Dealing with and maybe profiting from inflation

Last July, I wrote about inflation as it seemed to be back. Six months later we can definitely say that it’s back, with prices up about seven percent compared to a year ago. Certain goods and services are a lot more expensive, generally the stuff you need every day like food, gasoline and shelter.

What’s different now is that stock markets are in bear territory. As usual, those who are nervous or have the most to lose are bailing. The S&P 500 Index peaked at 4801 on December 30, 2021 and is now at 4398. More worrisome are that some of the better known stocks in the index are down a lot more than most, including Apple and Netflix. Finding a safe financial harbor now is tough. If you can find one, it’s likely that continued inflation will eat away at your net worth.

Our portfolio was hit too. It peaked briefly above $2M in December, wavered back and forth, then steadily lost value as markets sagged. Our portfolio is now down about $70K, which could be much worse. Part of the reason it’s not is that certain illiquid parts of our portfolio, mostly our house, keep appreciating.

Crypto is not proving to be market forces immune, as popular coins are down more than markets in general. Apparently the law of supply and demand applies to it as well. So at the moment I feel good that we only own about $200 in cryptocurrencies. Maybe it’s time to invest instead in gold stocks, the safe harbor most used to go for before crypto.

So what can you do to cope with inflation? Some of us are fortunate to be well cushioned. My pension is fully indexed with the cost of inflation, and now that I’m on social security, it is too. Like a lot of retirees, our house is paid off so rent increases aren’t an issue.

One thing you could do is find a better paying job, which is very trendy. This time though not only shop for an inflation-beating raise, but look at a company’s fundamentals. Do they offer a pension? It’s a great reason to work for them. Do they offer a significant employer match to a 401-K plan, like 3-5 percent? That’s even better. It’s free money that can compound until you retire. Today, employees have a once-in-a-generation opportunity that puts them at an advantage in the labor pool. It’s a shame to waste the opportunity, particularly if you can negotiate a work from home contract. You can save thousands of dollars and thousands of hours a year by working from home.

It’s hard to spend less on what are arguably essentials. You probably won’t find cheaper rent elsewhere, and shopping for gas on GasBuddy will only take you so far. If my income were modest enough, and even if it weren’t, I’d be looking to see if I was eligible for food stamps. Some things that cushioned the pandemic are disappearing: the child tax credit and extended unemployment insurance. But most communities have food banks. I’d feel no shame going to one if I needed to. I grew up with second hand clothes. I’d feel no shame buying used clothes at a Salvation Army. Buying new clothes should be considered something of a privilege.

If you do have some spare cash, a bear market is an obvious time to “buy the dip”. No downturn lasts forever. It’s unclear if a dip in markets will translate into a recession, but you’ve got better than even odds that a year from now the markets will be higher than they are now. Stocks like Apple and Netflix are down more than the market in general. These are quality stocks. It would be tempting to buy some now and hold them for five years or more.

If interest rates are doomed to rise, that can be good if you have savings. Shop around for a bank that pays good saving rates. Ally Bank, where I do most of our banking, is one such bank. Also, if you pay off your credit card balances, look for no-fee cash back credit cards and plastic every expense you can. I have a Pentagon Federal Credit Union no fee 2% Power Cash Rewards card, and routinely get $60 – $100 a month in cash back.

Nearing retirement age? Retirees generally flock to southern states like Arizona and Florida. As a result both states help lead the country in increased house valuations. If your house is paid off, the better value may be to stay right where you are. But if you do want to move, there are places where housing prices aren’t going through the roof. This is true of much of the Midwest and northeast.

I recently had a discussion with my friend Tom from childhood, whose career went south toward the late 2000s due to market forces. He now lives in Oregon. He’s been scrambling on a lot less income and much of his nest egg is gone. I recently suggested he move back to where we both came from: upstate New York. I’ve known others other than me who did this and profited.

In my case, moving from the D.C. area to Massachusetts made financial sense because my pension is exempt from state taxes, offsetting the higher real estate taxes. Unless you are clustered in or near a major city like New York, house prices are awfully cheap in places like Binghamton where I grew up. It’s not at all hard to find a nice house in a safe neighborhood for $100 – $150K.

Many of these states are known for high property taxes, but if your house isn’t worth much and you buy a house for cash from the proceeds of selling your current house likely worth a lot more, paying $5000 a year in property taxes which you are probably paying already shouldn’t be that big a deal. Seniors tend to get extra exemptions and various tax breaks too and these states tend to offer better social services for the extra taxes they charge. All this and you are positioned well for climate change: these states are cooler in general, greener and have good water supplies. Run the numbers and you may be surprised.

In general, to the extent you can, stick with a sound financial strategy: invest regularly and methodically in a broad range of funds and time will likely ensure that you beat inflation. The world is changing but in some ways for the better. Working from home was not an option for me for most of my career. Now the infrastructure is in place to make this doable for many of us in the service sector. Major changes like we are going through now also permit major opportunities not generally available. By capitalizing on these changes, you can profit from them. That’s one way to beat inflation and have a better life too.

Religion likely killed Jerry

Jerry (not his real name) is dead. Jerry, age about seventy, died recently of covid-19. Jerry could have been vaccinated but chose not to be.

Jerry is also the first person I know personally to die needlessly of covid-19. With 800,000 deaths you would think I would know some others, and perhaps I do. I either don’t know that they died, or that they died of covid-19. In general though, like most people, I tend to associate with others who share my beliefs. I can’t think of one of my friends who doesn’t believe in the efficacy of covid-19 vaccines.

As Jerry is a friend of a friend, I only know about Jerry’s method of demise through my friend. I couldn’t call him a friend as I only met him a few times. But unquestionably he was a decent man, giving by nature and friendly. He had an odd couple relationship with my friend, who’s a flaming liberal. They worked together for many years for a Beltway bandit and stayed friends after she left the company and he retired.

They took many vacations together. My friend has been posting pictures of them from many vacations from exotic locations like Zanzibar and Guatemala. You wanted to be a friend of Jerry’s. He was a reliable guy with a big smile and a hearty handshake.

But after retirement Jerry had plenty of time. Ex-military, he was Christian by inclination. He found himself going one of these mega-churches in the Northern Virginia suburbs overrun with evangelicals and became one himself.

Along the way he also found, voted for and pushed the candidacy of Donald Trump, perhaps America’s most prominent sinner. Trump was a sore spot between my friend and him, but they managed to remain friends in spite of it. I got the feeling they saw less of each other. Anyhow, she moved to Florida and the distance between them made seeing each other a lot more problematic.

Like many of us, Jerry got sucked into an information bubble. He distrusted pretty much any media except those that told him what he wanted to hear. It appears that he grew to believe that covid-19 wasn’t real, but definitely that getting vaccinated for it was against his principles, principles repeated endlessly in his newsfeeds and among his friends. He was also conspiracy minded and became a believer in QAnon, a belief shared by some members of his family. His faith gave him overwhelming confidence that God would protect him. By being a model of that faith and his beliefs, he was confident that he was protected.

I don’t know too much about his death other than he wasn’t vaccinated and covid-19 killed him. Of course, there would have been no guarantee that had he been vaccinated covid would not have killed him, but it would have stacked the odds greatly in his favor. All we can say is that he is dead and if there is a heaven he’s doubtless there right now. St. Peter was probably surprised by his early arrival.

But his death hardly brought peace to his family. He has a pro-Trump daughter, and she is trying to push out the other daughter who stopped talking to Jerry because of his politics. His pro-Trump sister is not talking to anyone. It doesn’t sound like Jerry’s convictions are going to help his family heal from his passing and I suspect his funeral will be lightly attended.

It’s hard to say what flipped Jerry into an anti-vaxxer. But it’s not hard to see contributing factors. Ex-military people are largely conservative types. Evangelicals have extreme faith in God and a predisposition toward absolute certainty that their faith seems to require as a condition of membership. They take comfort in communing largely with each other, which tends to reinforce their shared beliefs. You don’t have to do much research on the internet to find out that there is a huge overlap between conservatives, evangelicals and QAnon supporters. If you are in one of these groups, you’ll probably find yourself in the others too.

If you ask me, Jerry’s death was aided and abetted by his evangelical church. While a few faiths like Unitarian Universalism open minds, most tend to shut them and bar the doors to rational thought. No wonder then that about thirty percent of American are now Nones, i.e. don’t affiliate with any religion. This percentage is going to only increase until we are a majority sectarian nation, as is most of Europe. Dogmatic, close-minded but otherwise really nice people like Jerry who die needlessly from a treatable disease are accelerating the trend.

Jerry did lead an authentic life and stayed true to his principles and faith. But I think it’s fair to say that they also killed him.

Up your game with an N95 mask

So I’ve taken to wearing an N95 mask. I don’t use it all the time, obviously, but I do when I’m out (or rather indoors) with the rabble. I wore it yesterday in the pet food store and also at the Costco. At the latter, I surreally saw quite a number of unmasked patrons. I’m guessing the Town of West Springfield (Massachusetts) isn’t requiring indoor masking, which is crazy.

I also picked up Chinese food the other day in nearby Williamsburg (Massachusetts). I of course was wearing my N95 mask but one of the patrons came in and picked up his order without having any mask on. I’m pretty sure it’s required in Williamsburg, so I suspect this man was one of these free-range “I don’t care if I get it and infect you too” types. You can bet I was really glad I had a N95 mask on then.

Other types of masks reduce the likelihood that you will get covid-19 but are much more about helping ensure you don’t pass it on to others. Covid-19 is typically asymptomatic for days, which is why it’s so hard to stop its spread. Thoughtless boobs though clearly don’t give a damn. Or maybe they are fully vaccinated and figure this means that can’t get it. Vaccinations and boosters definitely lower the odds, but they are designed to keep you out of the hospital, not from getting the disease.

Perhaps you read this story on Reddit, which has been widely shared. Basically, a doctor has called it quits after being assaulted by a family of anti-vaxxers, shortly after informing the family that the father had passed away. In the case of this story on Reddit, the family was deeply upset that the doctor wouldn’t save the father by injecting Ivermectin into him and giving him massive doses of Vitamin C.

I confess I was wondering if this was made up, but I doubt it. Health care workers are quitting in droves due to harassment like this, not to mention the stress, long hours and fatigue of taking care of those down with covid-19. The vast majority of these people can accurately be describe as covidiots, i.e. those who aren’t vaccinated from it but easily could have been. These covidiots are making life very difficult for the rest of us. For example, there are all these people that need theoretically “elective” surgery for issues like heart valve bypasses but can’t schedule them because hospitals are overwhelmed with covidiots. A lot of these people will die, not of covid, but because they can’t get the timely treatment then need.

This Omicron wave looks like it will be short but very intense. Covid-19 is getting harder to avoid. An N95 or KN95 mask, which can actually block the virus in most cases, is one of the few tools left. I had given away to a local hospital my one N95 mask at the start of the pandemic because our local hospitals were looking for donations. Other than wearing a N95 or KN95 mask, there’s not much certain about avoiding it other than staying isolated. We excel at that, which will mean just me and the missus for Christmas this year.

Given the hassle of coping with it, it’s understandable why so many of us are at wits end. Our case as a retired couple makes things pretty simple. We’re not juggling school aged children. But just throwing up your hands is stupid. The United States has over 800,000 official covid-19 deaths and reaching a million deaths is a virtual certainty. The rational person uses every tool at their disposal and is careful to judge acceptable risks.

It was acceptable for me to go on a cruise recently. The odds of acquiring the disease were not zero, but acceptable. Holland America’s ships are comparatively small, the passengers tend to be age 60+, and the testing to get on the ship was rigorous. That plus all the indoor masking and shore excursions where you were masked and in a bubble made it acceptable. I would have avoided booking cruises on large cruise ships. Perhaps you read about large outbreaks on Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas and Symphony of the Seas because these ships are enormous and the cruisers younger.

As this pandemic keeps rolling on, I’m also developing a sense of when to chance the odds and when not to. This makes living with the pandemic easier. When we booked the cruise in early September, I judged that booster shots would probably be available and that a wave was likely to crest on or after Christmas. I bet that cases would be manageable in early December when we were to cruise. But I booked with cruise insurance just in case I was wrong.

By the time we were back in port, it was clear the Omicron wave was going to hit us shortly. That’s when I judged the odds were too high again and went to my next line of defense: the N95 mask. Wearing the mask is not that uncomfortable, it’s just harder to put on and tighter than I am used to. As it is much snugger though, it also feels safer.

I’ll let health officials judge the odds because they will be much better at it than I will be. Infection and hospitalization rates will tell me what I want to know. That the Omicron wave is likely to be sharp but brief also suggests the pandemic is winding down. More of us have been vaccinated or acquired some immunity from being infected. The virus is running out of new hosts. It is likely that toward late 2022 that it will move from pandemic to endemic, allowing life to return to some semblance of normal with periodic minor spikes.

The new best practice is to wear an N95 or KN95 mask when indoors with the public. These masks are not too hard to acquire now either. It’s time to up your game, if you haven’t already.

Traveling in the age of covid

We’re leaving New York City after three days of playing tourist. It’s my first trip away from home since the pandemic began.

It’s been interesting to see how much has changed for tourists in the age of covid, which turns out to be quite a lot. In NYC there are definitely privileges associated with being vaccinated. For one, we could get in to see two Broadway shows. Our vaccination cards and IDs were checked at the door, but even so we could not take off our masks during the performance. If you were eating or drinking food from the concessions, you could briefly unmask, but that was the only exception.

Amtrak requires you to self certify that you are vaccinated or have a recent negative covid-19 test, but doesn’t check your credentials. You wear your mask on the train, except when eating or drinking. Their cars are pretty big so it’s likely it wouldn’t be a problem if you were unmasked, but better safe than sorry. The penalty for not wearing a mask could be permanent disbarment from Amtrak.

You end up wearing a mask most of the time because most of the time you are indoors. There are a few exceptions when indoors. It’s pointless inside your hotel room. We had breakfast at our hotel and it was not possible when eating, but to get into the restaurant you had to show proof of vaccination and show an ID. Most people kept their mask on in the restaurant except while eating.

When outdoors, most people were unmasked. Those who were masked probably just didn’t want to bother temporarily unmasking. It’s not pleasant to spend most of your day breathing your warm air, but you do get used to it. The only real problem if that masks can get wet from your own breath after a while. I discovered a cloth mask is preferred, as a paper one I bought failed when looping it over my ears.

How safe is all this in the delta age? It’s hard to say. It’s unlikely I have acquired an infection, but for all I know I might test positive. I just don’t have any symptoms. I’m probably fine despite being in close quarters with other humans for hours at a time.

Without a N95 mask, masks won’t prevent me from getting covid, although they can lessen the odds. Their purpose is to reduce the risk that if I have the virus that I will pass it on to others. It’s basically common courtesy; wearing a mask effectively says that I care to take proactive steps to inadvertently pass it on to you. Not wearing a mask effectively says the opposite: I don’t care enough about you to bother to inconvenience myself by wearing one. No wonder that those of us who are vaccinated by 2:1 majorities are for requiring mask mandates for everyone.

So the vaccine can’t prevent exposure to the virus or ensure you don’t get the disease. If most everyone masks, it reduces greatly the odds of getting infected. But it does mean that if you are exposed to the virus, you may test positive but have no symptoms. The main point of the vaccine is to lessen the likelihood of hospitalization and death. That’s how vaccines work. So I expect that I will get covid-19 at some point, or at least test positive for it. If I’m lucky, I’ll never develop symptoms. If I get it, I will almost certainly not die from it and avoid hospitalization. And if most of us wear masks in public we can markedly reduce the level of infections and deaths.

I am noticing some new trends. At least in New York, restaurants are going menu-less: you need a smartphone to see the menu. You scan a QR code and follow the link to the menu. This saves a lot of paper, obviously, but it also allows restaurants to save money printing menus and to dynamically change prices. This is true of museums and other tourist attractions as well. For example, when we toured St. Patrick’s Cathedral, we used a QR code to download an electronic tour.

We were last in New York City in November 2019. The city has obviously changed since then. There are a lot of closed restaurants, even close to Broadway. Many restaurants are taking over sidewalks and parking places, allowing outdoor dining. The city doesn’t feel quite as busy and vibrant as it did back then. Broadway is about half reopened.

In general, New Yorkers are vaccinated and vaccine-savvy, and don’t have a problem masking up. They suffered 30,000 fatalities early in the pandemic, which helped, but being a large multi-cultural city they have learned to mostly get along with each other and are used to following rules.

It’s not surprising then that the city has weathered this latest covid wave reasonably well. These restrictions seem to be working reasonably well, allowing the city to do what it does best: make money. Judging by our hotel rates and ticket prices, they are making plenty of it again. I doubt this is true of most Southern states.

Who wants to be a two million dollar-aire?

I’ve been watching our net worth. It’s just a number and an inexact number at that. Your real net worth isn’t known until you are dead and your estate is settled.

There are lots of vagaries when calculating your net worth, such as the value of your house, cars and other possessions. I use the city’s appraisal of our house as a benchmark. It’s probably understated, but the city assessed it at $558,800. Cars tend to depreciate. Once a year, I use Consumer Reports car value estimator to figure that out. Assessing the value of our other property like furniture and clothes seems kind of pointless, as you can’t live in a home without them, so I don’t. The value of our stocks and bonds will fluctuate from day to day. About 66% of our net worth consists of these investments, so when markets are up our net worth tends to balloon, and visa-versa. Generally Quicken will keep track of the bottom line for me, but it won’t read in the prices for my Thrift Savings Plan funds, so I have to enter these manually.

I’ve been paying more attention lately because we’re getting close to hitting a bigger number: $2M in net worth. It was ten years ago when our portfolio hit the $1M mark, which technically made us millionaires. Back then I noted I didn’t feel particularly rich, because most of our wealth was in our house and because inflation erodes away at the value of our assets when priced in dollars. I’m guessing our net worth would need to be $20M – $50M in today’s dollars to really “feel” like a millionaire. With that level of wealth I’d probably have a couple of vacation homes and fly first class everywhere.

We would have briefly passed the $2M net worth mark has I not booked a cruise for December. That cost us about $7000 . The cruise companies don’t give you much time before you are required to pay in full. So that money is gone plus the stock market has slumped a bit. So we’re not quite at that $2M net worth threshold, but closing in at about $1.982M in net worth.

I’d like to brag that it was our great investing that is responsible for nearly doubling our net worth in ten years. But I largely leave that to our financial adviser. In truth, aside from the true luxury of being debt free, most of it is due to spending a lot less than our income. Even in retirement, as much as twenty percent of our income is saved. Since early this year, we’re not even withdrawing from our retirement accounts. Money coming in, mostly in the form of a generous federal pension plus Social Security, is responsible.

The pandemic has helped too. Until recently there was no place to go and it’s still a bit chancy to travel today. So much sitting at home has allowed me, a retiree, to rake in additional income from consulting services that I do online. It’s not a huge amount (about $27,000 so far this year), but it’s enough where I became subject to windfall elimination provisions in retirement laws. My social security payment this month was reduced for one month to $460 this month. This will likely affect me for a few years as long as I keep doing consulting. At my full retirement age (66.5 years), side income won’t affect my social security payments anymore.

In short, we’ve been fortunate rather than savvy. Certainly my relatively high salary when I was employed helped us eliminate debt and fund investments. Having just one child doubtless helped a lot too. Retiring debt free helped as well, but living in an area of rapidly rising house prices helped a lot. Also, the Federal Reserve has helped by making markets behave abnormally, pushing equity prices up when they should have dropped.

I’ll take credit for a certain amount of common financial sense, but our wealth seems mostly due to fortuitous timing and our government’s actions to keep financial markets afloat. It mostly feels like a lot of white privilege to me.

If I didn’t have the comfortable pension though, we’d be much more circumspect in our spending. These days, building wealth for us comes mostly from having that pension and not spending down our assets to maintain our standard of living. My consulting helps as well, but that income is never guaranteed.

What we are experiencing though was not that unusual in the past. People routinely retired on a pension and by the time they retired their mortgages were paid off. It didn’t cost an arm and a leg to raise a passel of kids or to send them through college. We may have more opportunities to spend wealth on more exotic trips like Caribbean cruises, but living a comfortable retirement used to be routine, at least for white people.

Policies that have sapped wealth from the working class and moved it into upper class largely explains why things are bleak for so many people of retirement age these days. Much of our wealth is because we were grandfathered into a system that is not an option for most working people.

I can’t take our portfolio with me into the hereafter, but I can live a comfortable and in some ways luxurious life in the time I have left alive. My intent is to see if we can keep getting rich and leave the bulk of our estate to charities that will lift people not so fortunate into opportunity and hopefully out of poverty.

Pandemic cruising … again

Is it crazy to cruise during a pandemic? Maybe, but for me our planned December cruise now officially booked is not our first pandemic cruise. There was also our theme cruise in March 2020. We were on a ship that was literally one of the last ones let back into the United States before cruising just stopped.

Thankfully, there were no cases of covid-19 on our ship during that cruise, although we later learned there was one unrelated death of a passenger. The ship berthed next to us was not so lucky.

These were early days during the pandemic. The virus was not particularly widespread at the time, even in Florida, although Florida was worse than most states, as it is now. Also, it was harder to catch as there was no delta variant. This was before masking became a thing. No one had masks or thought to wear one. We did have an epidemiologist on board, who gave us a little lecture. We took his advice and hung out away from the gates and between concourses while we waited six hours or so for our flight from Fort Lauderdale. We did bring lots of Clorox wipes. A month or two later we’d realize it was kind of pointless. It made our surfaces more sanitary, but it wasn’t understood then that covid-19 was principally an airborne disease.

So naturally we’re planning another cruise, again on Holland America, and again out of Fort Lauderdale. Just as the last cruise was risky, this one will be too. But to my way of thinking, it’s going to be less risky. Because Florida governor Ron DeSantis be damned, you have to be vaccinated to go on this cruise. You have to present a vaccination certificates and a negative covid-19 test no more than three days old.

On the ship, in the more closely confined spaces like elevators, you will have to mask up, and we’ll likely be masked up anyhow when not in our room or outside on the Lido deck or in a deck chair on the promenade. It’s likely we’ll be masked during our excursions too, assuming the countries will let us in.

The tide has turned with this new cruise, however. We weren’t let in to Grand Turk just on the fear one of us might have covid-19. This time our biggest risk probably comes from being around residents of the islands we’ll be visiting. Much of the rest of the world doesn’t have the opportunity to get vaccinated like we have in the United States. Some of the islands we will be visiting, like Barbados, likely will have most of its population unvaccinated. It’s unlikely they will acquire the disease from any of us. It’s hardly risk free to cruise in this pandemic age. But the risk does seem more manageable than on our last cruise.

Still, Fort Lauderdale is in Florida, and the state is arguably at the epicenter of the latest wave here in the United States. It didn’t have to be, but they have a sociopath for a governor. It would be nice if we could grab a similar cruise from a non-Florida port, but it’s not an option. The only real option is to keep holing down like we’ve been doing for eighteen months or so.

But even staying at home is not completely safe. It’s still risky (probably riskier than ever) to go shopping, even with a mask on. My wife volunteers, and one of her work places is the local emergency room. She is gloved, double-masked and even wears goggles but as there are usually at least a couple of covid patients in the waiting room, she’s already at elevated risk. She’s willing to accept the risk, and by inference so am I as I sleep next to her. Due to covid-19, she keeps expecting the hospital to end her volunteering. It happened before, but at least now they know what they are dealing with and how to keep reasonably safe.

The anti-vaxxers seem to either be unconcerned about their risk or place their faith in quack cures. A lot of them are now dead as a result. There’s a difference though between foolish risks and manageable risks. If I come down with covid-19, while I could die, it’s exceedingly unlikely because I’m vaccinated. I’m likely to avoid the hospital too. It’s likely I’ll be able to get a booster shot before our December cruise too.

We’ll be required to wear masks on the plane, but since we’re flying to Florida, extra precautions are warranted. I hope to find some N95 masks before then, or it I can’t, double mask and wear them on the plane and while in Florida. The cruise company is likely to know who we were near while on the ship should someone contract covid-19. And we took out cruise insurance to cut our losses if we can’t go.

I accept the risk of cruising in the covid-19 age because cruise companies aren’t reckless like Governor DeSantis and we can take reasonable precautions, but also because I don’t want to wholly give up travel because of the pandemic. Travel helps makes life feel worth living.

I’m tired of being housebound. We’ll use our brains and trust to science to keep these risks low and manageable, while realizing we can’t make them go away entirely. With covid-19 no longer a mystery, avoiding it is possible if you are careful. Most of us can live life and be reasonably safe, just so long as you do it mindfully and keep a clear head and follow the recommended protocols.

Or so I’m hoping. We’ll see how it goes.

I am deeply grateful to those who solved our covid-19 pandemic

We went out for dinner the other day. This is not exactly a first since the pandemic, but the difference this time was that we dined indoors. All three of us (this includes my daughter, who paid a quick visit) were fully immunized, all with the Moderna vaccine.

With the mask mandate guidance lifted, even in interior spaces for us fully vaccinated, while it seemed safe to dine in, it still gave us a bit of concern. Not wearing a mask may send the wrong signal: that it’s okay to not wear a mask if you are not fully immunized too. So while we ate indoors, and we kept our mask on, except when we were eating. So did the other patrons, what there were of them. There were strict quotas on the number of inside diners.

It wasn’t quite the same experience. This Chinese restaurant was still operating partly in pandemic mode. There was a table near the entrance with brown stapled bags of takeout, which now forms the bulk of their business. China seemed to be out: we got paper plates and cups, though the disposable chopsticks were there as always at our table. The food was just as good as we remembered but the visual experience felt cheapened somehow.

In our state, most mask mandates don’t come off until next weekend. As a practical matter, most are off already. Those running the park across the street decided that masks were no longer necessary. The prohibition always struck me as overkill, particularly when it was figured out that covid-19 was acquired almost always through breathing it in, so it required closed spaces. For someone fully vaccinated like me, masking is becoming something more to fit in and signal the right social values. Outdoors, I noticed that kids are masking but most everyone else isn’t. In public indoor spaces, masking still remains the rule, even when not technically required, such as during my Friday trip to a Trader Joe’s.

It’s largely unappreciated just how quick and effective the vaccine response has been. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines began development literally within days after China released the virus’s genome. Their success was arguably greased by tons of government money, which also encouraged Pfizer and Moderna to develop vaccines based on messenger RNA technology. There were some shortcuts that may have compromised safety: limited and parallel trials, for example, as well as emergency use authorizations. A certain amount of suspicion about their efficacy was warranted, even if they proved baseless.

This contrasted with the often dismal efforts to prevent the transmission of the disease here within the United States, leading to at least 600,000 deaths from the disease so far. I’ve drawn the conclusion that there was a far more rampant “disease” running rampant at the same time: the arguably viral obstinacy by so many Americans that: it was a fake disease, that various quack treatments would work if you did get it, that I’m too special to get it, and that it’s all part of some grand conspiracy to bring about left-wing government. There are still legions of these people out there. 600,000 deaths have taught them nothing. Whereas people like me (who believe in science) persisted by simply following recommendations and best practices, which evolved over time.

That these recommendations evolved seems to infuriate a lot of those who refused the vaccine. It seems they cannot inhabit a world where there is ambiguity: if any guidance changes over time, it must have been inherently wrong in the first place! The reason covid-19 was so easily transmissible and deadly was because it was novel: it hadn’t been seen before. We weren’t going to know what works best until we had experienced it and tried stuff, hence the high mortality rate toward the start of the pandemic.

There was concern that you could pick it up if you touched surfaces that had the virus. So I hyper-cleaned surfaces too, until the science came in that it was virtually impossible to pick it up this way, at which point I relaxed. Surviving covid-19 became pretty simple: live an isolated life if you could, work remotely if you could, and use effective masking if you couldn’t and were in public spaces. It wasn’t fun, but it could have been much worse and much more hassle. Effective vaccines took less than a year to develop. Now the challenge is to get them into the arms of people mostly in third-world countries that can’t afford to pay for them. It’s incumbent on rich countries like ours to do our utmost to help out.

It’s also remarkable that these vaccines are both so highly effective and seem to also work against the many covid-19 variants out there. There is virtually no evidence so far that once vaccinated you can pass on the disease as a passive carrier. So I shouldn’t feel guilty walking around unmasked because I am properly immunized. At worst there is a tiny five to 10% chance that I could still acquire the disease, but its symptoms would be mild. If I get it, I shouldn’t require hospitalization and it won’t kill me. Maybe that itself if a reason to mask up, but since I’m not immuno-compromised, it’s not a compelling reason to do so.

So I’m very grateful to those who created such effective vaccines in so short a time, and even for our somewhat dysfunctional government which at least could throw gobs of money at the problem, all while making the actual pandemic here exponentially worse. The vaccine makers though were but the tip of the spear. Hundreds of thousands of epidemiologists largely gave up their other work, or worked unpaid overtime, to advance research, help mitigate its spread and develop best practices. Our health care workers dealt with enormous stress and excessive amounts of jackasses to do their best in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic. All these people, and many more, have my gratitude, and should get accolades from our government for their tenacity, curiosity and intelligence they exercised to solve this public health crisis.

Needless to say, I am breathing easier.

Cryptocurrencies and true financial value

Until recently you could buy a Tesla with BitCoin. Elon Musk though recently changed his mind because it was an environmentally unfriendly currency, since newer mined BitCoins are mined using tons of servers, many of which use electricity generated by fossil fuels. So Musk is going toward more environmentally benign cryptocurrencies. There’s a lot of them out there and anyone with the right software and hardware can create their own. To use a cryptocurrency though you have to convince others to buy, use and accept them.

To say the least, cryptocurrencies are highly speculative. Coins most often mentioned in the media seem to do the best, and these include BitCoin, Ethereum and a literal joke currency, Dogecoin. With Elon Musk going all in for cryptocurrencies, the rest of us are left scratching our heads wondering if we’re missing something. Maybe we need to start buying cryptocurrencies too.

I had a customer recently who wanted to pay me in BitCoin. I told him no thanks, but he thought I was foolish because BitCoin’s price was likely to keep going higher. Maybe he’s right. All fiat currencies are speculative too. The U.S. dollar depends on the full faith and credit of the U.S. government and nothing else. Given how fragile our democracy is at the moment, maybe I should be trading dollars for BitCoin, Ethereum and Dogecoin.

Governments seem to be accepting the inevitable. I noticed on my tax return I had to answer some questions about cryptocurrencies, to make sure they were appropriately taxed. Cryptocurrencies seem to be settling in as a thing.

With the exception of real coins, all money is an abstraction and a shared delusion. It solved the messy problem of exchanging goods and services conveniently. BitCoin is not convenient, given the time and hassle it takes to exchange them, although it is getting easier. Others may be more convenient for transacting business where they are accepted, but the general market remains a long way from generally embracing cryptocurrencies.

The faith in most cryptocurrencies is that they are either hard to manufacture or that their block chain technology helps instill some sense of trust. Dogecoins are relatively easy to create, but they sure don’t look like a hedge against inflation. Five billion new Dogecoins are created annually, which means 2.7 million new Dogecoins go into circulation every day. It hardly looks like a precious asset, but where they are accepted at least they should be easy to spend. You shouldn’t have to worry about running out of them. The U.S. dollar is backed up by the U.S. government. The U.S. government at least has people overseeing the management and distribution of dollars. The same can’t be said about many cryptocurrencies.

I notice that those most into cryptocurrencies tend to be those who are libertarian, at least in spirit. They want the best of both worlds: a currency that retains its worth over time but also has the advantage that money provides: an easy exchange of value. It’s highly debatable though whether a cryptocurrency can hold its value. The run up in cryptocurrency prices seems due to supply and demand: more people are buying into the idea/hype of cryptocurrencies, which drives up their prices. Cryptocurrencies strike me as speculative investments without any firm moorings. Much like the Dutch tulip mania of 1637 demonstrated, these currencies hold value as long as we agree with the illusion/delusion that they have value.

I can see investing in cryptocurrencies as a highly speculative way of reaping short term profits. If I believe that there are many more enthusiasts of cryptocurrencies out there to be persuaded, buying some of these and hoping their prices go up, then selling them when they reap a handsome profit, makes a certain amount of sense. I would look at any money invested this way as money I could live without if the tables on cryptocurrencies I bought turned. I would not bet the house on cryptocurrencies appreciating. I would view it more like going to Las Vegas and gambling $1000, but no more than $1000, just for the fun of it. I strongly suspect though that having this approach does not make me a good candidate for investing in cryptocurrencies. I suspect most of these investors are looking to become millionaires through this sort of investing. People like me don’t rush in where angels fear to tread.

As an asset though, I consider these decentralized cryptocurrencies fool’s gold. In that sense I think Elon Musk is being foolish, but as the world’s richest person he can afford to be foolish on a grand scale. That said, over time it may be that we will have no choice. Cryptocurrencies may gain such traction that they can’t be ignored. There may come a time when going to a foreign country might require buying a cryptocurrency, because it and the local currency will be the only currencies accepted.

If that happens though we may be in for a world of trouble. The U.S. dollar’s value is based on the full faith and credit of its government. But nothing is forever. The U.S. is likely not forever as well, so having most cash parked in U.S. dollars could be foolish if our government ultimately collapses. It’s just a safer best than most other non-cryptocurrencies out there, and that it is the de-facto cryptocurrency of the world makes it a reasonably safe harbor … for now.

Real assets though is tangible stuff you own. You don’t own your savings account. It seems like we do, but its value is wholly dependent on the institutions that oversee it. With cryptocurrencies there are generally no people regulating it. If there are, it doesn’t amount to the investment in people and resources that countries give to managing their own currencies. Inflation may be the penalty we pay to make sure our currency doesn’t collapse altogether, because if the U.S. dollar weren’t overseen and regulated, it would probably collapse pretty quickly.

The deed to my house and cars, the portions of my portfolio that represent a percent of ownership in various stocks and funds, these are real assets because they have true value. All forms of money have some risk associated with them. I think many drawn to cryptocurrencies are suffering from a shared delusion that they can take the risk out of money through computer algorithms. I think they are likely to be disappointed in time. I’d rather own currencies that are managed by people because as flawed as we are I trust economists managing currencies more than I trust a computer algorithm.

Getting half way back to before

A year ago this week we were scrambling to find masks. So was everyone else, which meant what masks there were had been largely spoken for. Overnight people began constructing their own masks, if they were lucky enough to find material, had a pattern and had a sewing machine or a set of steady hands.

For some of the part-time seamstresses on our hill, mask making became a pandemic preoccupation for a while. Generous neighbors provided a few to get us started. We frequently wore them wrong and we often wondered what the point was since we (thought) we didn’t have covid-19. I wiped lots of inside surfaces, probably unnecessarily. For a month or two became fanatic about washing my hands, which now seems to have been largely unnecessary since the covid-19 seems to be transmitted almost always through the air. I still took daily walks for the most part but routinely gave broad berth to strangers, often walking on the other side of the street. It was all new and more than a little scary. Staying home, if you were so fortunate, seemed the only safe option.

My daughter wondered how this pandemic compared to the Cold War. I must have been traumatized she thought, growing up in the Cold War age. But I never had a “duck and cover” exercise. And I was a kid for much of it, not understanding until I was nearly a teen that a nuclear barrage could end life (including my life) as we know it quickly. I was too young to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest we came to actual nuclear war. So I didn’t think about it. Covid-19 though is different. Nuclear annihilation was an abstract worry. Covid-19 though could easily be acquired and could kill you. No wonder most of us tried to be careful.

Today I went walking, one covid-19 shot in my arm doing its thing, and another scheduled for May 1. I still wear a mask outdoors, at least if I’m within fifty feet of encountering someone else. Our masks now mostly have adjustable straps over the ears, making them easy to don and doff without ever really leaving your head. People still regularly wear masks outside, but it’s becoming less common. Some people are openly flouting the rules, which I’ve never seen enforced. But it’s looking that at least outdoors there is little risk of acquiring covid-19 from a passing stranger, particularly if there is a steady breeze.

On Tuesday I had a virtual physical (which is something of an oxymoron). My doctor said she doesn’t usually mask up outside. Of course, she is fully vaccinated and got her first shot in January. She’s starting to eat at restaurants again, at least when they offer outdoor dining. She said there are still risks, but for the vaccinated they are pretty minor. It’s fine to hang out with other fully vaccinated people. It’s fine to go traveling if you follow standard precautions.

She encouraged me to live life again, and I plan to starting on May 15. But even with one shot inside of me I am feeling less anxious. One of my major concerns now is whether I might be an asymptomatic carrier. Studies are underway to find out, but so far it looks promising. It’s likely that the Moderna vaccine I got will keep me from being an inadvertent virus spreader.

So hope is in the air. The United States did a wretched job of controlling the spread of covid-19, and in many states largely Republican governors are arguably pushing a fourth wave. But twenty percent of our country is now fully vaccinated – a remarkable number that few other countries can match. As I documented, getting the vaccine was a hassle but every day it’s becoming less of one. It’s likely that children will soon be eligible too. Soon it will only be the dogmatically stupid who won’t be protected from the virus.

We’re not quite making plans, but we are penciling stuff in. Last year my family decided to cancel a planned reunion at Acadia National Park in Maine in August. This year it is still off, mainly due to scheduling conflicts. Some of us hope to meet in the autumn, perhaps in Virginia’s Tidewater area where my sister has a house. My wife has plans to attend a convention in Las Vegas that same month if it looks like it will gel.

Many Americans are waiting for the other shoe to fall. It could be a covid-19 variant that triggers another round. The Pfizer vaccine looks like it will handle the emerging strains. It’s still  question on the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. But the good news is that vaccine manufacturers can quickly tune their vaccines to work with emerging variants. So there are likely to be booster vaccines to let us continue to live a more normal feeling life.

But the shoe could wait a year or two before dropping. While the vaccination campaign here in the United States seems largely successful, much of the rest of the world is still struggling to even acquire a vaccine, in some cases because the countries cannot afford it. The United States will have far more vaccine than it can use, so it should give it away. The Trump Administration’s contracts specifically disallowed this, but perhaps this can be reversed. It’s not entirely humanitarian to do so, because if new strains emerge and get large enough it could start what will feel like a Phase 2 of the pandemic. It’s in everyone’s interest to get everyone vaccinated if possible.

Life though is unlikely to return to what it was. Some aspects of our post-covid world will look a lot like they never left. There will probably be periods when we’ll be told to wear a mask. Going to the office may remain purely optional for many. Once businesses discover the cost savings of downsizing  their office space, others will have to follow to maintain their competitive edge too. Telework will probably become the default if it can be used. Reliable municipal networks will become the norm. Telework will bring other benefits: presumably more free time and less pollution from less commuting, and fewer people travelling to work.

For a year we’ve been forced to innovate. It was not usually fun and in some cases it was very stressful. But in some ways this adaption is good: we are fitting in better to a changing environment that we largely changed. Both we and nature may ultimately prosper from this yearlong game of musical chairs.

Buddy, can you spare some vaccine?

Basically, I’m waiting to be let out of home confinement.

Okay, I’m not actually confined. I can leave any time I want to, but do I want to? Yes I do, but practically I can’t. Going anywhere in the covid age entails risk, but a lot less risk if you are inoculated against the covid virus.

I’ve been in covid jail for about a year now. About once a week, sometimes more often, I hit a store. I generally go early to avoid crowds, and I’m not too proud to use senior hours if they are offered. And of course I wear a mask, which was not true a year ago when we didn’t understand that covid-19 is principally spread through respiratory droplets in the air. If weather permits though, I do make it a point to walk outside every day, and that helps a lot. I should keep the mask on all the time but the truth is I often take it off, and don it when I am within fifty feet of someone else. After all this time, I still don’t like breathing in my own warm air.

Like most Americans I’m sick of this, but unlike a lot of Americans I’m not stupid enough to ignore the perfectly sensible precautions like limiting my exposure to crowds, wearing a tight-fitting mask and not dining in restaurants. Naturally introverted, I tend to like my own company better than someone else’s. Online social networks generally let me feel connected. I still meet people, including neighbors, but it’s almost always in a Zoom call.

But I want out of jail. What’s making it frustrating is that a number of my siblings are getting or have been vaccinated. My daughter is in public safety (911 operator) and completed her Moderna shots in late January. She’s only 31. I’m more than twice her age but I am waiting and more than a little jealous when others seem to be able to get their shot somehow but I can’t.

I almost qualify as a senior citizen. I’d need to be 65 but I don’t hit that milestone until next year. Perhaps if I were unhealthier, I could get it. I’m sure I’m overweight, but hopefully not obese. Obesity is one of two factors that usually win you a shot. But you also need something else. My wife qualifies. I won’t name her two factors, but one of them is an underlying medical condition. So she’s been trying to get a shot, so far with no success.

Frankly, Massachusetts is making quite a mess out of vaccine deployment. Citizens of the commonwealth give our governor Charlie Baker decent marks for his handling of the vaccine’s rollout, but I don’t know why. I think he’s messing it up pretty badly. There’s a state website but no way to register for a shot on it, though they do provide links to some places that may offer the shot. You learn about shots mostly from friends and since you don’t meet them in person anymore, you learn about it from your online friends. By the time my wife tries, the few slots are gone. Out here in western Massachusetts, there are few mass vaccination places and you can’t count on any appointment you do snag on being fulfilled. The doses mysteriously stop coming from the federal government. CVS is starting to offer shots, but they open their system once a week and they fill up almost instantly.

This shouldn’t last much longer. There is a new Johnson & Johnson vaccine now available, and President Biden has talked another vaccine manufacturer into producing the J&J vaccine. He wants all Americans to be eligible by May 1. This sounds like a worthy goal, but as we’ve discovered so far being eligible doesn’t mean you can actually get a vaccine appointment.

I’m not picky. I’ll take any one that’s available. The J&J vaccine is getting a bad rap. It’s simpler, being once and done. It doesn’t require super cold refrigeration. It’s also newer, so likelier to work against the newer covid variants. You have a higher likelihood of getting the disease anyhow, but your symptoms will be milder. You won’t go to the hospital. No one has been killed from the vaccines.

While being generally introverted, I do miss occasional socializing. It’s true when walking I can nod or say a quick high to some stranger, but it’s not quite socialization, particularly when you are behind masks and generally all you can see of their features is their eyes. Aside from my wife, there is only one other person I can say I am socializing with: my hair stylist every six weeks. We both wear masks and she cleans up before and after. It’s not quite enough.

Pre-pandemic, the men on the hill where I live would go out for a monthly dinner. That ritual ended a year ago. I’m in a 55+ community but I’m one of the youngest people here. I’m guessing about half of us here on the hill have had at least one covid shot. But not me or the spouse. I may be the last one to get one as I don’t have the necessary preconditions and I’m too young. Yes, too young at age 64!

While we’ve remained alive and healthy, staying so has been a hassle, just less than it is for many. There are no kids whose online learning we need to micromanage. I consult and can meet with clients virtually, and I won’t pick up the covid from working upstairs.

But a lot of the things that I took joy in are gone. No going to see movies, not that there are a lot of new movies to see. No travel anywhere. We see our daughter generally at least once a year, although she is 400 miles away. She moved recently. She had to do this “adulting” (as she calls it) all by herself. We’d probably have otherwise been down there to help out.

So we’re all learning self-reliance, which should I think make Republicans happy, but instead it seems to drive them insane. Socializing in person with their kind seems to be critically important. Most seem impervious to the risks they are taking. About a quarter of Republicans won’t even bother to get a covid shot. If 530,000 deaths in our country haven’t convinced them of their vulnerability, nothing will.

Meanwhile, I wait and increasingly feel put out. Covid-19 will probably never go away completely, so it’s something I’m going to have to live with. But I can at least look forward to mask-less encounters with others who get their shots … if I can manage to get the shot.