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.

The free market is failing us

The Thinker by Rodin

Are you feeling freer yet? From all the free market stuff happening, I mean.

What I’ve been noticing – and what you are probably noticing too – are all the vacant storefronts. Retailing must be in recession.

We have a tiny mall across the river from us. I was in there the other day looking for Christmas presents. It was in sad shape. It still has a couple of anchor stores: a JC Penny and a Target, but inside there were a lot of spaces for rent.

It’s similar in the little downtown in our city of 30,000. When we arrived four years ago, it was vibrant. It’s doing better than some but now there are plenty of storefronts to rent on what should be prime property: Main Street.

It’s not entirely bleak. Despite these empty storefronts, I still see a new small shopping plaza go up now and then. What’s going in though is not so much retail as mixed businesses: doctors offices, restaurants and maybe a fitness center. Increasingly, if I need to buy something I can’t get it locally, so I have to go online. I’d really prefer not to, but increasingly if I do want to buy it at a brick-and-mortar store, I have to drive twenty miles or so to Holyoke. Our local Staples went out of business. A Petco opened across the river at the mall and closed a couple of months later. Our local Walmart looks anemic. Here in Massachusetts, one of the few growth retail businesses is Dunkin Donuts. Apparently we can’t have enough of them.

Our city is at least trying to keep a local economy vibrant. Chain stores are fairly rare around here. We have one Starbucks downtown, but otherwise all our restaurants are local. There are local hardware stores, mainly because few want to cross the river to Hadley to go to the Home Depot or Lowes over there. While there are plenty of Dunkins, we don’t have a Wendy’s, and just one McDonald’s and Burger King on the north side of town. The reason these chains largely avoid us is probably that it doesn’t make economic sense: our market is too small and too far away. We have too few customers and too much hassle to truck stuff in, I’m guessing.

Another sign of the retail times: Amazon put up a new warehouse in Holyoke. It’s probably stocked by now, which means they probably have hired legions of employees at $15/hour to fulfill orders twenty four hours a day. Amazon pushes these people to crazy levels of productivity. They can walk nine miles or more day pulling stuff out of bins and they get metered to make sure they don’t take too many bathroom breaks. They might as well be cattle. They may get treated worse than cattle. Also new: Amazon trucks are making deliveries to the home. A couple of months ago, I never saw an Amazon truck.

Our area is trying to keep a local banking sector, with some modest success. The success is because they had one before the big banks arrived, but it’s not too hard to find a vacant bank storefront. Community banks are clearly suffering but fortunately seem to still dominate the local mega banks here. There is one Bank of America downtown, but they apparently don’t care about the local villages.

I confess I am part of the trend. While I’d like to set up an account at a local community bank, I can’t justify it. Online banks like the one I use, Ally, can offer us a much better deal because they don’t have expense of storefronts. We will get more than 2% interest on a CD at Ally. No community bank around here can compete with that. I also never changed my credit union, which recently offered a deal too good to pass up, though they are 400 miles away. I now get 2% cash back on my purchases, and no annual fee for their card. No local bank can match that either.

We are lucky though to have community banks. In many communities, they are gone. Back where we used to live in Northern Virginia, they were pretty much gone. There was a Citibank or Bank of America store every couple of miles or so, and if not a storefront, at least one of their ATMs. And you paid for the privilege with misery interest rates and plenty of creative fees.

Community banks at least tend to keep the money local, helping to stimulate the local economy. I’m sure Bank of America makes loans locally, but the profits don’t tend to stay in the area. They go to shareholders, or to inflated salaries. During the last recession, it was the big banks that tended to be most vulnerable, mostly because they were the most exposed. They held lots of toxic assets. Pushing those dubious home loans increased their profits in the short term, but when the recession hit it pushed them toward insolvency. Judged too big to fail, Uncle Sam largely bailed them out, letting them keep their short term profits while pushing the long term costs for their risky behavior onto taxpayers. There is every indication that we’ll see this scenario play out yet again in 2020 or 2021.

What I see is not so much competition as consolidation. I see lots of monopolies. I have no choice with my ISP, so it’s Comcast, unless I and a group of citizens can convince our city to create a municipal network. We pay Comcast close to $100 a month for 300 mbps download to the home. Airlines consolidate and raise prices. Entertainment companies consolidate and do the same thing. We saw a movie yesterday at the local Cinemark. We were assaulted but what felt like endless commercials before the movie, including three clips of popcorn popping and Coke fizzing. Need a potty break? They are playing in the restroom too.

These days, you buy out your competition while setting higher barriers for new entrants into these markets. The result is not really more efficiency, but a whole lot less competition, which makes these companies fat and sloppy. If they excel in anything it’s in buying out the competition and paying their employees poorly. Where else are they going to go? Their competition doesn’t largely exist anymore.

To me the worst of these is not Amazon, but ride sharing services Uber and Lyft. They represent everything that is wrong with our “free market” today. Their “innovation” was to sidestep regulators entirely, creating facts-on-the-ground of independent contractor drivers. Yes, it lowered fares, but it’s clear now that they are doing it by cheating their drivers, who largely don’t understand they are working for negative wages when you factor in the depreciation on their cars. Oh, and if you are a female passenger, you stand a decent change of sexual assault. Uber reported more than three thousand sexual assaults in 2018.

What we needed but don’t have is some sort of regulatory authority to decide whether these businesses should be allowed to start up in the first place. Uber and Lyft have, in effect, bypassed our wage and hour laws. In many areas of the country, you can’t get a taxi anymore. You must use Uber or Lyft if you don’t have a car.

What all this proves to me is that money talks. It gets us an oligarchy that is clearly in charge, at least at the federal level. For the rest of us, it just squeezes us more. It’s a new gilded age where only those with money get to profit. The rest of us are just lemon for the squeezing.

The needless suffering all around us

The Thinker by Rodin

My wife is volunteering at the local survival center. Twice a week during the dinner hour she volunteers there, helping to serve 40 to 80 families (sometimes more) survive during her shift.

The center takes all comers, so the undocumented and homeless are served. It’s not mostly these people that the center serves though. It’s neighbors who look a lot like me, but unlike me (I’m largely retired) they are working. They work whatever they can get and whenever they can. There are virtually no freeloaders that come through their doors.

Our community is not unique. About eleven percent of the population is food insecure. Thank goodness the survival center keeps them from starvation. That’s because these days you can’t count on much if anything from the government. That’s because Ronald Reagan convinced Americans that welfare queens driving Cadillacs were using food stamps to buy steaks. For forty years the Republican Party (and to some extent Democrats like Bill Clinton) have been making it harder and harder for people to simply survive.

Some of these people are homeless, but most are not. Most of their income is going to keeping a roof over their heads. Housing prices keep going up and almost all of them rent because they can’t afford to buy a home. Demand can’t keep up with supply, and certainly their wages can’t, so they are squeezed.

I live in Massachusetts which is reasonably progressive. Our minimum wage is currently $11/hour, and will rise to $15/hour by 2023. Still, it’s clear that this amount does not come close to providing a living wage.

Most of the people at the survival center are working two or more jobs, and it’s still not enough. Lots have dependents. An increasing minimum wage helps, but it is being raised slowly. The sorts of jobs these people work rarely pay much more than the minimum wage. That’s because despite low overall unemployment rates, the pool of relatively unskilled labor is still pretty high, so employers usually don’t have much of a problem filling these jobs. Our area is somewhat rural. Aside from some colleges and one university, there isn’t a whole lot of higher paying jobs.

What often tips the balance for these people is unemployment or health costs. Probably the biggest variable is unexpected health costs. The good news is that it’s hard to be uninsured in Massachusetts, as the Affordable Care Act was based largely on our program. The bad news is that most of these plans are still not that affordable. Since it’s required, they usually buy high deductible plans. While they often get catastrophic protection, in some ways its a worse system: they must pay for health plans they cannot really afford, plus they pay huge deductibles before they can get what are largely catastrophic benefits. These deductibles can wipe out the money for things like paying the rent or buying groceries. It also puts them on a treadmill of getting by, if you can call it that.

In short, the standard of living they require simply to get by is not close to what society is willing to pay them to let them achieve it. A lot of these people end up at the survival center because they run out of government benefits. And every year, our betters make things worse. Just yesterday, the Trump administration announced it is finalizing rules that will amount to kicking 700,000 more people off of food stamps.

It’s being done by changing the criteria of how high a state’s unemployment rate must be for it to get a federal waiver. Right now these SNAP benefits cannot exceed three months over 3 years for an individual without being enrolled in an education or training program for 80 hours a month, so if that happens these people are already at risk of homelessness and hunger. With the new rules, states could not seek a waiver unless their unemployment rate was at least six percent.

It’s based on the assumption that these people are lazy welfare queens who could easily get a job when in fact the vast majority are already working. In fact, most work a lot more than the rest of us. Most of the rest of us probably could not endure the superhuman amount of effort it takes for these people to survive. Without food stamps, they have to depend on their local survival center and hope there is food. My wife sees these people every day she volunteers. Fortunately, there are many giving individuals and organizations in the area willing to step up when the government clearly won’t. We give them $100 a month, in addition to volunteer work.

Prescription drug costs can also be killer costs. Recently, I sent $50 to an online friend, Jeff, whose state of Utah won’t provide Medicaid benefits. He’s currently homeless, living with a friend and despite having two jobs he can’t afford the $500 his specialized diabetes medicine costs. This is merely the most critical of his costs because he has other high cost prescriptions he needs and can’t afford because he is uninsured. He has no place to call home and his infrastructure crumbling around him. His car is giving out. He keeps looking for a cheap apartment, but there are none, at least not requiring very long drives from Salt Lake City. Oh, and he’s recently divorced, has a transgender teen and his ex expects him to pay for child support.

He’s hardly alone. I recently documented my friend Tom’s situation, which thankfully is not as dire at Jeff’s. They’re all over my community and they are all over yours too. All because those with money are largely in charge, they think these people are lazy, and they don’t want to contribute a dime to help them escape their misery or even keep them from going hungry. Ironically, a lot of these people are virulently pro-life.

These same people also tend to believe that we live in the greatest country. If we did, we wouldn’t tolerate the poverty and suffering of our fellow citizens.

No wonder candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have such support. Republicans are clueless, but the rest of us understand this suffering. We insist on a decent society that doesn’t allow it. For those of us who haven’t experienced it, we feel its closeness, knowing we are one job loss away from entering this hell.

It’s largely all because we allowed our energies and productivity to go to stockholders instead of the people whose sweat earned these profits. Moreover, we let people lead us who cut us off at the kneecaps. They turned our states into right-to-work states, which makes it hard for unions to form, but easier to give employers the upper hand.

As this Trump proposal demonstrates, there is no end to the level of cruelty Republicans will inflict on us to put yet more money into their pockets at our expense. If you are looking for a revolution, they may get one sooner than they expect. And they may be the ones found beneath the local hanging tree.

Republicans want to end our republic

The Thinker by Rodin

I must have been naive. All this time, I’ve been assuming there was some inner core among Republicans that would assert itself when push came to shove. For example, I figured they would be beating the bushes to find a 25th Amendment remedy to Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump is clearly mentally ill, has heart disease and simply does not have the intelligence for the complexity and nuance the job of president demands.

But that’s not it at all. Republicans want to end our republic through any means, fair or foul. For decades they have been waging a covert war to enable this to happen. They’ve been using built-in constitutional advantages that is more likely to give them power and to retain it.

The Electoral College, created to deal with the irreconcilable problem that our nation was formed with free and slave states, gave them disproportionate power from the start. The Constitution also gives states equal power, allowing them to generally hold the U.S. Senate with a minority of its population. The Constitution also allows states to determine procedures for voting. Republicans have used this to gerrymander relentlessly, making it very hard for another political party to gain power. With a Supreme Court decision pushed by its conservative majority, the court overturned the Voting Rights Act. And when they control state government, they have the power to purge voter roles and put fewer voting machines in neighborhoods with large minority populations.

None of this is news. But what is news is what Devin Nunes has been up to. Both CNN and The Daily Beast report that Lev Parnas, a Ukraine-related business associate of Donald Trump’s “personal lawyer” Rudi Giuliani, is willing to testify that Congressman Nunes (R-CA) and some on his staff traveled to Vienna, Austria last year to meet former Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin. Shokin was widely seen as corrupt when in power and someone former Vice President Joe Biden eventually succeeded in getting the Ukraine government to fire. Parnas also allegedly has thousands of pages of documents and recordings he has shared with the House Intelligence Committee. Parnas is now under arrest with his partner Igor Fruman when attempting to flee the country for Vienna on October 9th.

Allegedly, Nunes was there to try to help push the story that Ukraine, not Russia, had tried to interfere in the 2016 election and to find the DNC server he believes is in Ukraine that contains the so-called “missing” Hillary Clinton emails. Nunes is hardly alone. Our attorney general Bill Barr has been doing this as well, also on the taxpayer’s dime.

Nunes also sits on the House Intelligence Committee that has been initially taking testimony for Donald Trump’s impeachment. His action if true (and there are records he went to Vienna during the time alleged on official business) is powerful evidence of a conspiracy among Republicans to subvert the rule of law and to use the powers of government against the constitution they swore to uphold.

To me one of the most amazing aspects of this is that Devin Nunes and many Republicans that I assumed knew better bought into these ridiculous conspiracy theories. Congress itself, including a Republican-controlled Senate, issued committee findings that directly tied Russia to 2016 election meddling. So this is not seriously in question, at least it shouldn’t be. Yet despite this, lots of Republicans in Congress still believe it. And apparently if they can’t find any actual evidence, they are willing to manufacture it, or at least sow doubt. That’s why Trump wanted Ukraine to open an investigation into the Bidens as a condition for giving the country the aid that Congress had already approved.

It’s totally laughable. This CrowdStrike server is supposedly in Ukraine, but both the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee contract with CrowdStrike to store their information.

Republicans don’t seem to understand what CrowdStrike actually is: an Information Services provider, based not in Ukraine but in Sunnydale, California, not too far from Devin Nunes’ congressional district. CrowdStrike specializes in cyber-security, important for both the RNC and the DNC, and helped detect digital intrusions from agents in places like China. So the whole notion of a “server” somewhere is so 20th century. CrowdStrike stores it’s clients’ data in the cloud. It’s encrypted and spread out digitally among a lot of data centers. This is easily checked, but no Republican can seem to be bothered. Facts no longer have any relevance, because they apparently have bought into the notion that if they believe it is true, it must be so.

So Republicans are fully on board with supporting Donald Trump in any way possible, even if it is illegal and against the constitution they swore to uphold. Logically, they would be better with a candidate without Trump’s flaws. In any event, it’s unlikely that if Mike Pence replaced Trump, he would act so unlawfully. That they aren’t willing to do so suggests they want someone as unlawful as Trump.

Why would this be? It all makes sense if you give up the fiction that they care about our republic. It makes no sense otherwise. Their existential fear of the other seems to be overriding all other principles. Not that there are any principled Republican left. They all left, or when they stand up to object, like Justin Amash, they get ejected from party for being insufficiently loyal.

So our republic increasingly hangs by a thread. Republicans may now have a Supreme Court willing to say the President is above the law. If they have that and can control most elections, we don’t have a republic anymore. They can do and get away with anything they want.

If Trump were sane, he might call this treason. I’m not sure it qualifies. Treason is giving support to any country with which we are at war, and we’re not at war with Russia. But it is clearly against their sworn oath to put country over party. A sham Senate trial of Trump will likely prove this to be the case.

About the only check left is a court system that both Republicans in Congress and Trump are likely to ignore when they don’t get the ruling they like, and our election system which is already rigged on many levels. Only an overwhelming vote of the populace can start to make things right again.

I was chatting with a client on Skype the other day. He’s German, but living in Barbados. He was leery of giving me his business because he thought I could be a Trump supporter. He is very, very worried about the USA and say that’s true of Europe in general. Everyone is terrified. So am I. We are living through the most scary time in our country’s history. And it’s clear that Republicans simply want an autocrat in charge and to be a republic in name only.

We must somehow defeat them.

Lessons from Book of Mormon (the musical)

The Thinker by Rodin

We visited New York City last week, our first trip there since probably 2003. You rarely go there and not see a Broadway show.

We saw two: Come from Away, a heartwarming musical about how a community of 9000 in Newfoundland, Canada took care of 7000 people after 9/11 when their flights were diverted there following the event. In a dark time, it was a reminder that people can be kind in extreme situations.

We also finally saw Book of Mormon, somewhat of Come from Away’s antithesis. Religion is dicey material to stage, and this sacrilegious musical is pretty ruthless with Mormons, Mormonism and their many beliefs. If you have a button to push, it will probably push it. Topics include AIDS, raping babies, murder and removing women’s clitorises, not to mention Mormon’s difficultly suppressing homosexuality. Also arguably it’s more than a little racist, as modern Uganda doesn’t much resemble anymore the thatched hutches that Elder Price and Elder Cunningham find themselves in. Yet somehow this musical works, as attested to by its long run on Broadway that shows no sign of ending. I haven’t had so much fun on Broadway since seeing The Producers there, probably when we were last there in 2003.

I haven’t studied Mormonism, but the musical will certainly expose you to its foundational beliefs, most of which are laughable. For example, devout Mormons believe that you get your own planet, and Jesus has his own planet somewhere out there.

What you do with your own planet and how you can visit Jesus on his is not discussed. Presumably these are Edens much like Earth and without all its strife. I’m guessing you don’t get tractors and bulldozers on these planets, so you live a simple life, probably hunter gathering. Since it’s all for you, I guess you have to be okay with your own company so it’s probably fine to go naked and hopefully the weather accommodates. I’m guessing you get to share it with your spouse, assuming you get married, and that’s pretty much a given for any Mormon.

And then there’s their whole story of ancient Israelites going to North America and creating gold tablets in what is now upstate New York that were the Book of Mormon that curiously only Joseph Smith ever saw. Oh, and there’s the whole polygamy thing, until it became counterproductive. Also we learn the blacks won’t get into heaven, until that became counterproductive too and God apparently changed his mind in 1978.

Some of the show’s biggest fans are Mormons, which suggests they are comfortable with its sacrilegious nature, that their religion is full of beliefs and arguments that make no sense, and they can laugh about it while claiming to believe in its teachings. To most of us, the idea that you get your own planet for being a good Mormon is good for a belly laugh.

Absurd as it is though, Mormonism is hardly atypical in this department. It’s just that we’ve gotten used to the idea that most religions are arguably crazy, but since they’ve been around so long, we don’t give it much thought. You have to look really hard to find a religion that doesn’t believe in wacky stuff.

Growing up Catholic, I was taught that the eucharist (once blessed by a priest in mass) was the actual body of Christ, and the blessed wine the actual blood of Christ. The Catholics even have a word for it: transubstantiation. To be a good Catholic you also have to believe a lot of other stuff arguably just as crazy as Jesus (and maybe you) getting your own planet: that Jesus rose from the dead despite no one but his disciples having witnessed the event (you would think the Romans might have noted it in their logs), that he bodily ascended into heaven, that he divided loaves and fishes to feed a multitude magically, and that he could heal lepers and other diseased people. You also have to believe that God comes in three parts: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, that the Son (Jesus) was begat by the Father sometime after the Father existed, something very important in around AD 200 because if you didn’t believe this you were either killed or exiled. Then there’s that Holy Spirit entity which never made much sense. Most Christians subscribe to a lot of these beliefs, but most tend to see transubstantiation as metaphorical.

Islam makes a lot more sense: there is only one God, not a god with multiple personality disorder. One doesn’t have to wonder how Joseph Smith came up with the idea of gold tablets, since Muhammad went alone into a cave near Mecca where the Archangel Gabriel apparently started chanting verses that became the Quran. Although I don’t get why I need to pray in the direction of Mecca seven times a day, at least it’s pretty simple and I don’t have to worry about transubstantiation. I don’t understand though why it had to fracture like the Catholic Church, and that Sunnis and Shiites seem to spend more time bashing each other on the head over obscure theological points than finding common ground.

Jews don’t get off much better. Moses had to go up Mount Sinai, alone, to get his revelation from Yahweh. Moses apparently brought chiseling tools, which was helpful in creating the Ten Commandments. It’s unclear how the Jews managed to survive in the desert, but if we are to believe scripture it was due to manna sent from heaven. You also have to wonder how inept they could be to wander forty years in the Sinai desert lost; the Sinai isn’t that big a place. And it is a desert. They would need a reliable watering hole. Most likely Moses and the whole story of Jews exiled in Egypt is myth, which makes Passover a myth too.

And so it goes with religion after religion. Hinduism is full of deities with various powers. It may be the 21st century, but Hinduism has lost none of its sway in India and is now undercutting the state’s fundamental secularism to discriminate against Muslims, much like many Christians in the United States would like to do against Muslims too, and Jews also for that matter. Shintoism is also full of deities with various powers. All seems to have their roots in paganism, which they try to paper over somehow. Mormonism seems pretty wacky, but arguably Scientology is wackier and there are plenty of Hollywood elites who fell for it.

Try to stamp out religion and it’s hard not to invent something that seems to be a lot like it in a secular trapping. Communism seems a lot like Christianity without a holy book or spiritual leader, unless you count Marx and Engels and Das Kapital. Fascism and nationalism in general seem to be the sweeping political arcs of the moment, the latter here in the United States where for some Donald Trump might as well be God and divine.

Apparently, humans have an intrinsic need to believe in something wacky and just to worship something: a golden calf will probably do in a pinch. Being decent, secular, civil and tolerant just don’t appear to be enough to satisfy us. If we can’t have more, we’ll invent more.

So it was fun to laugh along with Book of Mormon, but every one of us including me still harbor some arguably crazy beliefs. One of mine is life after death: I don’t believe I will inherit my own planet, but I do believe I am a passenger on a journey and this life is one of many I will experience. In that sense, I am as loony as a Hindu, who also believes in reincarnation.

So laugh along with Book of Mormon, just realized that when we do we are all in some measure also laughing at ourselves.