Don’t bet on Russia in Ukraine

So parts of eastern Ukraine now belong to Russia, forever, or so Vladimir Putin tells us.

Nice expanded country you have there, Russia. Now let’s see if you can keep it.

It’s perfectly okay for these new areas to be part of Russia though because the citizens there voted to join. Of course, about two thirds of them left when the war started, mostly westward. The Russian army’s main task this week has been to force residents there, sometimes at gunpoint, to “vote”. So it’s not surprising that they did. Who knows whether 98% of them actually voted to join Russia or not but it clearly wasn’t a fair election. These areas are unlikely to be recognized as part of Russia by many countries.

No vote was held in Kharkiv though because Ukraine forces routed the Russians from the area in a surprise offensive they easily won. Now reportedly Ukraine also controls the city of Lyman in Donetsk, supposedly now part of Russia.

Russia’s hold on these territories is fragile at best. Thanks to the courage of Ukrainians and tons of western armaments, Ukraine has shown it has the determination and ability to retake its country through a grinding war of attrition. Russian forces have proven inept for the most part, and succeeded only in pulverizing urban regions with artillery. Oh, I guess they’re also good at war crimes, according to many reports. You don’t want to be a woman in an area of Ukraine occupied by the Russians.

Here’s a good bet: this war is already lost and the Russians have lost it. Whoever has the most will and money wins these things. It’s why the United States was doomed in Vietnam. The best Russia can hope for is that in some nebulous future “peace talks” they keep a sliver of the area they occupy now.

Putin thinks that by mobilizing 300,000 new reservists he can turn this thing around. He threw his best forces at the Ukrainians when the conflict started. These new “forces” will be draftees for the most part and will likely be sent in with minimal training and arms. Much of the arms there have been destroyed, and withdrawing Russian forces have left lots of what remained behind when they hastily withdrew.

The news is reasonably censored in Russia, but it’s not completely censored. YouTube and the Telegram app is available, and they provided Russians who wanted to know the real story with the information they needed. Many of these men are beating hastily retreats outside of Russia if they can. They know if drafted they will just be fodder for Putin’s slaughter machine.

Naturally, Putin is busy raising the threat levels, threatening to use nuclear weapons if necessary. It’s not clear how he could “win” such a war with nuclear weapons. It would kill a lot of people and most of the animals in the area, even if only low yield weapons were used. The radiation levels would likely be toxic to his own forces nearby, or will be when the wind shifts. It’s unclear what value a devastated and depopulated land would be to anyone, even Russia.

Ukraine’s latest tactic is to apply for NATO membership. It’s unclear if they would be admitted, but they’ve proved to be tenacious fighters. Since Russia started this war, Finland and Sweden are likely to be admitted to NATO, making them effectively unconquerable by Russia. Ukraine is sort of part of NATO already, in that they are getting tons of aid and guidance from NATO countries. NATO forces just aren’t actually engaged in any combat.

Effectively, Russia’s worst enemy has turned out to be Vladimir Putin. His tactics have completely backfired and his latest bluster looks more like the actions of someone backed into a corner. At this point, most of his own people aren’t fooled by how badly he botched his invasion.

The one area where he may change some minds is by cutting off supplies of gas and oil to Europe. We’ll see after one winter after a lot of people are freezing if they will endure a second one, with Russia’s pipelines so conveniently nearby. Largely due to the war, inflation is going through the roof in most European countries, and efforts to get new energy supplies from elsewhere may take years to affect. When spring happens, we’ll have a better idea of how effective this policy has been.

But Putin’s 300,000 soldiers will mostly be on paper. There simply isn’t the capacity to quickly replace the lost armaments needed to wage a war. It’s unclear if these new soldiers can even be properly fed. Many of these soldiers are highly vulnerable. There are only a few bridges from Russia into the region still standing. They could be easily be taken out by long range artillery or fighter jets, effectively trapping Russian forces inside of it. That’s probably part of Ukraine’s strategy to route the Russians. They are waiting for the opportune moment. Most likely though with mud season beginning, we can expect little change until the ground hardens again.

We do know that in the interim the Ukraine army can be resupplied and that Western commitment to provide the funds and expertise needed for them to keep going seems endless. It’s the Russians who will have the serious logistical problems.

Putin though appears to prefer to live in his surreal fantasies instead. Real life should have informed him of his real options. His choice to ignore reality will only continue to draw Russia deeper into debacle and folly.

Screwing the poor again through monetary policy

Our yo-yo stock markets are yo-yoing again, in the down direction. Pretty much all the major indices are in bear territory now, which means they’re off twenty percent or more from recent highs. That matches pretty well with my portfolio.

The reason they’re down though has less to do with underlying economics than the Federal Reserve, which seems determined to beat inflation by making marginal people poorer.

Of course, the Fed says they hope that won’t happen and they can engineer a soft landing where inflation eases and hardly anyone is impacted by catastrophic events like losing their job or their housing. But after its recent three-quarters point interest rate hike, Fed Chair Jerome Powell made it abundantly clear that, if necessary, the Fed is willing to raise interest rates so high to address inflation that people will be out of work and likely out of their homes too.

This is because he sees inflation as the bigger problem. The Fed wants inflation in a “normal” range of two percent or so per year, not the eight percent or so we have now. To do that, you either have to increase supply or cut demand. The Fed can do little to increase the supply of anything other than money. Increase interest rates high enough, which they can do, and the economy cools, which means demand drops and often a recession occurs too.

The curious thing is that the Fed largely caused the inflation we are now experiencing. I’m not saying they created the pandemic, but as a result of it they took all sorts of extraordinary actions to turn around an economy that was slumping severely. They cut interest rates to almost nothing and bought tons of assets with dollars they created to help push up equity prices.

And it worked. All that cheap money had to go somewhere, so businesses found ways to spend it, often to buy back their own stocks. In the process stocks rebounded nicely and rich people got a lot richer. As for those who can’t afford much or any stocks, well, they mostly scrambled as usual. As a result of all this cheap money, real estate markets super inflated, dramatically raising the cost of houses.

We bought our house in 2015, brand new, for about $480,000. The two houses across the street from us, both somewhat larger but with walkout basements and a commanding view of the valley, sold for crazy prices. One sold for $975,000. A retired lawyer and his wife had no problem paying premium for the house. We’re not planning to go anywhere, but I’m certain if we sold our house we’d get at least $625,000 for it. It’s our only appreciating asset at the moment.

Those without gobs of money generally can’t afford to buy a house, so they rent, and lately pay through the nose for it. They generally pay as they go and with the cost of rent and food inflating making ends meet often means hunger. My wife spends one day a week at the local food bank and can document that the scope of community hunger is increasing exponentially. Some are living out of their cars, if they are fortunate to have one, or in tents in the woods.

If you let a bunch of economists control the money supply, all their solutions will be economic ones. For other solutions, we have to depend on a sharply divided Congress that can rarely even pass a major spending bill. In any event, unless the Federal Reserve Act is repealed, the Fed will keep using its economic hammer to solve problems it often creates, and those with little in the way of power and assets will generally be the ones to pay the real price.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that by making others miserable, homeless and impoverished you aren’t really solving a problem like inflation. The effect of these policies though does seem like a lot of social engineering: to ensure that those people are kept in the economic place where their betters want to keep them: poor, miserable and desperate. Many of our betters though want to screw these people even further: taking away reproductive choice and not allowing them to even acquire Plan B. If some of these expectant mothers die from ectopic pregnancies, well, thems the breaks.

Here in Massachusetts, we voters will get a chance to vote on a referendum in November: a four percent surtax on taxable incomes of $1,000,000 or more. Money from this is supposed to go for transportation and educational expenses. It’s likely to pass, having been delayed for many years by various court challenges funded by rich Massachusetts residents. This will likely result in dire warnings that our rich people will move to other states; New Hampshire, after all, is just next door and doesn’t have an income tax. Our state definitely needs more money for schools and infrastructure.

But even this doesn’t address the fundamental issue. And that is that to live decently in America today requires a lot more money than it used to. We need a whole lot more social services spending, not less. And since the majority of our wealth is possessed by a tiny portion of our population, absolutely they should be paying to make this possible.

It’s encouraging to see unionizing efforts underway in many industries, but this alone won’t solve the problem. We need massive investments in affordable housing, free education in public schools through college, heavily subsidized childcare and a first rate transportation infrastructure. Since Ronald Reagan was elected we’ve been shortchanging the needs of the poor and working class, making simply affording a roof over your head unaffordable for many.

What we don’t need is a Federal Reserve using its gigantic hammer to try to solve problems through inflicting more pain on those who invariably will be asked to pay the price. Those who should pay the price for fixing these problems are those who spent forty years profiting from underinvestment in social services. It’s likely that their bloated portfolios would hardly register the difference.

DeSantis is not owning the libs here in Massachusetts

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is busy “owning the libs” by sending about fifty of them by plane recently to Martha’s Vineyard, here in Massachusetts.

It turned out though that he didn’t have any ready “illegal immigrants” in his state, given it’s kind of hard for them to take a boat to Florida, so he imported some from San Antonio, Texas. Using two chartered planes, he eventually deposited them on the tarmac of the airport on Martha’s Vineyard. All those fancy pants liberals would turn up their noses at the “illegals” and (ha! ha!) it would be a riot to watch! In the process he got to further cement his credentials as the cruelest Republican governor. This enhances his prospects for winning the Republican presidential nomination because, as we all know, the more merciless you are, the higher you rank in the eyes of Republican voters.

There’s no doubt that the residents of Martha’s Vineyard were surprised because no one told them they were coming. As for the fancy pants rich liberals on the island, well, it’s after Labor Day. They were mostly gone, leaving the island off Cape Cod to the locals, most of whom have a hard time finding even a room to rent on the island.

It sure would help if people like DeSantis actually visited places where they deposit “illegals”. I’ve been to Martha’s Vineyard in the summer and made a day of it, but chose to sleep off the island in Falmouth to save some money. We took a bus around the island and gave it a good once over. There are certainly some nice estates, but it’s mostly a pretty pedestrian place, just kind of pricey. Everything comes in by air or sea. Fortunately, it’s a fairly short ferry ride from Woods Hole. DeSantis probably should have sent his planes to Nantucket. I was there last November and I can confirm it’s the wealthier and more exclusive island, and much harder to get to.

It turned out though that no one owned the libs, who were surprised but quickly found accommodations and food for their surprised guests. This is more than you can say for DeSantis, as some of these migrants had not eaten in more than a day. He couldn’t be bothered to feed them, but he did have his representatives lie to them that there were jobs awaiting them. After about a day, the migrants were moved to a military base on the actual Cape that would better accommodate them and has been used for this purpose before. Our Republican governor Charlie Baker was happy to put state resources to work to help them out.

It’s clear that DeSantis and likely the vast majority of the Republican Party thinks that migrants are somewhat less than human. Anyhow, they aren’t white and they’re not American citizens, so if they can be mean to anyone, it should be them. DeSantis is supposedly Catholic, but if he is a Christian Nationalist, well, you can cross off the Christian part.

Who would Jesus hate? I’ve likely read more of the Bible than DeSantis, but I can find only two quotes from Jesus on who he hated and it wasn’t poor people. Jesus hated Satan and the money changers at the temple. When it came to love though, Jesus was pretty clear:

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.

Matthew 5:44

How think ye? if a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.

Matthew 18:12

In truth, if Jesus were to come back today, DeSantis would try to bar the door because Jesus was a Jew and a Semite, and thus a man of color.

The people of Massachusetts treated these migrants with care, love and respect, as Jesus would have done. DeSantis just used them because he believes there are more cruel Americans than kind ones.

Maybe in Florida. But happily, that’s not the case here in Massachusetts.

Be like Bob

From looking around, there aren’t many people out there like Bob. Bob is probably 95 years old. Should I make it that long, I want to be like Bob. Bob knows how to live.

I live in a retirement community; in that you pretty much have to be age 55 or older to live here. So far everyone is, but I skew on the lower side of those living here. There are over forty units, all single family houses essentially, but technically we are a condominium. We hire people to mow the lawns and shovel snow in the winter. Our houses are on a hill with a lovely view of the valley and nearby mountains. We’re all doing pretty well as best I can tell, given our houses are pretty ornate and large, and we could afford them in the first place. Most of us are first owners. The first house was built in 2008 and the whole project was completed about a decade later.

We live in New England but curiously most of us are from elsewhere. Not Bob. Bob has lived in our little city all his life. At one time he was a mechanical engineer but for likely thirty years or so, Bob has been retired. He’s likely our oldest resident. He struck me as a pretty hearty New Englander type, at least until recently. His wife passed away last year. About that time, Bob also started using a walker. But he is still reasonably independent. He drives a car safely and gets what he needs. He’s pretty methodical in his habits. When I walk in the park across the street in the afternoon, I often run into Bob. He drives there and walks a half mile or so down the path with his walker. We smile and say a few words when we pass.

Once a month, the guys here on the hill of go out to dinner. I drove Bob to the last one and talked his ear off for a while. The local café we passed has been there as long as he can remember. The city hall hasn’t changed. He remembered being in seventh grade when World War II started, and the group think was the Polish cavalry could beat off the German tanks, at least for a while.

At dinner, Bob is sociable. He loves seafood, so almost invariably he will order some, usually clams or mussels. He has a ready wit and a ready smile. Yes, he seems impossibly old. His skin is full of sags and age spots. He’s half bald. He stoops when he walks. But strangely, Bob is happy. He enjoys every day, in spite of his slow decline.

I thought for sure that after his wife Eileen died he would be in a funk. And perhaps he was. I don’t see Bob every day. But there’s something about Bob that is irrepressible: an inner joy and happiness. It’s a quality that most of us lack, but at age 95+ Bob still has it. Bob shows every sign of being happy, whole and enjoying life.

I don’t expect to make it to his advanced age, but he’s hardly alone around here. There’s a lot of hardy New Englanders. Living away from the big cities and the frequently clean and cool northwesterly breezes probably helps. I’ve known more than a few people around here who have made it to age 100. It seems that they die of age. One morning they are found dead. In Bob’s case, when that happens I expect they will find him with a smile on his face.

As best I can tell, Bob is not religious. He doesn’t seem driven by anything. He just accepts life as it comes to him and tries to squeeze out the joy from each day as it comes. I don’t think he worries about whether he is saved or not. He just has this positive and infectious attitude. He’s an example of the old man I want to become. I want to be like Bob.

Since we’re mostly from elsewhere, most of us seniors on this hill tend to socialize mostly with each other. So there are periodic gatherings of the clan. There was one yesterday between two houses near the top of the hill. Some refreshments were available but mostly we sat around a big circle in lawn chairs and gabbed. These have been mostly outdoor gatherings since the pandemic. We mostly know each other by name, but there’s an occasional new face when a unit is resold to new owners. There’s a lot of musical chairs as people shift around to have conversations with others.

Bob was a bit late to the show, but he did show up, pushing his walker across the grass. Bob’s walker is one of the more advanced models. You can sit on it and it has a storage area under the seat. Someone put a spare lawn chair under Bob’s butt, so the walker became his table. He opened it. Out came a bottle of wine and a wine glass. While Bob chatted happily, he filled his glass, toasted his neighbors and slowly sipped the wine.

Bob seems to have learned the secrets to a good life, but more importantly has managed to practice it successfully. Take each day as it comes. Suck the nectar from it. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Make the most of your day. Be yourself. Be wholly imbibed in this thing called life. He doesn’t need to be saved.

I suspect when he dies, he’ll have few regrets. He lived a good life and managed to do what few of us can accomplish: thoroughly enjoy life and take it as it is, one day at a time.

Should I care that Queen Elizabeth II is dead?

The United Kingdom’s longest serving monarch finally passed away last week at the age of 96, completing seventy years on the throne. Even recent gains by Ukraine recapturing territory often seems below the fold to the story of the queen’s death and her son’s ascension.

Even though I’m 65, she was the only English monarch I lived under. So I’m sure in the U.K. her death was bound to be huge news. While the United States broke away from Great Britain largely because of King George III, her death has somehow caused our flags to be lowered to half-mast. I doubt if the Queen Máxima of the Netherlands died we’d do the same. I doubt that one in 100 Americans even know the Netherlands has a queen, and fewer would know her name. I had to Google it.

If you’ve watched the Netflix series The Crown, you will learn Queen Elizabeth was quite a bit more interesting than she appeared in public. Of course, its producers got to amp-up her story, but it makes for compelling television. Aside from her long reign, she was groundbreaking in one major way: she was the first monarch of note in post-colonial Great Britain. Not that G.B. has completely given up empire, but its few affiliated states keep drifting away. Barbados was the latest country to ditch the British Commonwealth. I happened to visit it on a cruise ship last December just weeks after the event. Many of the remaining members are loosely affiliated at best and may put her image on their money.

The whole idea of monarchy seems incredibly dated. In fact, the king or queen of Great Britain doesn’t do a whole lot. As best I can tell, their primary purpose is to keep the feeling of national identity from flagging and in times of national crisis try to raise the morale of its citizens. Prime ministers come and go, but a sovereign provides a feeling of continuity and national purpose. In that sense, maybe America needs some sort of similarly disempowered figurehead, perhaps to scold either party when they get too much out of line.

Not to put too fine a point on it though, but one of the primary purposes of its sovereign is to assert, “This is a white country.” It’s true Prince Harry took Megan for his wife, and she’s the first known British royal of color. But Harry’s kind of had it with the monarchy, and has largely disavowed it. He and Megan live in Canada and seem happier away from the British Isles.

Being a royal though sounds like a pretty good life, if you don’t mind dodging the paparazzi. You’ll never have to worry about being homeless or poor. You might wish that you could do something more meaningful than open shopping centers or doting on your corgis. You might tire of trying to flatter or tolerate the numerous boors who come to kiss your hand.

The hardest part of the Queen’s job, at least according to The Crown, is simply to shut up. It’s not your place to have opinions on political matters, but to open parliament with ceremony and to accept the many new prime ministers who will come calling. The better PMs would meet periodically with the sovereign to keep them abreast on important matters. I suspect though that reading The Times of London or The Guardian would more than suffice.

Early in my blogging career, I opined on Prince (now King) Charles’s decision to marry a divorcee, Camilla Bowles. It sure sounded like the Queen didn’t like Camilla, but I saluted Charles for finally marring the woman he really loved. Anyhow, the Queen had something of a change of heart. Camilla will become a Queen Consort, which means she is functionally a queen, but devoid of any political powers. The exception is that if Charles died with a minor in the line of succession. Then she could rule as a regent until he was of age. But that’s not going to happen. Prince William is 40. I guess Camilla grew on Elizabeth, and the quarter century since Princess Diana’s death made a lot of her grudge moot.

Elizabeth endeared herself to her “subjects”, mainly by being one of them. She was a surprise monarch, so her childhood was more like one of her subject’s than one of royalty. It took a number of surprise changes for her to become queen, including the abdication of Edward VIII. This made the Queen a bit more grounded than most monarchs and more relatable. While the work of monarch wasn’t too hard, it was persistent and could be demanding. To her credit, she hung in there and did her duty, such as it was, and it seemed to resonate with her subjects.

And what of King Charles III? No prince has had to wait longer to become king, which makes him Great Britain’s oldest king ever. The good news is he is unlikely to suffer the fate of King Charles I (their only beheaded king) or Charles II (who belatedly reestablished the monarchy, but did a bad job of it, so bad that soon sovereigns became figureheads). He’s unlikely to endear himself the way his mother did, and his “reign” will certainly be shorter. At age 73, he’ll be lucky to have two decades as king. I suspect most Britons are waiting around for King William V, assuming they don’t use the time between then to ditch the monarchy altogether.

While Elizabeth reigned over a much smaller empire, she deserves some hisses for maintaining what was left of it. Beyond the pomp and circumstance of royalty, England and then Great Britain’s colonial past is one of marked shame, slavery, subjugation and often open looting. I’ve been to the British Museum in London, and it’s an amazing storehouse of art, relics and treasure. But almost all of it was looted and Briton’s don’t seem to be in a hurry to return the booty. At best, it’s being slow walked.

If you have to be a monarch though, Elizabeth’s example of how to do it right will be hard to top. It’s likely her reign will forever be its longest.

Trump, the “gift” that keeps on giving

I’m starting to root for Donald Trump for 2024 Republican Party presidential nominee.

I don’t actually want him to be president again, unsurprisingly. And I admit just as he surprised us in 2016 by actually winning the Electoral College, he might do so again in 2024. But I suspect that any other Republican nominee would have a much better chance of winning a general election than Trump would have.

Trump’s narcissism though is sort of a gift for Democrats. The more he is out there, the easier it is for Democrats to win elections. That’s because when he’s out there, elections become a choice between the less-than-perfect Democratic president and Congress and what he has to offer.

Before the 2020 election, I noted that a majority of voters polled had repeatedly said they would not vote for Trump. That’s how an otherwise milquetoast candidate like Joe Biden was able to crush Trump’s reelection bid by 4.4 percent and 7.1 million votes. Voters weren’t largely voting for Biden; they were voting against Trump.

And it wasn’t the first time. In 2018, Trump’s polarization caused Republicans to lose the House, adding 41 Democratic seats. Only in the Senate did Republicans add two seats, seats that were short lived when in 2020 Democrats unexpectedly picked up two senate seats, both in Georgia of all places.

In two months we’ll know if the Trump effect still exists. If Democrats retain Congress or even add seats, it’s likely because once again voters are motivated by Trump, just more against his candidates than for them. A conservative Supreme Court isn’t helping. Women are registering to vote disproportionately this year, and polling suggests it’s largely due to the court’s unwelcome Dobbs decision removing abortion rights in many states. While Trump has enjoyed success in getting his endorsed candidates winning their primaries, as even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has noted their quality is suspect. It’s pretty clear Mitch McConnell doesn’t expect to win back a Republican Senate majority in November.

Probably the best thing that could have happened to the Republican Party was if Trump had just shut up and played golf. Candidate quality probably would have improved as candidates would likely have leaned more centrist and thus more electable. Without Trump’s constant bloviating, it would be much easier to frame the midterms around Democratic Party failures. But by sucking all the oxygen out of the room, once more, it’s become largely a referendum on Trump.

Thankfully, Joe Biden is taking the issue head on, calling out MAGA Republicans as a threat to democracy. I wonder what took him so long, but clearly it has traction. Even Republicans seem to have a hard time denying the obvious, since they are working so hard to make elections unfair so their candidates win disproportionately. At a visceral level, voters seems to understand Biden is simply stating the truth. This may explain why the generic ballot question now shows a majority of voters preferring a Democratic to a Republican candidate in November’s elections, not to mention Biden’s improving approval ratings.

Trump is a polarizing figure and always has been. You either love him or loath him and in general the more you come to know him, the more you come to loath him. He won’t change who he is to appeal to a wider audience. So as long as he’s going to be around anyhow, Democrats might as well try to use him to their advantage. At least they can go to voters and truthfully say, “At least we’re better than that guy!” And a majority of voters are likely to agree. So, yeah, Trump for Republican presidential nominee in 2024! It seems a pretty safe bet, or should, if the midterms benefit Democrats.

No wonder Trump wants to rig future elections. It’s the only way that he can “win”. A majority of Americans simply can’t stand him.

Grand juror, part two

Back in July, I discussed what it was like being on a grand jury.

I’m still on one. Our term is three months. Two months are served, but we should be done at the end of the month. Then supposedly I get at least three years off from again being a juror.

Generally, we meet once a week. Sometimes we get a week off. Only once did we need to take a lunch break. Generally, they keep us going and we are released sometime after 1 PM. Sometimes it’s just one case we look at. We’ve had as many as three in one day.

Initially, the cases brought to us for indictment were mostly about drug trafficking. We got a couple more of these cases since then, but it’s run a full gamut of crimes. So far we haven’t refused to return an indictment. The prosecutors are always very well prepared and the evidence is overwhelming. There is also the low probable cause standard needed for an indictment. Given we only need twelve of 23 grand jurors to indict, it’s hard not to indict.

The newness of being on a grand jury though has worn off. I often leave the jury room feeling soiled. “What a piece of work is a man!”, Hamlet reflects in Shakespeare’s play, where most everyone dies. “How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god!” From the perspective of a grand juror, I’m feeling pretty appalled by our species. Granted, we see society’s underbelly, but it’s a grimy and uncomfortable place to inhabit.

A few days ago we heard from a witness to sex trafficking. We haven’t issued any indictments on this case yet. It will take a few more visits from prosecutors. I know stuff that I really didn’t want to know. What makes it worse is you are privy to the names and sometimes addresses of those under investigation. This woman in her early 30s, fresh out of rehab, described in mind-numbing clinical detail her sexual encounters and the pimp that controlled her. From five to 8 times a day, she provided mostly blowjobs to clients at a house in my county. The john’s money was left on a table downstairs and discreetly picked up by the pimp. In return, he fed her drug habit and gave her shelter. He wouldn’t buy her clothes, shampoo or even tampons. The money was supposed to go toward paying the rent, but mostly it went to feed the pimp’s massive drug addictions. She was alternatingly crying and blowing her nose while matter-of-factly discussing the sexual services she provided. Blowjobs were apparently no big deal. But once she was taken to a hotel where she was anally raped against her will. That was the final straw. The pimp threw her out on the street, but she found a friend, went into rehab again and has been drug free for many months.

I was just appalled. I think everyone in the jury room wanted to say “I’m so sorry” to her and give her a hug. That wasn’t allowed, of course. We can ask questions but aren’t allowed to grieve with a witness and say we care.

We also indicted a man for murder. He’s indicted on four counts, one of them murder. Both were in their early twenties and both were unwisely put in a halfway house (actually, an apartment in a larger house) for young adults. I don’t understand why this agency would put two people of different genders in the same apartment. He was clearly disturbed but she was clearly doing well in the program, working at a local fast food restaurant and had a car.

The most disturbing part was watching nearly two hours of videotaped testimony taken at the local police department. For fifteen minutes we watched him play with his smartphone and carefully rearrange the contents of his wallet. Then the detective enters and starts asking questions. Over the course of nearly two hours his story evolves and changes. This rather normal looking overweight man toward the end of it just comes out an admits he murdered her. He doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it, but he is concerned about going to jail.

We also got to see voluminous pictures of the victim, the knife cuts she endured, and blood on the floor and refrigerator. I’m confident when he’s before a trial jury he will be convicted on all counts. Our state has no death penalty, but I’m awfully glad he’s unlikely to every taste free air again. Bail was denied, not that he had any money to pay it. He was picked up in his roommate’s car by the detective outside a fern bar where he enjoyed a free meal – he had a coupon apparently, and a couple of hundred dollars he stole from her.

There were also two indictments for rape. A local attractive young woman who worked at a local fitness studio met an old flame at a local bar. She didn’t like the vibes she was getting from him, so she left. Outside the club she gets to chatting with a stranger across the street who eventually offers her some weed. He offers to take her to his place, which she assumes is an apartment. Walking on a path through the woods she discovered his tent instead (he’s homeless) where he forces her to give him a blowjob and then sexually assaults her. This woman though at least had to good sense to report her rape and seek treatment. She seemed happy to testify against him to ensure this guy never rapes a woman again.

It’s not just men that we indict. We indicted one woman for a couple of dozen cases of animal cruelty. She wasn’t torturing pets, but neglecting farm animals she had purchased and stored in someone’s barn. She basically didn’t have the money to feed them. Several cows and goats died, and many of the rest were sick and near death. We heard testimony from a state investigator. There’s enough of these cases where there is a whole team working just on animal cruelty cases.

I wish our species was noble in spirit and infinite in faculties. And I’m sure there are some fine examples out there. But there are many base and disgusting people out there for which the term “human being” is probably more than they deserve. Just calling them bestial is too good.

I’ll be glad when my term is up and I can go back to pretending we’re not as bad a species as all the evidence I’ve seen and the testimony I’ve heard clearly indicates.

Trump is truthing his way toward justice

It’s been another busy week in Trumpland. Of course, it’s always a busy week in Trumpland. Trump has always believed that it’s more important to have his face and voice in the news, even in a bad way, than to not have it in the news at all.

Even with a scorecard, it’s hard to keep track. The latest event was the unsealing of a redacted 38-page affidavit used by a judge, which documented probable cause for the latest search of Donald Trump’s Mar a Lago estate. In it, we learned that back in January, after months spent by the National Archives to recover classified and other national security documents taken by Trump when he left office, 184 classified documents were retrieved including 25 top secret documents. In June we learned that Trump’s lawyer falsely asserted to the Justice Department that all classified material at Mar a Lago had been returned. It’s hard to know exactly how many more of these documents were retrieved in the August 8 raid, but at least six boxes contained classified information.

Alex Jones
Alex Jones

Trump has reportedly claimed these documents were “mine” and anyway he had a standing order that any documents taken to the White House residence were declassified. The Presidential Records Act though (ironically passed after Richard Nixon’s abuses during Watergate) says all documents used to conduct official U.S. government business belong to the government. Also, one of the laws cited in the affidavit which Trump likely broke does not require a document to be classified in order for it to be protected. It has to contain sensitive defense information. It appears that many of these documents qualified.

I asked my wife what she thought would happen to her if she took these sets of data and stored them in our home. She figured she’d be in police custody somewhere and probably in an orange jumpsuit. She also figured any possibility of being free again would be decades away, at best.

I’m no lawyer, but this sounds right to me, based on what I remember when I had Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information access and swore to uphold national security laws back in the 1980s.

But if she had stored those documents in our house, they would have been much better protected than they were at Mar a Lago. Our doors are normally locked. If the front door is unlocked, someone is home and near the door. At Mar a Lago, apparently anyone can walk in through a beach tunnel and, at best, you are challenged by a Secret Service agent if you get too close to Donald Trump.

So it’s likely if the suspect were anyone other than Donald Trump, they’d be in custody already and probably in an orange jumpsuit. This would have happened months ago. Trump would be proclaiming from behind bars that orange is the new black.

All this is so mind-blowingly stupid, you have to wonder how even Donald Trump could be so stupid and reckless. But, like with Alex Jones, if you have malignant narcissism it simply wouldn’t occur to you that it’s not yours. It’s yours because you deem it to be so, and that’s that.

It’s not about the law; it’s just a test of wills. If you are rich enough, you just keep throwing lawyers at the problem until it goes away. It’s worked for Trump his whole life, but so far it’s been in the civil arena only. Yes, there have been some setbacks. He’s paid some penalties for his fake charity and fake university. He’s paid off porn stars and others to avoid certain other lawsuits. Money makes things go away or at least drags them on long enough where it becomes moot. Trump’s latest drag-it-out maneuver is to ask a Florida judge to appoint a special master to review the documents seized at the raid, so he can retrieve “his” stuff. This looks like another meritless petition, but its true purposes are to delay things and to muddy the legal waters.

It’s probably not going to work this time. These are actual crimes that Trump is being investigated for. The evidence against him is overwhelming. He doesn’t even deny taking the materials. The Justice Department repeatedly gave him plentiful opportunities to discreetly comply with the law, which he largely ignored. His malignant narcissism though clearly had the upper hand. Those documents were “his” and those trying to get them were wrong simply because he was president and he says so. So screw ’em.

Just as with Alex Jones’s stunned state (see picture) when his trial judge had to repeatedly remind him that he must tell the truth, we can expect that if Trump ever comes to trial there will be a similar photo of him. The idea of actual justice applying to him just doesn’t register. He’s not a regular citizen. He’s Donald Trump, the almighty. The laws bend to him, not the other way around.

Jones though apparently seemed at last to register the magnitude of his mistake. Should it come to it, I don’t think Trump will ever have a Come-to-Jesus moment.

I’d love to see him receive actual justice. He may even get close to sentencing and conviction. But I suspect in the end the Justice Department will cut a deal. I bet he’ll have to pay a hefty fine and sign an agreement to never run for public office. All this will be justified to keep Trump from inciting civil war by his supporters. Then he’ll be back to Tweeting or Truthing or whatever it is called at the moment.

I suspect there is no relief from Trump except his death. And, sadly, having observed Trump, there will be plenty of other rich men with deep pockets more than willing to give it one more go.

Goodbye Marie

Not everyone can say they’ve buried three mothers.

Okay, technically I didn’t bury any of them except my real mom. As she was cremated, it meant handing a box of her ashes to a cemetery worker who put them underground. The second “mom” to go was my mother in law in 2012. That should have been the end of it, but in a surprise wedding in 2010 my eighty one year old father married Marie, and suddenly I had a stepmom.

Marie passed away recently at age 89. A year or two back she had a stroke. She was not quite the same since then. I did see her one last time last October. I had a feeling it would be my last visit. She was barely mobile and needed help several times a day to do basic stuff. The stroke made her hard to understand. Mostly she spent her days alone in a one bedroom apartment in Riderwood, a huge retirement community in Silver Spring, Maryland.

She went quite quickly in the end. She fell, was diagnosed with a failing heart too old to bother to repair, and spent just two days in Riderwood’s version of a nursing home, the same place my mother died. She was having trouble eating breakfast, was suddenly uncommunicative and a couple of minutes later pronounced dead.

She lived pretty much as long as my father, who died at 89 and a few months in 2016. They had five years of marriage, four of them pretty good before my father’s pulmonary disease became apparent and eventually killed him. Generally stepmothers are quickly forgotten after your parent passes away. Thankfully, our family was the exception. All eight of us made a point to keep Marie in our lives, calling her and visiting her when we were in the D.C. area.

I felt especially blessed because I convinced her to come and visit us in our new Massachusetts digs. She arrived on the Amtrak along with my sister for a weeklong stay. Marie was a good egg, but the spicey kind. Like my dad, she was a dopily devoted Catholic. Unsurprisingly, she first ran into my widower Dad at church. Riderwood has a chapel and a priest comes by on Sundays to perform Mass. It took my father enrolling in a square dancing class at Riderwood for the relationship to bloom in earnest.

The whole having-a-stepmother thing threw me for a loop. I knew my father wasn’t happy as a widower. His five years as a bachelor were awkward and strange. I knew he was chasing a few women. Despite there being few widowers and plenty of widows there, few were interested in remarriage. But that’s how it had to be for my father. He was born to be married. It took time, perseverance and bit of stealth but he managed it.

He flew cross country to introduce Marie to his sister, all on the QT. I had no idea until we learned that he had been hospitalized in Los Angeles with the flu, apparently acquired at 40,000 feet. I remember actually reaming my dad out: how could he do this and not let us know? I guess it wasn’t technically my business, but as my sister and me were the only two local members of the family, we expected to know. But Dad wanted to do some courting his way.

Marie turned out to be a good match, and I believe a better match for him than my mother. Marie was all about family, but sharp and could have an acid tongue at times. No one could roll over her and she would be no one’s patsy. She was also quite conservative, which was very much unlike my dad. She raised ten kids of her own, and helped raise a number of grandchildren. She ended up at Riderwood after her husband died and quickly and happily enmeshed herself in its vast and complex social scene.

Hosting Marie for a week turned out to be easy and fun. We got to know her much better. I walked her around the local park, took her to the local art museum and we all went out for ice cream. Marie, we discovered, was incredibly competitive. Scrabble was her passion. We had a Scrabble board. Not a day went by when we did not play at least one game, and she won most of them.

Once I visited her at Riderwood when my brother Tom was visiting. Tom is also extremely competitive. Watching the two of them play Scrabble was like watching a Jeopardy! championship. The air was thick with tension. The rest of us felt outclassed.

Marie also had a ton of energy, which only slowed a bit in retirement. She was social in ways my father was not. My father was good at glad handing and remembering names, but forgot details. Marie remembered details and the small stuff too, like calling friends just to say hello or sending cards on special occasions.

So I drove to Maryland to attend her funeral. Only three of us on my side of the family eventually made it. Two more wanted to but the logistics got too complicated. Suddenly twelve years later I was amidst her extended family again. I could greet most by name as I had met most of them many times over the years.

We commiserated with them at her wake and sat in the second row at her funeral mass. Afterward, we attended her reception. We helped move some property of my dad’s from her apartment. There were handshakes and hugs with her family, but we all implicitly knew it’s unlikely that we would see each other again. She will eventually be cremated and her remains placed next to her first husband’s in upstate New York.

I grew to love Marie, which is why I made the long drive to be at her funeral. I cried a bit during it, even as it seemed familiar as the soloist and songs sounded likely the same as at my mom and dad’s funerals. She lived a long life and largely on her terms. Life threw a lot at her but she seemed to handle it all with determination, faith and gusto. Adversity seemed to only make her stronger.

Only one relative from my parents’ generation now remain: an aunt who just turned ninety. We visited her some years back. So Marie’s death feels like pretty much the end of a chapter in life. In a way though it was a good kind of grief to experience. I’m a better person for not only having a stepmother in my life, but for having Marie in particular in my life.

I’ve been enjoying a lot of schadenfreude lately

First, it was Alex Jones’s comeuppance in court. He mouthed off to the judge and ended up with two judgments resulting in about $50M in punitive and compensatory damages for claiming the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre was staged.

This weekend though it was watching Donald Trump writhe in Bedminster while FBI agents raided his Mar a Lago estate and left with eleven sets of documents, most of which were classified, all of which his lawyer attested in June did not exist.

Some of the material seized contained the Top Secret classification, and some of it was marked as SCI material. I once had a Top Secret clearance, and I could view certain siloed Sensitive Compartmentalized Information (SCI). I’m pretty sure I never did, because I don’t recall going to a SCIF (SCI facility), which is the only place I could have read it. If I had a need to read it though I would have had to prove my need, needed to have read it in the facility, and would have had my entry, exit and the documents I read logged. I would have been watched the whole time too.

So it really can’t be overstated how big a security breach this is. The Oval Office is not a SCIF. I’m not sure where the nearest SCIF is but there is probably one in the basement. The War Room might be considered a SCIF. If so, Trump couldn’t be bothered to walk there. A president that follows the law would read it (and leave it) there.

But at least the White House is a secured building. Mar a Lago is not, at least it’s not up to federal security standards. And while Trump may think that when president he could instantly declassify anything, he couldn’t. He’d have had to go through a process which would have included feedback from the agencies affected.

Instead, he threw the stuff in boxes and brought them with him to Florida and appears to have largely stored them in rooms that were not even locked and in a resort open to the public, presumably full of people who never passed a background investigation. Why? It’s not too hard to figure out. Trump is thoroughly corrupt and probably saw some way to profit from their possession. That it was also illegal probably didn’t cross his mind, or simply didn’t bother him.

Meanwhile, his supporters cheered him on, even as his excuses kept changing and were contradictory. From the Law and Order Party and their reactions, we learned that Law and Order applies only to non-Republicans, but certainly not to a former President of the United States, unless they are a Democrat. How dare the jack-booted thugs of the FBI raid his home! The only reason they would do this is because it’s a political act.

For years, Republicans were in a lather because a potentially classified email might have been stored on Hillary Clinton’s private server. But actual voluminous classified documents, including some containing sensitive intelligence sources and methods were stored offsite and unlocked doesn’t bother them at all as long as it was on Donald Trump’s estate. Because, well, reasons.

Trump, of course, said the “raid” was illegal, as if a search warrant signed by a federal magistrate is not legal. This sent his supporters into a predictable tizzy. One unhinged supporter who also posted on his Truth Social site stupidly entered a Cincinnati FBI field office to wreak vengeance with his gun to be quickly shot to death by the many heavily armed agents there.

Next, Trump said that if classified information was found, it was only because the FBI somehow planted it there. This is after he voluntarily returned classified information he had taken with him when he left office. I’m sure Mar a Lago has a surveillance system. I can’t wait to see the videos of FBI agents surreptitiously bringing classified documents into Mar a Lago just so they could later find them. I’m sure his supporters think these videos must exist. But if it doesn’t, it’s no matter. The government somehow surreptitiously erased the data. It was probably the CIA or NSA.

His supporters are convinced the only way to make things right is to get rid of the FBI altogether. Well, if no one is around to enforce the law, that certainly solves the problem of future Donald Trumps doing the same thing. We won’t need much of the court system either because there won’t be much left to bring before a judge if no one is investigating crimes. Anyhow, they tell us that we need to do this because of the danger of tyranny. Umm, if there are no FBI agents, instead of tyranny you’ll get a lot of anarchy, as who will be around to enforce the laws? You know, those laws the Party of Law and Order supposedly want prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law except, of course, if the lawbreaker is a Republican.

These rationalizations don’t matter in the least. Republicans don’t care about reasons, only outcomes. The only acceptable outcomes are that those in their party get to act with impunity and the rest of us don’t. Any means needed to achieve this outcome are perfectly okay. Democracy obviously means nothing to them. In fact, the law means nothing to them. The only thing that matters is power, and that they are the only ones allowed to wield it and to decide what it is.

And that’s because they clearly know best. Watching their ping ponging explanations as Donald Trump changed his explanations clearly demonstrates their sound minds, even temper and fairness. It’s a mystery to them why the rest of us would object.

If we do have a country of law and order, Trump will be prosecuted and convicted for these egregious violations of national security. Should it come to it though I’m confident that Trump will evade justice somehow. It looks like Russia is waiting for his exile. At least he’d feel at home there.