Trump is likely to sink the Republican Party

The Thinker by Rodin

This NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll has some really bad news for Donald Trump and the Republican Party. The poll focuses on the latest government shutdown and Trump’s further sagging approval ratings. The real story though is a bit below the fold: 57% of voters surveyed said they will definitely not vote for Donald Trump should he run for reelection in 2020.

Assuming the poll is accurate and those polled will carry through on their threat, should Trump run for reelection in 2020, he can’t win. Democrats could presumably pick just about anyone for their nominee and he or she would win instead. Assuming that Trump does not resign or is not impeached and removed from office before his term expires, he’s destined for defeat.

I will grant you that elections are often decided in their final weeks and that what seems like a sure thing now it no guarantee in November 2020. However, the Trump brand is fully established now. It’s also quite obvious that Trump will not change. It looks like his idea of running the government models how he runs his businesses: they go bankrupt due to his insatiable ego and complete incompetence. It’s hard to see how any campaign by Russia can undo America’s opinion of Donald Trump now.

All this is good news if you don’t like Donald Trump. Savvy Republican operatives though (if there are any of them left) should not have too much trouble figuring out the implications of this: Trump is likely to kill the Republican Party. If so, it would be karmic justice, and perhaps some compensation for the hundreds of thousands of federal employees and likely millions of federal contractors not being paid during the longest government shutdown in our history.

That’s not to say this shutdown might not injure the Democratic Party too. The longer it goes on, the likelier that both parties will share in the blame. Most voters though understand the real issue: Trump simply won’t compromise. He’s now gone out on a limb. To pull back now makes him lose face with the only group he cares about: his base. But his base keeps shrinking. By one measure it’s down 7%, based on his poll numbers.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) thinks he is being savvy by not having the Senate take up any of the appropriations bills passed by the House to end the shutdown unless he knows that Trump will approve them. By his way of thinking, this keeps him in good stead with Trump, who doesn’t like him (the feeling is mutual). It’s quite likely though that if any of these bills were actually voted on, they would pass easily. There might even be veto-proof majorities in both houses. McConnell is up for reelection in 2020 too in a deep red state that sided heavily with Trump. So he thinks his strategy is smart: it innoculates him from criticism that he undermined Trump.

But it’s not. Republicans currently must defend 22 seats in 2020, including McConnell’s. Democrats have to defend 12. With the Senate 53R-47D, Democrats have to pick up just four seats to flip the chamber. Picking up 4 of 22 Republican seats while defending their own seas are excellent odds. This is easily doable but gets much harder for Republican senators who closely align with Trump. And the longer the shutdown goes on, the more pain it inflicts on their reelection prospects as more of their constituents are affected by the shutdown. Every day sears the memory more.

Basically, Trump is a huge and present threat to the viability of the Republican Party. After 2020, it might be effectively killed. The smart thing for Congressional Republicans to do is also the most risky in the short term: dump Trump. Trump’s negatives will probably inspire other Republicans to also run for the 2020 Republican nomination. These efforts are likely doomed because the Republican Party as we have known it ceased to exist with Trump’s election. So in some sense, the Republican Party is already dead. What is it without Trump? What is its center? What is its animus? Who does it represent? Whoever it represents, it will require a coalition to govern and Trump’s base is not nearly large enough. Trump is Humpty Dumpty. It’s hard to see how to bring the Republican Party together again.

Trump is leading McConnell and the spineless people that populate the Republican Party right off the cliff.

Touring the Galapagos Islands

The Thinker by Rodin

If you are going to come all the way to the Galapagos Islands, you had better like nature. And hiking. And climbing over fields of lava rock. And sea lions, iguana, sea turtles and tortoises. And weird and interesting landscapes. You should not come here if you are looking for the amenities of civilization, like lots of fancy ethnic eating, dance clubs, Starbucks and skyscrapers.

They do try to cater to our tastes but it’s not the same. I ordered pizza for dinner the other night. The sausage was unspiced, the pepperoni uninspiring, the sauce nothing to brag about. There is “Tex-Mex” food which is pretty good. Just don’t expect much in the way of other types of cuisine. You can get sushi, but most other ethnic food except for Ecuadorian food is not available.

If you know anything about the Galapagos Islands, you will know that it is largely uninhabited. This is by design but it’s also something of a necessity, as it doesn’t make a great place for human habitation. Just 35,000 people live here in the Galapagos in three “port” cities, the biggest of which we are in at the moment: Puerto Ayora, on the south side of Isle Santa Cruz. Santa Cruz is roughly equivalent to Oahu without of many of its amenities, except for palm trees and volcanos. Puerto Ayora has 12,000 of the islands’ 35,000 people. This makes it roughly as big as the village I live in (Florence, Massachusetts), and the population of the entire Galapagos Islands roughly the size of the city of Northampton, Massachusetts in which my village resides.

Puerto Ayora tries its best to compensate. It has a beautiful marina, and the streets are lined with tourist related businesses. There are many shops selling day trips to the islands. There are also a decent number of restaurants. Without the tourist trade, it would be economically devastated. It’s mostly Americanos who come here, but many from mainland Ecuador come here too, as it is their primary place of escape.

It’s pretty easy to transact commerce even without knowing a word of Spanish. The merchants at least know just enough to get by, and since it usually involves dickering over price, they will often use a calculator to show their asking price. You might as well dicker over the price. It is generally expected, except at restaurants. There are some bars and nightclubs here too, but not too many as not too many are needed. You got to get away from the marina to find things like grocery stores and pharmacies.

If for some reason you want to move here, that’s virtually impossible. Even mainland Ecuadorians can’t move here. They want to keep the islands as natural as possible and really these islands would have a hard time supporting much more of a population. Your only hope is to marry a native Galapagos Islands resident. And then you would have to be temperamentally disposed to live around here without most of the amenities you may be used to. Moreover, prices are often high here. A pair of Levi jeans will cost you more than $100, a bottle of sunscreen more than $25. So a lot of residents wait for trips to the mainland or to the United States to stock up on these essentials, bringing back with them much more than they left with. The only bargain I found here so far was a local laundry service, found behind a small gate along a cinder block lined pathway. Total cost to clean nine days of sweaty clothes: $7.90.

So enjoy your time in the Galapagos Islands, just remember it will be short lived. There are always other islands to visit and hike, but many are far away and hard to get to. So instead take advantage of the nature close at hand, which includes a lot of sea lions. It’s hard not to find them as they will often be lounging on wharfs, beaches and rocks along the coast. They are certainly cute to look at with their tiny ears and big eyes, even if they are often in your way when you want to go somewhere.

Sailing the Galapagos Islands

The Thinker by Rodin

The good and predominantly Mormon citizens of Utah (or more specifically, its politicians) are doing their best to tear up the state, replacing bucolic vistas of cacti, mesa and desert flora with strip mines, particularly near national monuments like Bears Ears. This is an obscenity, but Utah is hardly alone among red states. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration seems determined to kill nature and thus kill all of us by opening up federal lands to private interests and putting more pollutants into the air … part of its “culture of life”, I suppose.

So perhaps it’s not surprising then that we are seeking out what nature is left, the  more natural, the better. Specifically we are sailing among the Galapagos Islands, which are a few hundred miles west of Ecuador on the equator.  Around the time I was born, Ecuador decided to turn these islands into a giant ecological preserve and national park. They were betting that leaving it unadulterated was smarter than populating and exploiting it. Maybe before it’s gone, the citizens of Utah will also realize to leave well enough alone too.

Utah has one advantage the Galapagos do not: it’s easier and cheaper for tourists to get to. You have to really really want to visit the Galapagos Islands to go there.  Ecuador deliberately makes visting these islands hard. There are no international flights here, so you must connect through Ecuador’s international airports. You also need a tourist pass, which costs $100 per person and there are often other fees as well. Cruise ships don’t come here; Ecuador won’t allow them. So to see the islands you have to find a licensed tour operator. There aren’t many, which makes it a pricey vacation.

If you want what amounts to a cruise like we do, you end up on a large yacht, in our case the Coral I (which sails with a sister ship, the Coral II). Don’t call the Coral I a cruise ship. It’s less than 130 feet long, and handles just 38 passengers plus a dozen crew. There are no slot machines on board, and no fancy waiters with white linen napkins hanging from their arms either. Instead you get buffet meals and you had better be on time. Breakfast is usually served at 0715, lunch at 1230 and dinner at 1830, generally in the dining room toward the bow of the ship. Ship time amounts to -5 GMT, instead of -6 GMT used in the islands, which allow them to extend daylight into more tourist-friendly hours. There is no evening entertainment except a briefing by one of the naturalists on the next day’s activities. There is a tour or two during the day on one of the islands, and one or more opportunities for snorkeling either over open water or on a beach.

While the crew of the Coral I do their best to give you a good experience, it’s not Royal Caribbean. Cabins are small compared with cruise ships. Keep your expectations modest. It’s what’s outside that you are paying for. I went snorkeling twice in deep water, swam by two famous Galapagos sea turtles and under a pelican’s feet. Once I got on the dinghy just in time to see a shark circling nearby. Fortunately, they don’t bite humans.

These islands of course are known for the many uniquely adapted species. The naturalist Charles Darwin posited his famous Theory of Evolution by making careful observations of differences in similar species on different islands. Darwin is a rock star here. He has a volcano and lake named after him and a research institute that we’ll visit later in our tour. Herman Melville, a real life whaler as well as writer found inspiration for Moby Dick here, where whales were plentiful. For a time in the 19th century near Darwin Lake the cliffs ran red with whale blood from all the whale slaughtering. For what looks like a pretty dry, volcanic and arid area, the wildlife is quite abundant. On a hike we had a hard time not stepping on all the iguanas around us. Only here in the Galapagos can they swim and sneeze salt. They have adapted.

I expected these islands to be smallish and kind of squat, but they are not. They have mountains here, if you consider mountains to be a five hundred meters high or so. There are also plentiful sheer cliffs, usually inhabited by creatures in close proximity to each other. I didn’t expect to see a whole lot of green but there is more than I thought, particularly at higher elevations. I did not realize that these islands all have volcanos, and most are have active volcanos. New land is being created every day around here. You don’t see volcano cones, but you do sometimes see fissures on the sides of mountains with steam venting out of them, making them look like clouds. You also see what looks like frozen black rivers falling off cliffs and into the sea: metamorphic rock that was once lava. There isn’t much in the way of beaches, but those that exist are mostly black sand from all the volcanic activity. It’s not hard to find areas strewn with lava boulders and fissures.

As islands go, the Galapagos Islands are rather new. Volcanic eruptions have joined some of them together over the millennia. Eventually, they will probably become one larger landmass. Unlike Hawaii where land is being created eastward, here they are being created westward. Some of the older eastern islands are slowly disappearing into the sea. It’s a world that is evolving with astonishing speed, in both geological and biological terms.

In mankind’s quest to ruin the planet, we are also destroying species and decimating the population of those species that remain. In my short sixty-something years I have already seen the change: the outside is a quieter place. I am rarely swarmed by insects or have a hard time hearing over the birds chirping anymore. Here in the Galapagos Islands though nature is still abundant, thanks to its isolation and Ecuador’s insistence that it will stay that way.

The Galapagos are remote in the best sense of the word and largely unspoiled. The equatorial sun shines intensely all year here. The nights have zero light pollution, making it an excellent place to see stars if clouds disappear. I am unfamiliar with southern constellations. Here you can see both the Big Dipper and the Southern Cross, but not necessarily at the same time.

The wildlife is largely inured to us human visitors. Most have no natural predators, which means they get to live in something of an animal Eden. The many sea lions spend most of their time basking on rocks or diving into shallow pools fed by incoming tides. The sea lions are often playful. We were watched curiously by a young sea lion as we got off our dinghy to walk a path over a boulder strewn beach. You will find blue-footed boobies sitting on a crag of rock next to some vertically hanging crabs, that are adjacent to iguana, penguins (some actually slighlty north of the equator) and sea lions.

Next, four days of day tours from a nice hotel before we fly home. It’s been nice to disconnect from politics for five days. Well, not entirely. I’ve been reading Michele Obama’s biography Becoming and am surprised to find that it’s very well written and quite a page turner. It’s worthy of a future blog post.

These posts will be updated with sample pictures when I have the time.

 

Ecuador

The Thinker by Rodin

Mark Twain once wrote that travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. This may explain our problem in the United States where sometimes even traveling to another state is considered exotic. 64% of Americans have never left the United States, and 10% of us have never left our state. It seems to me that those who most need to travel outside the country are the ones least able to afford to do so, which exacerbates our narrow mindedness. Happily, that is not our problem. If Americans do go to a foreign country, it is probably Canada, which I discovered in 2017 is largely the same but with roads that are well maintained. Europe is probably the main destination for Americans traveling internationally for pleasure. It’s much less likely that Americans will travel to more exotic destinations like Africa, South America or Asia.

A year ago this month my wife and I took a 16-day cruise, largely our chance to experience Central America from a comfy cruise ship and cruise-line sponsored tours. It helped expand our horizons, but this trip to Ecuador is a better experience. We’re in Quito, the capital of Ecuador, which also happens to be about 10,000 feet above sea level and about twenty miles from the equator.

In the United States, you tend to think of the Americas as the U.S. and maybe Canada. This first real trip to South America though proves it is something else entirely: the Americas are mostly Hispanic. There is far more Spanish spoken in the Americas than English. The only other major language spoken in the Americas in Portuguese in Brazil. It has 200 million people, so there are more English speakers than Portuguese speakers in the Americas, but probably not for too much longer.

Happily English remains something of a universal language, but that doesn’t mean that most people speak it. It does mean that if someone has learned a second language, it is likely to be English. On this tour of Ecuador, we have a nice personal tour guide/translator provided by the touring company. My Spanish is more than forty years old and I haven’t had much need to practice it. I can stumble through the basics but I can’t hold a meaningful conversation in Spanish. In the past this was a big barrier to travel, but today it is less so. You can carry the Google Translate app around on your cell phone and if necessary you can use it to broker a conversation with someone in a foreign tongue. You can even point it at signs and it will translate them, at least a lot of the time.

Having spent a couple of days in Ecuador though I am feeling my mind broadening and my prejudices narrowing. If you think of South and Central American the way Donald Trump does, presumably as with mostly shithole countries, you would be largely wrong. We have seen some pretty impoverished countries like Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic, but no one would characterize Ecuador that way, at least not once you have actually been here. A closer match is Costa Rica and I suspect Argentina and Chile that I have yet to explore.

You could perhap call Ecuador second-world, but it feels more first-world than second-world. Quito, its capital, is thoroughly modern while its old city (a UNESCO heritage site) is charming. You see mostly new cars on the road, and actually fewer junkers than you see in the United States. You also see car models and brands not in the United States, lots of nice looking but probably cheap cars from places like China and the Czech Republic. None of the worst stretches I’ve seen here quite compare to the poverty you will find in many places in Appalachia. While there appear to be fewer rich people here, there also appear to be a lot fewer poor people, at least as a percent of the population. Wealth inequality feels less of an issue here than in the United States.

Things do take some getting used to, of course. For one, Ecuador is on the equator. Days are always twelve hours long, within fifteen minutes or so anyhow and the sun is usually overhead, casting little in the way of shadows but plenty in the way of ultraviolet radiation. There are a lot more diesel cars on the roads, in part because the state subsidizes diesel fuel. It’s ridiculously cheap, like about $1/gallon. These subsidies may be coming to an end. It may explain the protestors we heard chanting next to the Presidential Palace, just a few blocks from our hotel.

The Americas look a lot like Donald Trump’s worst fear: brown people, with some black people thrown in, who are mostly descendents of people we largely exterminated in North America: the natives. Many people here can trace some ancestry from Europe, but the general population evolved from the Aztec, Inca, Mayan and other races that predated colonization. How many of us in the United States aside from Elizabeth Warren can claim any Native American blood?

But really these are terrific people: religious, hard working, courteous and respectful for the most part. That’s not to say they are better or worse than the rest of us; they are just the same with a darker skin hue than some of us are comfortable with. They succeed when they form governments that lift them up and fail when they don’t. Ecuador, like many South American countries, is getting an influx of refugees from Venezuela, which is collapsing. Ecuador though has always had some things working in its favor. Its wealth is largely a product of its oil revenues and previously its plentiful plantations and gold. Its government is not without corruption, but it’s a lot less corrupt than most and its leader generally work for the people, while sometimes lining their own pockets. It’s a mosaic of different geographical regions, from the Amazon, to Pacific beaches, to a cloud forest, to the Andes Mountains. This is my first experience with the Andes and they impress: tall, incredibly steep and full of volcanoes, some active. San Francisco’s hills have got nothing on Quito’s. I’ve never seen steeper roads or mountains with more severe slopes.

In short, Ecuador is pretty neat, at least what we’ve seen of it so far. We went into the cloud forest yesterday (which means you drop down to a lower elevation where clouds are usually at) to a town called Mindo, did some walking, took a chocolate tour, enjoyed a good lunch at a nice restaurant and noted the many potholes when you get off the main roads. Mindo is just 22 miles from our hotel, but it took two hours to get there along the impossibly twisting roads you have to take.

I suspect if I had to live somewhere in South America, Ecuador would be a logical place. It’s pretty modern, pretty to look at, more affordable than most places in the U.S. and the people seem to be doing pretty well overall. Yes, there is poverty in places. You see lots of entrepreneurs walking amidst the often stalled traffic selling bags of fruit, bottles of water and windshield cleanings. You see sporadic homeless dogs and poor people in the plazas, a site that looks familiar to every place I’ve lived in America too. You also see some delicacies that would turn off most Americans, like deep fried guinea pigs on a stick. (I haven’t found the courage to try them, but I doubt they taste bad, given their popularity.) In fact, there are expat communities of U.S. citizens here, mostly along the coast, and there are gated communities aplenty in Quito’s suburbs you can probably buy into at a great cost savings compared to U.S. real estate prices. You would have to learn Spanish, but it’s not that hard to pick up. You can often figure out the signage. Ecuador also has some conveniences that Americans would like. Gas is sold in gallons, their currency is the U.S. dollar and there are plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit from the many stands close at hand. Also, you won’t need to change appliances. Current is 120 volts and the plugs are the same as in the USA. You just have to like mostly brown and predominantly Catholic people.

So there are plenty of good reasons to visit Ecuador although few Americans do. It’s not that far away. Our flight from Miami took about three and a half hours. You might find yourself charmed and decide that maybe the good old USA isn’t nearly as great as you and Donald Trump have been led to believe.

Getting out … of a shutdown and a presidency

The Thinker by Rodin

The missus and me are getting ready to bug out of the United States for two weeks. Saturday we are off to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. While in the Galapagos, we’ll spend four nights on a yacht out of range of all Internet and cell phone towers. We’ll be diving into the ocean and seeing species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world, in an area that is largely untouched by the scourge of man. Somehow we’ll have to survive for a while cut off from all media, particularly those four nights we spend on a yacht island hopping. But we’ll be wondering if there will be any TSA or CBP agents still on the job to let us back in on January 18th.

As vacations go, this one will be a departure. In theory, there is no jet lag to worry about, as Ecuador is in our time zone and the Galapagos Islands are basically on Central Time. There are no international flights to the Galapagos; you have to go through Ecuador. So we will spend a few nights in Quito breathing the rarified air at 10,000 feet up, seeing the cloud forests and putting one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern. You can do that in Ecuador, which is basically on the equator. It will be the first time I will have ever been in the southern hemisphere. Still, there will be jet lag of sorts: rising around 4 AM for a flight to the Galapagos Island is equivalent to a red eye to Europe. But we’ll survive these trials and have a lot of fun.

So don’t expect much posting from me over the next couple of weeks, but I do hope to document our journey to this rarely visited area of the world, albeit belatedly. It all depends on how much time I have to write and if I have Internet access. We’ll be kept pretty busy.

Still, I imagine our thoughts will frequently be of home and how much wackier our country has gotten since we left. Democrats now formally control the U.S. House, which means that our crazy government is about to get a lot crazier. Our national parks are overrun with litter and our museums are closed. Those asylum cases underway: postponed; no money has been allocated to pay the judges. Something has to break so you have to wonder how it will break and when.

A couple of Republican senators seem ready to cry uncle, specifically senators Susan Collins (ME) and Cory Gardner (CO), both up for reelection in two years in states swinging blue. House Democrats are swiftly passing bills to reopen the government, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is refusing to consider them if they are not acceptable to Donald Trump. There is another meeting tomorrow at the White House that probably won’t change the dynamics. In any event, it’s hard to see how a Democratic House with forty new and mostly progressive members can be convinced to add funding for a border wall, since most of them campaigned against doing just this. Speaker Pelosi is pursing a logical strategy of trying to pass individual appropriation bills, but she has to convince people who are not thinking logically.

Divided government requires compromise but it’s hard to see how it will happen. It will probably happen when the pain gets too bad to endure. I’m betting that Trump declares victory to make it all go away. Today’s tweets suggest he’s already preparing his supporters for this out: because of the new NAFTA treaty, Mexico will somehow pay for the wall, so problem over! Of course the treaty is not ratified, Congress has not agreed to allow a wall to be constructed, and there are no revenues there that will be paid by Mexico to the U.S. government that can be used for a border wall even if the treaty is signed. In the end though this probably won’t make much difference to his supporters: they will dopily follow Trump anywhere. If Trump says black is white, they’ll believe him. Mostly they want to see him stand up and fight for something, and mostly he’s been full of bluster instead of action.

If Democrats want to concede something symbolic, then how about a small wall near Tijuana? A nice, outwardly arching wall would obviate the need to throw canisters of tear gas across the border. I’d like to see Democrats propose to open the government by throwing the border wall issue to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service to study. I doubt Trump would go for it, but it would defer the issue for another day and inject some honest research into the topic.

In reality, Trump has much bigger fish to fry. The subpoenas from House Democrats are going to come fast and thick. Hearings will be ramping up; Trump’s tax returns will be demanded from the IRS that must supply them by law. And of course we can expect Mueller’s report at some point, and it’s unlikely to be flattering to Trump.

Some posts ago I suggested that Trump won’t escape justice this time, but there is a way. It requires a deal, not with Congress or Mueller, but with Mike Pence. It is simply this: Trump agrees to resign if Mike Pence will pardon him for any crimes committed against the United States. He’d still have to deal with potential state crimes, but there is some hope that the Supreme Court will rule that states cannot prosecute people pardoned for similar federal crimes. This approach though assumes that Trump’s narcissism can abate long enough for him to execute something smartly in his self-interest. He’s obviously feeling the pressure, as his daily tweets get continually more unhinged. It’s clear he hates being president. He just has to figure out a way to justify his resignation. If he does resign, he will blame the deep state, Democrats and obviously anyone but himself.

And there is the 25th amendment route that Pence could choose, if he can get a majority of what’s left of Trump’s cabinet to agree. As an acting president, he could at least reopen the government. If it came to it, it wouldn’t be hard to find some top-notch psychiatrists to testify that Trump is dangerously mentally ill. I’m not holding out much hope on this. Pence is likely too much a coward, Trump’s base is too loyal and he would be seen as a turncoat.

It would be nice if it were all over when we return. But I’d best not hold my breath.

Shutdown dumbness

The Thinker by Rodin

There are lots of good things about being retired like me, but if you are an ex-federal employee like me, there is one truly great thing: not having to deal with yet another furlough from yet another government shutdown. These shutdowns became something of a regular thing during the last half of my career. They were always aggravating and pointless, as this current partial shutdown underway proves yet again. That’s not to say that they are easy to endure. Lots of federal employees live paycheck to paycheck, so even if they eventually get repaid it doesn’t mean that they aren’t suffering. The ones who suffer the most are probably those required to work anyhow, the “essential” ones like your TSA agents. Lincoln freed the slaves but not the essential employees during a government shutdown.

Some people actually lose money, principally federal contractors. Most of them cannot work unless federal employees supervise them, and in that case their contract usually does not allow them to bill hours. Eventually though there is a whole host of connected people and businesses affected: childcare providers, local businesses, transit systems, the traveling public and those tourists who just want to visit a national park. The longer it goes on the more painful it gets. Sitting on your ass at home is really not much fun, as I discovered. There is a lot of angst to being furloughed as you have no idea when it will end and whether your bank account will hold out until then. And many federal employees were like me: very mission focused, anxious to simply do our jobs.

For me this is now moot. Somehow I will still get my pension payment on time. I guess that and delivering social security checks are considered essential. Chances are though if they weren’t, it would spur both Congress and the President to make choices neither wants to make.

So there is no such thing as a smart shutdown, but there are dumb shutdowns and dumber than dumb shutdowns. This current one is one of the latter. It happened because only at the last minute Trump changed his mind. He apparently was watching Fox News and found out he was being criticized for not being tough enough on his border wall. Suddenly the continuing resolution passed unanimously by the Senate that he had approved was no longer acceptable. It was put up or shut up time for Trump, or at least for a few shrill people in the media whose support he craves. This shutdown has the feeling of one that is going to linger a long time, which might make the 1995 shutdown look like small potatoes.

What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object? We’re about to find out. Most likely it won’t end well, or quickly. Now that Trump is out on a limb, he has no way to back down without losing face, something a bully cannot do. Lose face and you look impotent.

He complains that it’s a Democratic shutdown, but until January 3 Republicans control all branches of government. And Congressional Republicans have decided to punt the whole leadership thing. When Democrats gain forty seats on January 3, they are unlikely to be in an accommodating mood. And since all spending bills must originate in the House, a Democratic House is not likely to add funding for a border wall.

The Senate could add it back in, but they didn’t feel it necessary last time, and if they send it back to the House with border wall funding it probably won’t pass. Meanwhile, the productivity of millions of federal workers and contractors are lost, while the “essential employees” continue to work without pay. How long before essential employees go on strike? Why show up for work when you have no income to give to the landlord for the January rent?

If the shutdown were about something that mattered, maybe it would be worth the price. But it’s about a border wall that two-thirds of Americans don’t want and that a Republican Congress has repeatedly refused to fund. Moreover, it’s for a wall that won’t even solve the problem that Trump is so concerned about. As Anne Applebaum points out, the number of people crossing the southern border illegally has fallen 90% since 2000. The real scofflaws? Those overstaying their visas, who mostly fly in, 700,000 of which are Canadians. Trump has not proposed building a wall along our border with Canada, so clearly the issue has much more to do with the color of the scofflaw’s skin than anything else.

As a method of keeping people out though a wall is a terrible idea. There are much cheaper ways to accomplish border security and they are working pretty well. One of the best ways is to invest in the countries sending these people, like Honduras. Given them safety and economic opportunity where they live and there is no reason to head north. Of course Trump is now threatening to take away what little aid we give these countries, exacerbating the problem.

Yesterday Trump threatened to shutdown the whole southern border. It’s not clear that he can do that but it would certainly get attention, as about half a million people cross the border legally every day. Considering the amount of trade that goes on between the U.S. and Mexico, including lots of produce and auto parts, doing this for any sustained period of time would be disastrous. If you are looking to tip an economy officially into recession, this should do it.

All this so Trump’s narcissism can be sated a bit. You have to wonder just how dumb his supporters are. Did they really believe all the bullshit he was claiming? If nothing else then perhaps this shutdown will finally reveal the fraud behind the curtain.

It’s unclear how this will all end. Will one side blink? I do suspect if it drags on long enough, Congress will find the wherewithal to override Trump’s veto. The Senate needs 20 of 53 Republican senators to overturn a Trump veto. With 40 new Democrats in the House, 55 out of 199 Republicans would have to vote against Trump, or 27% of the caucus. I think it’s doable if the pain gets bad enough. If Congress does it though it would set a good precedent by making Trump increasingly irrelevant. Here’s hoping.

Trump and the price of being a bullshit artist

The Thinker by Rodin

So basically our government is shutdown because of bullshit.

At midnight today much of the government shutdown again, but this time it was because Trump got caught in his own bullshit. For years he had been talking about a great, big, beautiful wall on our southern border to keep the “illegals” out. It was going to have a great big door, the best of course. I guess gates aren’t allowed on this border wall. And most importantly Mexico was going to pay for it. He said it over and over again. If there was anything about his 2016 campaign that will be remembered in the history books, it will be all the relentless repetitions on this theme:

So you would think that if he really wanted to deliver on his signature promise, it would be pretty simple: order the U.S. Marines to occupy Mexico’s National Palace where its treasury is located and loot the place of the $50B or so needed to build Trump’s beautiful wall and door. Take the money back to the U.S. and build the wall. He’s commander in chief and doesn’t need the approval of Congress to send in the Marines. Or he could order a small thermonuclear weapons to be used on a suburb of Mexico City to show the Mexicans we’re serious … they need to pony up the dough for the wall now.

But no. Apparently what he really meant was that if Mexico refused to pay for it, Congress has to pony up the money instead. He is now spouting the line that the shutdown is the Democrats’ fault, even though until January 3, 2019 Republicans still control Congress.

I guess reinforced fences aren’t enough. It’s got to be a wall, a wall that somehow won’t get tunneled under like happens now. It’s got to be a tall wall to keep the drugs from coming in, as if they won’t continue to come in the way they already have: tunnels under the border, hidden inside trucks and in airplane cargo, or by speedboats. It’s going to have to be a hell of a tall wall to keep a catapult from throwing drugs over the wall, assuming smugglers want to try such a brazen method. With over two thousand miles of border, it wouldn’t be too hard to find a spot to toss some of it over.

Here’s the saddest part: Trump never really wanted the wall. The wall was a means to an end: to get elected (which surprised him) but really to get the crowds at his rallies riled up. It gave him the adulation that he craves more than anything else. Trump as usual wanted to have his cake and to eat it too. Apparently Trump loves the “illegals”; at least he loves to hire them. Apparently the maid who cleaned his toilet at Mar-a-Lago was undocumented. Trump doesn’t want to pay pull price for anything, so of course he will have his managers look the other way to bring in the cheap help.

Anyhow, he apparently he did a good job of selling this wall thing with his base. Now they actually want him to build it. His base is only 25% of the public, but he’s convinced that somehow with this base happy he will win reelection, although a majority of Americans don’t want a border wall. Congress at least understands it’s kind of pointless: why spend $50B to build a wall that won’t even solve the problem?

In fact, if ever constructed it would make things a lot worse. It would be an eyesore for sure. It will get breached repeatedly. Like any other public infrastructure, it will require patching and maintenance. If Republicans’ willingness to spend money on highway infrastructure is any clue to how it will play out, the undamaged portions wall will simply deteriorate from neglect. Some migratory animals wouldn’t migrate anymore, not that this would bother them. Most importantly, the cheap labor we’ve depended on from the south to keep the economy humming might slow down, leading to our economic decline. I mean are you going to volunteer to clean all those airport toilets? Are you going to volunteer to pick crops in California and Arizona?

That won’t happen. But what will happen in time is that sufficient numbers of guest worker visas will get approved anyhow. Agribusiness won’t allow Congress to pull these visas anyhow; heck, Trump’s many resorts and winery depend on these special visas. Those from Central and South America who want to come here will do it the old fashioned way: on a tourist visa whose expiration date they will ignore. For the most part they will have to fly in, which is not cheap. Perhaps we’ll get a higher class of “illegal”.

This pointless shutdown is all about saving face for Trump. Someone pulled the mask of the old Lone Ranger. Ironically, Tonto did it.

Post 2000 and the blog continues

The Thinker by Rodin

I had to check. I reached post 1000 on August 29, 2009. Today on December 20, 2018 I finally hit the latest milestone, post 2000. My expectation was that maybe I could reach post 2000 on December 12, 2018. Then if I were to take the blog down, as I hinted I might, it would be after exactly sixteen years of blogging. Seemed fitting, somehow.

Happily, traffic has picked up just enough where I find the impetus to keep going. Most of my posts go into a backwater wasteland somewhere with zero likes or reposts, but some still seem to resonate. I’m not sure how they end up resonating. Maybe someone on my email list recommends them. It used to be that I could count on Google search to boost some posts. That doesn’t appear to be the case anymore. In any event, it makes no sense to blog if hardly anyone is reading. So, dear readers, if you want the blog to continue, simply read it and recommend posts to your friends when you think it warrants it. If this blog goes down, it probably won’t due to my disinterest, but only because no one seems to be listening. If blogging amounts to talking to myself online, it has no point.

What’s been resonating? The home page gets the most hits, about 26% of the total page views so far this year. Those pages that broke the twenty page views in the last thirty days include one on Trump’s treason, the beginning of the decline and fall of the Trump presidency, on the nature of reality and my Mike Pence tag for some reason. It may be that Trump sucks all the oxygen out of the blogosphere. It’s hard not to comment on Donald Trump given his disastrous presidency and its oversized impact on our nation. But of course even when I think I have a unique perspective on him, there is so much other content out there on him that it’s hard for anyone’s to get noticed unless you have a lot of followers already.

And that’s part of my problem. I suck at marketing, but worse, I don’t really want to market the blog. I don’t promote it with friends and family; in fact I actively discourage them from reading it. They know it’s out there but for the most part they don’t read it. I don’t post links to my posts on Facebook. I prefer anonymity but arguably it’s kind of pointless now that I’m retired. Not all my ideas are acceptable in polite society.

The blog’s decline has been exacerbated by the demise of Craigslist’s casual encounter’s section. I could count on my monthly reviews of these bizarre posts to bring in several hundred page views per month on average. Nothing has replaced it. Nonetheless, this 2015 post on Hartford’s section still gets regular hits. Maybe it’s due to nostalgia. For myself, I don’t miss reviewing these posts. While good for my traffic, there wasn’t much new in them. After a while, even the most bizarre posts seemed perfectly normal.

I restate myself a lot, with many variations based on topics in the news. With 2000 posts, of course you are going to find that you are repeating yourself. But since hardly anyone has read most of my posts (I mean who would be following me for sixteen years?) it doesn’t matter. Trying to make sense of the present is quite hard and feels kind of futile. Not all things that happen really make any sense.

Retirement has expanded my interests. In theory it gives me more time for blogging but in practice other hobbies and interests have taken up the time instead. I don’t want to post more than once or twice a week. There are plenty of other things to keep me engaged. My IT business keeps expanding. I revel in open source projects, teaching a class here and there, and the luxury of so much time in retirement. It’s time to do things like take daily walks; bikes rides; or simply slog through my favorite websites. I keep busy, mostly happily while our national nightmare continues to unfold around us.

So thanks for reading. I hope it is worth our time.

To EV or not-EV: that is the question

The Thinker by Rodin

EV = electric vehicle, of course. Next year I am planning to replace my semi-green 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid, a logical choice as I noted at the time. So I’ve been poring over Consumer Reports, principally its last auto issue, studying all the cars on the market and trying to figure out the next one to buy. I want to buy one in 2019 not only because the Civic will turn 15 (it was bought in 2004) but also because it’s likely that its $3500 battery will need to be replaced in 2020. The old one died a week after its warranty ran out; I think they are programmed to die. I’d prefer not to have to shoulder that cost.

The auto industry is in a period of great flux; a problem brought home by GM’s recent plant closings and layoff announcements. The Trump Administration may believe that the oil era will last forever, but the more I study the auto market the more I am convinced the oil era is ending. This is great news if you believe oil use must be curbed to address climate change. What’s surprising is that our automakers have pretty much figured it out too. The electric car is coming and it’s going to kill the internal combustion engine.

This is not wishful thinking. It’s going to happen. There are a couple of major reasons why this will happen. As usual it will be less about the need to address climate change, as it will come down to simple pocketbook issues. Electric cars are an emerging market that you currently pay a premium to own. But that will change. When anything becomes widely mass-produced, it gets cheaper. Electric cars will get much cheaper in the years ahead. The real innovation is these cars in the battery technology.

Yet there’s another reason electric cars will become a no-duh purchase five or ten years from now: they should be much less expensive to maintain. Internal combustion engines are complex beasts. Electric motors though are dead simple. No pistons and cylinders to worry about. The car will not need a radiator or presumably much in the way of oil in the crankshaft. EV owners already know that when it comes to acceleration, EVs can’t be beat. Put your foot on the accelerator and you will find yourself pushed into your seat. And you will pass others by without the roar of an engine. For a while, it will seem surreal.

So GM is actually playing catch up. It’s killing many of its sedans basically because these will eventually be replaced with EVs. Right now, their electric car lineup doesn’t have much to show for it: just the Bolt and the Volt, last I checked. They can’t mass produce a whole bunch of new EV models yet because the demand isn’t there. But that will change as costs come down. People are already deferring car purchases, waiting for the price of EVs to come down, which largely explains the slowdown in car manufacturing. Meanwhile, the EV charging infrastructure is quickly coming together. Long distance travel is no longer much of a concern with EVs because super charging stations are becoming easy to find. We already have a Tesla supercharging station right across the river in Hadley, Massachusetts, about five miles away. You can fully charge your vehicle at these stations in about ten minutes.

Right now the cost of using a supercharger is less than buying the equivalent in gasoline. Most people will charge their vehicles at home at the going kilowatt-hour rate. Add in enough solar panels to your home and after the investment in the panels much of the time you can run your EV for free. Of course, if you don’t choose green energy at home, your EV may not be that good for the environment. But that’s changing too. Here in Western Massachusetts all sorts of megawatt solar farms are going up. And we already buy energy from offshore wind farms.

Spending $100K for a Tesla is out of our budget, but spending $37K or so for a Chevy Bolt is probably not out of our budget, if I assume the $7500 tax credit. To get it though I have to be one of the first 200,000 EV owners and hope the Trump administration doesn’t kill it altogether first. We could buy another hybrid car, but its cost of maintenance over the 10-15 years would make it competitive with a low maintenance EV like the Chevy Bolt. I like EV’s being so much more mechanically simpler and thus cheaper to maintain.

So the EV trend is inescapable. Car manufacturers don’t want us car buyers to focus on this right now because it reduces car sales. There’s a lot of profit as long as car buyers don’t catch on. However, a carbon-emitting SUV you buy today is likely a purchase you will rue five years from now. You will look like a hopeless Luddite. Good luck trying to resell those suckers.

One approach we could use is what a lot of Americans are already doing: defer buying a new car until EV prices go down. I may have to pay another $3500 for a new battery for my Civic, but the car is paid for and it is reliable while being reasonably green. It may be cheaper in the long run. I have yet to test drive the Chevy Bolt, the only EV I am likely to buy. I may not like it. I’ve watched test drive videos of the car and it looks pretty good, but I’d prefer something better but as affordable. It just doesn’t exist yet.

So I might end up with a Toyota Camry Hybrid instead. 48 mpg is nothing to sneeze at, but even with its advanced hybrid technology, it’s clear to me that EVs will displace hybrids too. If I am going to join the 21st century car technology, I’d best do it right with an EV.

Chasing savings

The Thinker by Rodin

Well here’s something I didn’t think we’d be doing again: chasing higher interest rates.

For the last ten years, savings account interest rates have been hovering around zero percent. This was by design after the Great Recession. The Fed wanted to stimulate the economy. The natural tendency of Americans in a recession is to run toward safety. Savings accounts offer that if you have enough money in them to live on. But that’s all they offered. They were not investment opportunities. By cutting interest rates to basically nothing, the Fed was encouraging us to invest in the market. And it worked, although it took a long time.

It is only now a decade later that the Fed is raising interest rates again. Still, most banks are stuck in 2009 and offer virtually no interest on their accounts. But there are others that have gotten with the times, including our bank, Ally Bank. Their savings account now offers 2% annual return regardless of its size. It’s not quite enough to meet inflation, but it’s better than 0.1%. Their money market account is less generous: .9% on balances below $25,000 and 1% on balances above it. Its 12-month Certificate of Deposit though will earn you 2.65% annually. A five-year CD earns 3.1% annually. Ally Bank is an online-only bank, which in part explains their ability to offer these rates. With no brick and mortar buildings to maintain except one headquarters building in Philadelphia, their operational costs are low.

Nonetheless, old habits die hard. I am so used to getting virtually no interest that I’ve maintained our checking account where it’s been for nearly thirty years: Pentagon Federal Credit Union. I still haven’t severed my relationship with PenFed, but the time may be coming. However, I have moved the bulk of our money in PenFed to Ally where it at least earns a good interest rate.

Traditionally we’ve dumped paychecks into a checking account. That’s because most of it was gone by the end of the month, so interest on the account was kind of pointless. Now that we are retired though, it makes no sense. The house is paid off. We have zero debts. What makes sense now is to take our income, mostly pension income, but also 401K and other income from teaching and consulting and stuff it into savings accounts, where the balance earns 2%. Now we have a monthly automatic transfer from our savings account to our checking account based on how much we are likely to spend in a given month. This way most of this money earns interest. This monthly automatic transfer into checking mainly involves figuring how much we will spend monthly on the general cost of living. The idea is to keep our checking account balance low, but not so low as we are likely to overdraw it.

I’ve done this with our Money Market account too. Even at Ally, it was only earning 1%. The account exists basically as long-term savings, but it was really an escrow account. It holds funds that we are accumulating to pay for future long-term expenses, stuff like buying a new car or replacing the roof in fifteen years. But there was no point in taking the hit on interest. So we’ve reduced the balance there to $5,000 and moved the rest into savings. I figure $5000 is the most we are likely to ever write from the account quickly. If we need to write a check for more than that, there will be time to move it from savings.

Oddly enough, this approach is amounting to real money, to the point where when I estimate our income for the year it’s becoming a not insignificant portion of our income. With 2% interest, it amounts to more than $150 per month in interest. Do the math and we should net at least $1800 annual income just from interest, most of it from savings. Granted that our cash reserves are now flush where they weren’t ten years ago. But by simply rethinking how we are managing our money, we’re bringing in this extra money every year, with zero risk to our portfolio. The only real risk is that the Fed will drop interest rates again, which certainly could happen. Markets are definitely in correction territory, suggesting that if things go awry again like in 2008, zero interest rates and more “quantitative easing” may be in the future.

So this is good for us, but not so good for the rest of you who I assume are borrowing a lot of money. It’s pushing up interest rates in general, but home mortgage interest rates in particular. For ten years the economy has been propped up by super cheap interest rates. That’s changing, which will put more stress on borrowers, perhaps adding to our risk of recession.

Still, these higher interest rates are notable. Savings accounts pay real money again, at least if you are using the right bank. It should reshape thinking in the way things are normally done. It has certainly reshaped our thinking. It’s always good to keep a healthy amount of your assets in safe forms like savings accounts. It’s just that now it is beginning to pay to do so again.