers.

Obama was for an agreement with Iran to restrain its development of nuclear weapons, so naturally Trump was against it. That this means that Iran is free to develop these same weapons of course doesn’t occur to him. Obama was against open dialog with North Korea absent significant verifiable concessions, so it’s not surprising in the least that Trump just concluded a very short “summit” with its despotic leader Kim Jung Un wherein North Korea agreed to nothing concrete but Trump unilaterally ended joint US-South Korean military exercises. The hypocrisy of engaging in the sort of behavior Obama engaged in with Iran with North Korea doesn’t occur to him.

Fortunately for Trump, his fellow so-called “Republicans” don’t see it either. They are praising Trump for the exact sort of behavior that had Obama done it likely would have resulted in his impeachment. And that’s because it’s okay if you are a Republican. Only the Republican Party as it has morphed over the years is now effectively gone. It’s become the Party of Trump. Those few willing to timidly stand up to Donald Trump are either leaving Congress anyhow or, like former South Carolina governor and now U.S. House representative Mark Sanford, you lose your primary to a challenger who will blindly follow Donald Trump.

Trump obviously trust his instincts, so much so that not only will he not brook any dissent, he has removed pretty much anyone in his administration that might want to offer a contrary opinion. His Chief of Staff John Kelly is reportedly miserable and looking for an out. Trump seems likely to let the position go vacant when Kelly leaves. He’ll kind of winging the whole presidency thing himself, when he isn’t obsessively watching Fox News during his frequent “executive time”.

Pretty much everything the Republican Party traditionally stood for, Trump has chosen the opposite and Republicans laud him for his leadership. North Korea was to be wiped off the planet, until King Trump decided otherwise, and now he is a brilliant leader who deserves a Nobel Peace Prize. Free trade is out and tariffs are in, despite the history that tariffs were the exact cause of the Great Depression. Canada is our new enemy; Russia is our new friend. Trump at least had the smarts enough to discern that what the Republican Party stood for was not at all what its base stood for. The base didn’t care about that stuff. All they really care about is hating those not like them and white nationalism. And they really, really want to rally behind a standard bearer who fights to implement that message.

Party of life? Only if it means forcing a woman to give birth to a child. Otherwise it’s quite correct to call them the party of death. This administration rips families apart at the border and traumatizes their children for life. It’s basically building tent city prisons for undocumented kids. Customs and Border Enforcement is becoming a Goon Squad, feeling free to act unchecked and at will against pretty much anyone. Also, it’s peddle-to-the-metal time accelerating global climate change and pollution by actively trying to make our environment much worse and much more quickly. It’s also all about making people with less wealth even more miserable and being poor even more degrading. Trump is more than capable at keeping his base whipped up, endlessly pushing their buttons that allow them to hate even more.

The irony is that all of this is because Republicans know their time is coming to an end. They sense it; they fear it. The demographic shift underway in America makes it inevitable. The only way to prevent it is to change the system completely, replacing democracy with authoritarianism led of course by Trump. Trump instinctively knows how to do this. Fortunately for the rest of us, he’s particularly inept in doing so because he listens only to himself and Fox News. Trump specializes in creating chaos, but chaos is not a plan, it’s simply chaos. Trump’s hope though is that if he creates enough chaos he makes it easier to make America an authoritarian state. His chaos creates the conditions that help authoritarianism thrive. And that’s what the “Republican Party” is now banking on: the end of our democracy as we have known it, with only themselves in charge. Because they know they can’t win honestly, so they must win dirty, pulling the rug from under all of us before we can marshal an effective response.

This must change on November 6 somehow or those of us living will probably live to see the end of a 250-year-old experiment in democracy.

 
The Thinker

How do you solve a problem like Donald Trump?

Donald Trump has us just where he wants us: by the scrotum. Trump’s faults are many, but he does have some assets. He knows how to get attention and keep it on himself. He’s leading a three-ring circus and like it or not we are all dancing to his tune. Trump pervades our thoughts from morning until night, and often haunts our dreams too.

Which to my mind raises the larger question: how do we get out of this dance? The presidency is a unique office in that its occupant cannot help but make news every day. For an egomaniac like Trump, it’s the perfect position. Even so the default attention that comes with being president is obviously not quite enough for him. Which is why our carnival barker-in-chief always keeps a half dozen issues in reserve certain to inflame his enemies and cheer his supporters.

It’s abundantly clear that he is a compulsive liar but to somewhere between 40 and 44 percent of Americans that approve of him at the moment it’s apparently not an issue. Or perhaps it’s not enough of an issue to stop supporting him. If you are looking for entertainment, Trump certainly delivers a nonstop show. To his supporters it is mesmerizing; to the rest of us it leaves us queasy, feeling unmoored and sick. The USA we thought we knew that at least aimed toward fairness and justice seems to be gone. What’s left is the ugliest seam of America: forces long largely kept bottled up, with a president who loves to flout all rules and conventions.

If the entertainment is good enough, it’s hard to be aware that your pocket is being picked while it’s happening. With the exception of Trump’s richest supporters, the rest of us are getting shafted. He is pretty much doing exactly the opposite of the things he said he would do during the campaign. One small example: he was going to deliver us the best and most affordable health care ever. Instead, he constantly works to undermine the Affordable Care Act and cut Medicaid leading to millions more uninsured and higher premiums for those of us still ensured. He does this while whipping up a “Celebration of America” event because the Super Bowl champs, the Philadelphia Eagles, apparently didn’t want to visit him in the White House. It’s so much easier to watch these theatrics than to notice our financial mooring slip from under our feet.

While there have been populist presidents before, Trump is clearly is a category we have never seen before: contemptuous of the rule of law, openly racist with every action designed to feed his insatiable ego. How do we break his spell?

Usually elections are pretty effective. We’ll see what happens in November, but Trump’s slowly rising poll numbers suggests he has plenty more tricks in his bag as the election nears. He’s operating intuitively, convinced that by ever more inflaming his base he’ll also bring them to the polls to counteract an expected Democratic wave. So it’s not hard to predict he’ll get wilder, crazier and wilier as November approaches.

I have two thoughts on how to break the Trump spell that are sort of opposite of each other for your consideration.

Stand up to the bully

The one thing you can count on with Trump is his insatiable ego. It’s quite possible that Democrats can use his ego can be used to walk him right off a cliff. There is plenty of evidence so far that ultimately this approach won’t work because Trump is intuitively one step ahead of everyone else. I’ve written about standing up to bullies before, and Trump is the perfect example. Bullies draw energy from a crowd of bullies surrounding them, and Trump seems to have a limitless supply of these. Democrats need just the right person to engage Trump. It’s hard to know exactly who this person would be, but the key is for Trump to be challenged and ultimately to lose face in the eyes of his supporters.

Ideally it would be a woman, which is why my senator Elizabeth Warren comes to mind. She’s already been quite eloquent speaking against Trump but for the most part Trump has ignored her. But she could challenge him to a town hall debate. CNN is doing more of these. Some months ago it held one between Senators Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz and it sure was interesting to watch. Warren takes no prisoners and is exceptionally eloquent. There is one way almost guaranteed to get him to show up: repeatedly say he’s too chicken to show up. I’m quite confident that in front of a national audience she could cut him down to size.

An even better confrontation would be a physical one. A prominent Democrat could challenge him to a wrestling or boxing match. According to Trump’s physician, he’s exceptionally healthy and has the body of a man half his age (cough cough). If he has to go up against a peer, perhaps former Vice President Joe Biden would do.

Ignore him and concentrate on pocketbook issues

This is probably what most smart Democrats will do instead. Trump is a self-activating egomaniac. If he cannot be controlled, then the next best thing is simply to ignore him. Egomaniacs feed on attention, so why give him any more? Most likely the only way he can get gotten rid of is through the ballot box, that is if we can keep our elections free enough to elect more Democrats.

By ignoring him and concentrating on pocketbook issues instead, Democrats can gain the political power needed to control the policy agenda again. This is done through winning back not just Congress but statehouses and governorships. National elections happen only every four years anyhow. Democrats need to point out how our standard of living is being systematically lowered except for the wealthiest. They need to promise to take pragmatic steps to address these concerns if given the power of holding office again. It’s unlikely that Trump’s approval rating will ever above the low 40s anyhow. If Trump must be addressed, simply run on “ending Republican corruption” and putting the American people first.

Anyhow those are my ideas. I’m open to better ones if you have any.

 
The Thinker

Obama’s new long-game

President Obama’s biggest mistake was probably roasting Donald Trump at the 2011 National Press Club dinner. It likely infuriated Trump and led to his run for the presidency some years later and the current national disaster we are experiencing from his presidency. It’s hard to say for sure, but I think if Obama hadn’t lampooned him, Trump might still be busy laundering money by selling his condos at inflated prices to foreign investors.

Obama’s second biggest mistake was probably missing the 2010 midterm wave that turned control of Congress over to Republicans. Obama did what he could do. He certainly traveled the country and campaigned for Democrats and exhorted Democrats to turn out. But they didn’t. Republicans however did turn out massively, adding 63 House seats and 6 Senate seats. Eight years later Democrats are still reeling from this election. They are now hoping for a turn of the tide this November, similar to their success in the 2006 midterms.

Arguably it was what Republicans did after the 2010 midterms was much more important than that midterm results themselves. They used the wave of enthusiastic Republicans (many Tea Party affiliated) and Democrat apathy to gain control of more state legislatures and governorships. They also set up Operation REDMAP that worked relentlessly to flip Democratic state seats using two assets that Republican have in abundance: money and mean-spirited tenacity. This allowed them to control the redistricting process in ten out of the 15 states that would be redrawing their districts as a result of the 2010 census. Then they used the power of analytics to create highly gerrymandered districts to lock in their majorities. Since this redistricting effort, Republicans have picked up seats in states where Democrats took the majority of the votes, demonstrating the fundamental unfairness of their highly partisan gerrymandering effort.

Now out of office Obama is free to do what he does best: play a long game. Which is why he and former Attorney General Eric Holder have created the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Curiously though the NDRC goal is not to bring about Democratic gerrymandering, but to kill gerrymandering altogether. President Obama has put his finger on the nub of the real problem: gerrymandering is deeply undemocratic and must be killed to have a real democracy. What we are getting instead is bordering on autocracy.

The committee has four strategies to do this. The first is litigation, and here they have had great success. They challenged Pennsylvania’s highly gerrymandered map in court and succeeded in having it redrawn to be fairer, giving no party an unfair advantage. This will likely mean four House seats in Pennsylvania will flip in the election from Republican to Democrat, simply because of a more even playing field now. Similar efforts are underway in other states like Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina and Wisconsin. In some states there are voter initiatives to make gerrymandering illegal, taking district drawing out of the control of politicians altogether.

The second strategy is to mobilize people in this effort. Toward that end I am getting mobilized, first by donating money to their cause but potentially in other ways too. Here in Massachusetts though, our districts are generally drawn pretty fairly already.

The third strategy is reform: passing laws in states to enact fairer redistricting laws. Here they have the support of Americans who generally disdain gerrymandering, 71 percent in favor according to one poll. I’ve complained about it before, noting that its worst sin was that it removed most moderates from political offices. Moderate politicians are the key to getting government working again.

The last strategy is to elect Democrats where it helps even the playing field. Here, working with other Democratic groups, they’ve had great success in many special elections since Trump was inaugurated. When Democrats trounce Republicans in special elections in Oklahoma, you know something is up.

There is no guarantee that getting rid of gerrymandering will necessarily mean that Democrats will control Congress and state legislatures again. But gerrymandering is the root of a much larger set of problems. When there were many moderates in office, political accommodation was possible. In the past, meeting in the middle was how government got things done. It was sometimes messy, such as in earmarks for congressional districts, but it did create a political space where such accommodations were possible.

So I’m in with Obama and Holder in playing this long game. Democracy is not possible if there is no space for political accommodation. In that sense this effort is very patriotic and perhaps the ideal response to our age of fake news and our fake presidency. For democracy to flourish, we all need a realistic chance to sit at the table again. We’ve lost that.

 
The Thinker

The stock buyback warning: stormy economic times are likely ahead

Remember when Trump’s tax cuts were going to put money back into the pockets of working class Americans and create more jobs for them too? Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be a load of peanut butter. With gas now around $3 a gallon, whatever new modest tax cuts trickled down to working America are probably being eaten up in higher transportation costs. As for businesses reinvesting their tax cuts in their businesses and bumping up wage rates for employees, well, there’s not much evidence of that. According to this March report from the Roosevelt Institute, just six percent of these corporate tax cuts are going to wage increases and bonuses for employees. Just twenty percent of this money is going toward capital investments that will result in more jobs.

So what are companies doing with the extra money from this enormous windfall? There is little reason for CEOs to spend most of it investing on the long-term futures of their companies. That’s because CEO compensation tends to be based on making short-term profits. These days many CEOs make far more compensation from exercising stock options than they do from a salary.

So we should not be surprised that CEOs are trying to make money the easy way instead. And the easy way is to take this money and buy back their stock. It’s good for them and it’s good for shareholders. Or so it seems. Experts are questioning if these buybacks are just artificially inflating the price of corporate stocks. One traditional measure is a stock’s price to earning’s (P/E) ratio. The higher the ratio, the longer it takes for earning from owning the stock to be used to buy a new share of company stock. High P/E ratios are a sign that stocks are overvalued and due for a correction. We are now at a P/E ratio about where we were before the Great Recession.

If it were just a handful of companies, this would not be particularly worrisome, but it’s part of a large and broad general trend among American corporations. Bloomberg reports a record $800B in stock buybacks are expected in 2018. So how are these buybacks inflating the value of a company artificially? It’s quite simple. When a company buys back its own stock, the supply of the stock for purchase diminishes. Of course as supply diminishes, price increases for any shares that are traded. If a CEO has $5 million in his company’s stock, by channeling these tax cuts and profits to buybacks, all other factors being equal the price of the stock will go up. So his $5M might easily turn into $6M. And what work had to be done? Simply redirecting these tax cuts and profits to create “buy” orders for his company’s stock.

That’s a whole lot easier than creating new products, expanding into new markets or figuring out how to run the business more efficiently. Shareholders probably aren’t going to complain when they see the value of their investments rise. Smarter CEOs will be systematically selling their stock when its price goes up, so they can capture its inflated wealth. This gives them money in the bank that can’t be taken away and shifts the risks of owning this stock to other stockholders.

Which is why these record stock buybacks really worry me. They do nothing to actually make a company more profitable in the long run and actually add to a company’s vulnerability. They allow more agile competitors (if there are any) to get a leg up on their market. That adds risks to a company’s value. Companies are essentially betting on the profitability of corporate inertia. Traditionally, this has not worked well for companies in the long run.

Stock corrections are inevitable. There was evidence earlier this year that we had reached correction territory, but markets have recovered much of these losses. For now though these tax cuts seem to be juicing the markets instead of your pocketbooks. I get the feeling that a true correction will happen sooner rather than later, in part because of the volatility of the market so far this year. This suggests there is a general nervousness among investors.

Stock buybacks though are a clear symptom of corporate greed. Greed is simply the lust for more wealth, and the truly greedy will want to increase their riches now rather than wait for improbable future profits. Congress is aiding and abetting this greed through these tax cuts in the first place, but also by removing regulations that were put in place after the Great Recession to prevent these things from happening in the future. You can see this through Trump’s attack on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. You can see it in recently passed legislation that will remove more higher reserve requirements on midsize banks. And you can see it in record consumer debt levels, bigger even than before the Great Recession. I believe that these large stock buybacks are another sign that this financial house of cards is moving toward another correction.

This time we can hope that it won’t be as bad as 2008. It shouldn’t, but who can say? The Trump Administration is being both being reckless and shortsighted, and Congress is fine with this. Their insatiable greed means they simply don’t care about fulfilling their primary function. The primary function of government is to be fiduciaries for the nation, making sure it is properly managed for both the short and long term. To the extent they are interested, it is to convince them that their timeworn strategies that just do the opposite will somehow work in the long term this time.

You would be wise not to take their bet. Rather than practicing greed, you might want to practice prudence instead. My take: this is a good time for less market exposure. I’m not alone. When the Treasury bill rate made it above 3% for the first time in years, it pushed up other interest rates. Many investors saw this as a sign and began moving more money into bonds for the surety of a return.

I don’t think Republican governance is going to change any fundamentals of the economy. Needless to say, I’m limiting my market exposure now and putting more money into bond funds. Maybe you should too.

 
The Thinker

A truer understanding of the meaning of the Second Amendment

This Washington Post OpEd by Dennis Barron (who is an English and linguistics professor out of the University of Illinois) really intrigued me. He takes the late Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia to task for his reading of the Second Amendment. It’s this amendment that grants us gun rights. To refresh your memory, here is the Second Amendment in full:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Specifically he takes Scalia to task for his interpretation of “bear Arms”. Scalia said that it undoubtedly meant that it protected the right to use guns for self-defense. According to Barron, at the time it was only used in a military context. It meant the use of arms for “war, soldiering or organized, armed action” according to Barron.

As I pointed out years back, the court’s 2008 decision District of Columbia v. Heller in which Scalia voted with the majority essentially turned the Second Amendment into:

The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Perhaps some future true-constructionist court will rediscover the true meaning of the amendment. (Scalia thought of himself as a true-constructionist, i.e. someone who interprets the law as it was originally intended to be interpreted.) If Barron is right, then it’s quite clear the right to bear arms is derived only from the state’s need to have a well-regulated militia. Your right to bear arms is not because you like to shoot squirrels, target practice or even to protect your home. And it’s not like this is a mystery: it’s written in plain English.

If militias were actually necessary in 2018, given the number of firearms in circulation you would think there would be militias all over the place. If you were thinking our army is a militia, you would be quite wrong. Dictionary.com gives these definitions in order of most frequent use:

  1. A body of citizens enrolled for military service, and called out periodically for drill but serving full time only in emergencies.
  2. A body of citizen soldiers as distinguished from professional soldiers.
  3. All able-bodied males considered by law eligible for military service.
  4. A body of citizens organized in a paramilitary group and typically regarding themselves as defenders of individual rights against the presumed interference of the federal government.

Today, the Reserve and National Guard would qualify under the first definition, but not our standing army. They are very well regulated too. So clearly if you are a member of either of these, your right could not be infringed, at least as long as you remain a member. In practice though the state probably won’t tell you to keep your guns at home, particularly not those military grade guns. They’ll have you drive to your local armory to pick them up and truck you somewhere in uniform with a bunch of other soldiers.

The second definition is rather murky. A soldier presumably has had military training so perhaps this also covers the Reserve and the Guard. It’s unlikely that shooting at rabbits qualifies you as a soldier. If you haven’t been trained to maim and kill people with firearms under a chain of command using actual military-grade guns, you can’t credibly call yourself a soldier.

The third definition is pretty sexist in 2018 so presumably can be ignored. It should include women but presumably does not include the feeble. So grandma would probably not qualify to keep a gun in her nightstand.

The fourth definition perhaps cover unofficial militias. There are these militias out there today, but they have no legal sanction and are ephemeral organizations at best. Since they have no official sanction, they can’t be considered “well regulated” so presumably they don’t qualify at all. Around the time of our founding though, these militias were all we had. Given that, it’s probably not surprising the founding fathers said, “Hey, we need to ensure we keep our militias or the Indians might overrun us. So we need to make sure that citizens can bear arms.” There was nothing that can credibly be called a standing American army during the Revolutionary War. To the extent it was the “Continental Army” they were the ragtag militias that showed up to fight the war that George Washington did his best to train (with little in the way of funding from the Continental Congress, by the way). Our military of militias proved pretty ineffective. If France hadn’t helped us, particularly at Yorktown, it’s unlikely we would have won the war outright. Anyhow, it is murky at best whether a group of ad-hoc people calling themselves a militia are actually a militia, and would not be in a 1790s sense. To stretch the definition of militia though, perhaps these people have the right to bear arms because they meet the definition of militia.

Even if you say a citizen has the right to bear arms though, the wording of the amendment with a proper interpretation of its predicate “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” suggests to me that if Congress declared that a well regulated militia was no longer necessary to the security of a free state, then your right to bear arms could be infringed and no constitutional amendment would be needed. If at some future time Congress decided, “Hey, we need a militia again” then that right could return.

In any event that clause was not added as an afterthought. Rather, it’s a predicate. Its wording though is quite odd. In more modern English, it should be read as: “Only because a militia is needed for our country to survive, citizens have the right to own guns.”

It’s laughable to assert this right is unlimited because the Supreme Court has stated many times it is not an unlimited right. Inmates can’t own firearms. In many states, being mentally ill can disqualify you. You can’t own bazookas. States are free to regulate firearms providing they don’t take away the right altogether.

So it’s fine if one state decides that “arms” mean nothing bigger than a handgun and another an AR-15. It’s fine if one state says that minors cannot own guns and another state allows it. The Second Amendment is no more absolute than any other right in the Bill of Rights. And if properly framed in the context of the 1790s, it would be hard to argue that anyone has a right to bear arms for any reason other that to maintain a free state’s right to exist using a militia.

Maybe someday we’ll get there, but it’s now obvious that our interpretation of the Second Amendment is just dishonest.

 
The Thinker

Evangelicals rooting for Armageddon

On April 29, I inconveniently pointed out that most Christians in America are acting like the devil. Jesus himself seemed to be aware that people have this tendency, which is captured in the Bible in Luke 6:42 and Matthew 7:3:

How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye?

Christianity’s general failing in this area is obvious to most of us heathen and unchurched, as well as (I hope) to those Christians among us who still emulate the actual spirit of Jesus. Granted, it’s not easy to be cognizant of your own glaring hypocrisies. I don’t consider myself immune from this human predisposition. Having this understanding of the “Christians” around me though means nothing to those who would benefit from my insights. They aren’t listening and even if they were they would reject it out of hand. Since I’m not a Christian how can I be believed anyhow? When you have real faith, reason won’t trump it.

It’s one thing to have a lot of the devil in you while proclaiming your devout holiness. It’s another thing entirely to actively work for the end of the world. The latter is intensely evil. And yet as Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks points out, 25% of voting age Americans are hoping for the end of the world and are actively trying to bring it about by voting for people like Donald Trump. America sent a couple of them to Jerusalem the other day to celebrate our unwise decision to move our embassy to there. As you may have read, it led to the death of 62 Palestinians and the wounding of 1200 others or so who were protesting along the border between the Gaza Strip and Israel.

“Praise be to Jesus”, say these end-of-the-worlders about this embassy move. That’s because they can check off one more item on their dubious list of conditions for bringing about Armageddon that they have somehow discerned from reading the book of Revelations. Although the New World wasn’t even imagined in Jesus’s time, apparently one of the conditions for bringing about Armageddon was for the USA has to open an embassy there. Go figure. More than anything else, they want the end of the world. If they can pull off the Biblical conditions, Jesus finally returns to Earth. They can’t wait to be rhapsodized because they are true believers. Oh, and part of the prophecy is the rest of us get to die what looks like painful and miserable deaths, apparently a very Christian thing to do. For 62 Palestinians, they are already fulfilling the prophecy courtesy of the Israeli military. The Lord does work in mysterious ways.

Among the speakers at the opening of our embassy were pastors John Hagee and Robert Jeffress. Back in the 1990s, Hagee had said that Hitler was fulfilling biblical prophecies because his Holocaust caused the creation of Israel. That sure sounds like maybe the Holocaust was okay, at least by him. Jeffress is on record as saying Mormonism and Islam are heresies “from the pit of hell”, said Catholics were led astray by Satan and said that President Obama was “paving the way” for the Antichrist. You would think this might disqualify them from speaking at such an event, but apparently they were featured speakers. Trump’s evangelical supporters form the base of his support so of course they were featured.

Apparently it’s not enough to allow the natural course of events to bring about Armageddon; they must coach it along. So it’s all smiles from these people as more misery and destruction happen across the Middle East. That’s because they see these events as signs that Jesus is getting ready for his second coming. They are not bothered at all by their advocacy of these events. They think they are doing God’s work. That’s right: they have to help others kill lots of people so the Son of God can return to earth and make sure they are raptured. This is sick, sick, sick. Evangelicals are becoming the Antichrist they are looking for. They are clearly suffering from a case of toxic religiosity.

The rest of us don’t matter. The rest of us know what these faith-based people don’t: there is no God (at least nothing resembling what they believe in), that we only have this one planet and that most of us just want to live in it peacefully and for everyone to get along. Jesus was all about love and peace. How on earth can they be pushing for hate and war instead? What the hell is wrong with these people?

If I could be dictator, I would do away with all religion. It’s pretty clear that it works against its own professed aims. It does nothing to unite us, but plenty to factionalize us. It provides a false certainty in an uncertain world and gives its believers a faith and rationalization to inflict endless misery on the rest of us. These kinds of religion are toxic and ultimately self-defeating memes that by its nature must wash over the rest of us who simply want to live decent and peaceful lives.

Doing away with religion wouldn’t mean that mankind would still not be rift in conflict. The communists recognized that religion was evil but even official state atheism could not kill it. If it’s not religion, then ethnic, racial and rich vs. poor conflicts would likely prove just as good at inspiring us to hate.

Some of us though believe that we have evolved past this crap. What we need are rational leaders, people that think through the likely consequences of their actions instead of relying on their biases and impulses. We want leaders that look to diplomacy to solve problems instead of dropping bombs.

Perhaps old-fashioned scorn would work. We should call out people like these Evangelical Christians and hold them to account for stoking the flames of hatred, certainly not to convince them but to convince others on the fence. We are not seeing much evidence of this now, as these people wrap themselves in the cloak of a false Christianity. However, the rational among us must proclaim them for what they are: perhaps nice-sounding people with an evil core perturbed by a religion that says they must be right. They must be opposed at every turn.

 
The Thinker

There is no Planet B

When I have time to fill in my retirement, I can easily spend it among the endless documentaries on YouTube. I have spent a lot of my free time watching videos on space-time. Space-time is the matrix in which we live and it’s very much a real thing. There is no way to separate space from time. It (not they) literally comprises the fabric of the universe, fabric that can be warped by gravitational forces. It’s fascinating stuff if you can wrap your head around it.

Some of these videos take on the topic of traveling to distant stars. They talk about why it’s prohibitively expensive in time and energy to even come close to approaching the speed of light. If we hope to escape our solar system and colonize planets around distant stars we will have to figure out how to do this. What I’ve gleaned from these videos is that there is basically no way to do this. In the embedded video, the sun is reduced to the size of pea. The videographer then shows the distance of our closest star, Proxima Centauri, which would be 125 miles away. Moreover, Proxima Centauri would be the size of a radish seed.

Proxima Centauri is about 4.25 light years away. If you could get a spacecraft to go ten percent of the speed of light, which doesn’t seem technically possible due to the energy required, it would take 42 years to get to Proxima Centauri. The chance of finding a habitable planet around it is virtually nothing, which means the closest habitable planet is likely to be much farther away. Moreover, humans hoping to emigrate there would have to bring everything they need with them. Many generations would live and die in the void of interstellar space on this journey. Given the law of entropy, it’s unlikely their vessel would make it to its destination with any of its passengers alive.

Which is why in practical terms that humans should look closer to home. Mars is probably the closest possibly habitable planet, but it really cannot be considered habitable. It has 1/100 of the earth’s atmosphere, its atmosphere is toxic and too cold for us and everything is covered in a fine dust that would probably have us looking like coal miners. We’d probably have to live underground. Most likely going there would be a one-way trip, as our muscles would likely atrophy in the lighter gravity. Pretty much everything would have to be imported from earth, at least for many decades. Just getting there would mean being exposed to high does of cosmic radiation that would change our DNA and likely mean our children would have birth defects. In short, actually living on Mars would probably be hellish. No sane person would want to stay there. Even getting there and back might kill you or at least shorten your lifespan. Perhaps we’ll find ways to shield ourselves from the cosmic radiation on the journey, but it’s unlikely.

Venus has a more earth-like gravity but is literally hotter than hell not to mention filled with an atmosphere of lethal gases and constantly swirling storms. There is some talk that maybe a moon of Jupiter or Saturn could support a human colony. Getting there would take much longer than to Mars and there is no moon that can really be considered Earth-like. Some appear to have water (ice) and something resembling an atmosphere, but life there would be problematic at best. Many of these moons seems to be rocked by earthquakes.

All this leads this space-buff to conclude that we humans are stuck here on Earth, barring some sort of incredible technology that seems extremely unlikely or some asterisks to the laws of relativity that don’t appear to exist. It’s understandable that humans will want to explore new frontiers. It’s also abundantly clear that we are quickly making the earth uninhabitable through overpopulation, pollution and deforestation.

Attempts to colonize these brave new worlds will likely prove disastrous and prohibitively costly. Yet that’s seems to be where people like Elon Musk are anxious to go. If he can shoot a Tesla toward the outer planets, a manned trip to Mars can’t be that far away. He’s hoping to do something like this in the 2020s. I confess I will be excited if he or NASA succeeds in something like this. While it is likely to be exciting, it is certainly fraught with peril. Assuming the astronauts make it back, it’s likely that their DNA will not be quite what it was. Astronauts who have spent long time periods in the International Space Station have already noted chromosomal abnormalities. Science Magazine in 2016 noted that lunar astronauts had a much higher risk of heart disease. This is likely due to the higher cosmic radiation in the space between the Earth and the Moon.

While mankind’s desire to explore other worlds is understandable, if much of our motivation for getting off-planet is to deal with the population crisis then we are being hopelessly naïve. Which means that as painful as it may appear to be, it will be infinitely less costly to address our climate, population and pollution crises here and now. Our lovely Mother Earth that we are quickly destroying is all that cocoons us.

Hopefully the Trump Administration’s foolhardy rush toward oblivion will be short-lived. Hopefully Americans will come to their senses and elect politicians that will address these problems. Resolving seemingly intractable problems like our religious and ethnic wars, or poverty or population control simply must happen or we doom humans and our ecosystem to extinction.

There is no Planet B for humans to colonize. We live on a planet that should be our Eden. We must make it that or perish.

 

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