God won’t save you from COVID-19, but science might

The Thinker by Rodin

Everyone’s feeling out of kilter these days. Most of us are feeling somewhat scared too.

It’s reasonable to expect that in the weeks ahead we will feel more scared, as the COVID-19 crisis gets much, much worse. When people we know, particularly family and celebrities, are felled by the disease we’re going to be looking for escape from this hell. For some it will be from a bottle of booze. For many perhaps it will come by praying to God that you or people you know will be spared.

There is nothing wrong with either prayer or meditation. Both have proven mental health benefits. It helps us feel connected to the larger world and helps many find solace in difficult times. Whether God saves you or not you’ll never know for sure, but science can probably save you, if you pay attention to what scientists and medical professionals are telling you to do and follow their advice. If God has a higher power at work, it’s the power of science.

What we are experiencing in 2020 is hardly new to mankind. Aside from the many wars mankind has endured over the years, natural disasters and pestilence have been periodic killers too. It’s been a while though since we’ve seen a pandemic, so it’s new and very frightening. In my 63 years, I don’t think we’ve had a proper pandemic here in the United States. Still, what we are going through now is hardly unplowed territory. Since the early 1980s we have been dealing with HIV and its AIDS disease. We’ve made progress but most of the progress has come through boring things like monogamy and practicing safe sex.

The religious among us seem to be in two camps on COVID-19. Some see it with the frame they gave to AIDS and HIV: God is punishing us for all our rampant sinning. Then there are others, like Jerry Falwell Jr., who swallowed the Republican KoolAid and reopened Liberty University after Spring Break. I’m guessing he figured his students were too godly to get COVID-19.

Falwell should be practicing penance at the moment, but if he’s not his students are. Some are likely to pay with their lives. For many younger people, catching the disease is no walk in the park. It will kill them. Heck, it killed the guy who first discovered the disease and tried to get the Chinese government to do something about it. Instead, he was punished. He was 29 years old.

I was on a cruise this month. Fortunately, no one was infected on the cruise. Two weeks later we show no signs of the disease, but while on the cruise we were meticulous about regularly washing our hands. The cruise line was meticulous about squirting our hands with sanitizer when we went to eat too. Before the cruise we spent a night at a Rodeway Inn in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Eating their free breakfast in the morning, someone on the P.A. system was saying the way to fight the disease was to stop listening to the liberal news media.

He should have listened. There’s no more cruising going in and out of Fort Lauderdale and won’t be for a long time. He’s probably one of much of the hotel staff that’s been laid off because of the disease, made much worse because their Republican governor Ron DeSantis put profits over public health, doing much to spread the disease as spring breakers brought it back home. Florida still lags other states in keeping its populace at home. Maybe he’s figuring that God will save them.

God’s not coming to his rescue. He didn’t come to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s rescue and he won’t be coming to your rescue either. I can say it’s because God doesn’t exist, which is likely, but I can’t prove it. What I can say is that with if God exists, its a removed and impersonal god, that shows no interest in your life in particular. It didn’t keep people from getting the plague either. Even back then though the smarter ones inferred that it had a lot to do with people being clustered closely together. Today, others like my friend Tom are using the same strategy: flee to the country and hope to ride it out there. You can also do what health care professionals are telling us to do. That’s what we’re doing.

It’s human to be scared by all of this. For most of us it will be one of the major events in our lives, and a shared world trauma. Some of us cope with stress better than others. Religion is supposed to give us ways of coping with this kind of stress in particular. If so, I don’t see much evidence that it’s working. Part of the stress of the religious is their cognitive dissonance. They know what their religion is telling them is crap, but they can’t admit it to themselves.

The successful people are going to acknowledge that it is crap and move on. This is not to say that religion is necessarily bad, but certain flavors of it can be quite toxic, and a lot of religious Americans are in this camp. Most are evangelicals. If we are at the first stages of Armageddon, it’s going to be sending many more of these Christians to early graves. Of course, a lot of us less religious folk will be felled by it too. But fewer of us will because we will largely heed the advice scientists like Dr. Fauci are giving us.

To me, following their advice is something of a balm because it’s likely to actually work. It may also be my nature, but although concerned I am markedly happier than most of the people around me. It comes not through choosing ignorance, but learning what works to keep from getting infected and then doing it scrupulously. I’ve learned there are ways to be less afraid of COVIID-19 and things you can still do an enjoy to give you pleasure and meaning.

Here’s some of what I’m doing. You might want to see if these strategies work for you too:

  • I stay mostly indoors
  • I keep surfaces I touch clean with appropriate disinfectants
  • When I go out shopping, I am careful. I bring sanitary wipes, stay calm, and keep a social distance. Since I am age 60+, I take advantage of special shopping hours for us more at-risk people.
  • I mostly succeed in not touching my face
  • Some face touching will happen anyhow. So I try to wash my face with soap and water once a day too. Keeping it clean means if I touch it I probably won’t get infected if I then touch my mouth or a mucus membrane.
  • I wash my hands periodically throughout the day, with soap and water, at least for twenty seconds, being very thorough to clean all surfaces
  • I try to get outside once a day and take a walk. Walking is quite safe if you maintain a social distance. There are parks and trails nearby. Seeing people makes me feel connected to them. The fresh air and sunshine feels good too. Hearing the birds and feeling wind on my face makes me feel alive.
  • When the weather permits, I open up the windows and enjoy the fresh air. There’s no coronavirus in the air unless someone coughs on you. Outdoor air is likely healthier than indoor air anyhow.
  • I keep busy doing stuff: consulting when it is available, indulge in my hobbies and try not to obsessively watch the news. Watching Star Trek Picard was a great distraction.
  • After going shopping, I wipe surfaces and things I touched, including groceries I brought in if possible. I leave stuff that’s not too perishable in the garage for a few days. And I wash my hands.
  • I count on layers of protection. The most likely way of acquiring the disease is from touching your face and then touching your mouth or nose. I keep both hands and face clean.
  • Realize this is not forever.
  • Chat with friends and family virtually. Be positive but realistic. Encourage them that by doing sensible things they are likely to be survivors.

In one way we are lucky: our finances won’t be stretched by this crisis, so that’s a huge relief. Most of you won’t be so lucky, but you will get some relief from the government. Hopefully it will let you ride the financial impacts for a while without feeling like you are in a financial crisis too.

By doing these things, you are also being virtuous. In addition to hopefully putting yourself in a healthier space, you are also helping society. You are helping to cut the transmission of the disease so others can survive it. You are making things less stressed for our overtaxed healthcare workers. Your actions may be boring, and make you feel lonely, but it’s vital. Staying at home helps not only you, but everyone.

Keep praying to God if that gives you comfort. We know what kills people now when pandemics occur. In the past, we didn’t know so we attributed it to the supernatural. Trust that God revealed science for a reason, and that it wants you to place your trust in our scientists. One to 3 percent of us who get the disease won’t survive it, but most of us will, but only if we stop doing the stupid stuff.

Stay safe and stay positive. This won’t last forever.

It’s time for a jubilee

The Thinker by Rodin

Seems like our world is going to hell in a corona basket.

I remember at the end of 2019 all my friends were saying they were never so glad to see a year end. 2019 was a miserable year. Now, most of us would prefer to be back to 2019. A recession that looks like it will become a depression and COVID-19, which may kill a million or more of us, seems like the beginning of the Armageddon that so many so-called Christians are looking forward to. Perhaps that’s why many of them were cheering Trump’s suggestion that everything go back to normal on Easter Sunday.

On that last point, I was going to make a blog post just on that, but I can’t possibly restate any better what so many others have already said about Trump’s unbelievable narcissism. Trump wants us to die so he can get reelected. The smart ones though are going to take a pass and will keep sheltering in place and obsessively washing hands and surfaces. I know we are. Evolution is not called “survival of the fittest” for nothing. For those happy to place emotion or devotion to an insane leader over rational behavior, well, you’ll be one of hundreds of thousands of candidates for the 2020 Darwin Awards. Clearly you weren’t reading my blog, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So rather than restate what so many others have already said, let me talk about something that isn’t being much talked about: the way our economy works appears to be crumbling. What do I mean by that? I mean the way we have been running an economy where the rich continue to get richer, the poor more desperate and in debt, and our government more dysfunctional is ripe. It’s not only not working, it’s not working badly for us. We are ripe for revolutionary changes. This upcoming depression (which it looks likely to be) should make us anxious for another New Deal.

It won’t look quite the same as the New Deal and hopefully any depression will be short lived. But our economy is loaded to the maximum with debt. Pretty much everyone, except the rich, holds it. That’s individuals and corporations, made possible by low interest rates since the Great Recession. The Federal Reserve’s recovery plan is to cut interest rates to zero or even lower, trying to coax us to take on even more debt. That’s because they don’t have any other tools to use. Trying to grow out of a depression based on taking on more debt that we already couldn’t afford doesn’t sound very sound to me. It feels desperate, as if we are desperately trying to keep the rules of our old sinking economy alive. The so-called $2T recovery bill signed into law today is an attempt to keep this hamster wheel turning.

I don’t think this will work. First, look how long it took us to emerge from the Great Recession. When we did emerge, our growth rate was always anemic. You’d be hard-pressed to find any quarter where our GDP increased by more than three percent annually. Our economy was like an overloaded subcompact running on three cylinders trying to merge onto the Interstate. It took a long time to get up to highway speeds. And while we technically recovered, we never really felt we recovered because we never fundamentally solved the problems that got us into it in the first place. The half-hearted attempts by Democrats in 2009 and 2010 were not nearly enough.

In fact, we went back and made the same stupid mistakes all over again, such as getting rid of much of Dodd-Frank banking regulation that was supposed to prevent it from happening again. The fundamentals of our recovering economy were never sound, but were propped up by low interest rates which had the side effect of causing markets to rise. Companies used cheap credit to buy back their own stocks, inflating their stock prices to surreal levels. The bubble would have burst anyhow; the coronavirus thing just made the hole gaping instead of possibly manageable.

What would really make the economy roar back when this pandemic is contained is a big haircut to a lot of creditors. Because an economy can’t roar back if overleveraged people have no cash to buy stuff. What we really need is a jubilee. This is where we force creditors to wipe their debt slates clean.

Take, for example, student loans. Last I checked, there were about a trillion dollars in outstanding student loans, owed by people the least able to pay them back. Desperate for an education instead of flipping burgers for forty years, they didn’t have much choice but to pay usury interest rates for educations whose costs were vastly inflated. Let’s declare all that debt insolvent. The creditors will scream, but a lot of people will have money to spend again on things that matter like food and housing.

It could be done for lots of debts. Write off, say, 25% of mortgage debt on housing purchased for up to $500,000. Wipe out 50% of credit card debt. If you want to encourage thrift, revert the debt if more is incurred over the next five years.

And tax the rich. They’ve been bleeding the rest of us dry for too long, in the process allowing infrastructure and services to degrade. Institute Elizabeth Warren’s proposed 2% wealth tax. Raise rates just to where there were for rich households during the Reagan Administration. Tax dividends the same as ordinary income, or higher. Make work pay again.

Then do what we all know we need to do: make Medicare available to all. Much household debt and personal bankruptcies are due to medical costs that are out of control. Controlling medical costs frees up all sorts of money for more productive use. Institute living wages for everyone with annual increases that keep pace with inflation. Overturn right to work laws.

This is probably beyond a President Biden. But without it, I suspect a President Biden will discover what President Obama discovered: the system will work in counterproductive ways against the needs of the people instead.

Our election, if it can be held fairly, will likely put Democrats in control of government plus give them the margins needed to make real change happen. The question is whether Democrats have learned their lesson, and can institute the changes we need to make the economy work for everyone again.

If not, election 2022 will look a lot like Election 2010, and the crazy cycle will continue to repeat and move us into second world status.

The wizards of Wall Street are no wizards

The Thinker by Rodin

During our recent cruise, we at least got grainy MSNBC satellite TV. When I watched it, I watched the stock market yo-yo back and forth pretty much every day: the DJIA down a thousand one day, and it would often recover it the next day. The general trend though was down, a lot.

In a way, it was good to be on one of the last cruises because I was mostly insulated from this madness unless I sought it out. (Our cruise turned out fine. No passengers developed COVID-19 symptoms, but berthing in Fort Lauderdale we learned that the half dozen ships in port weren’t going anywhere for a month. I felt sorry for the staff, many of who were likely facing unemployment and a one-way ticket home.)

Today though takes the cake, with the DJIA having its worst day since the crash of 1987, down more than 3000 points in just one day. It all feels so predictable by now. I’m just wondering why the wizards of Wall Street are so late to this party. All the signs were there for those with clear eyes. I’m no Wall Street wizard, but I saw it coming. And I took some steps before the crash to mitigate our risk.

Today’s crash was because Wall Street suddenly discovered that the Federal Reserve had essentially used up all its ammunition, which means in effect that there is no steady hand on our financial system anymore. On Sunday, it dropped the Federal Funds Rate to 0%. Soon predictably it will probably go negative, charging banks to temporarily give them money to insulate them from even graver financial calamity. It probably won’t calm markets.

These same wizards of course were cheering companies that bought back their own stock with borrowed money. It gave the market a sugar rush and made stock prices worth way more than they were actually worth. Now many of these same companies, in debt to the max, are discovering the downside: they don’t have a whole lot of liquidity to ride out an economic downturn. In short, expect a lot of these companies, including some of the biggest of the blue chips, to go into bankruptcy.

The coronavirus is going to cause a recession, if not a depression. The virus though is just the trigger that revealed the larger problem, which has been sinking markets. Margins are gone. Businesses are in hoc up to their eyeballs, as are most consumers. Layoffs have already started and are inevitable. When public gatherings of fifty or more are not allowed, restaurants and many public-facing businesses like theaters close down for the interim. This takes money out of the economy and with predictable results. People living on the margins won’t be able to pay rent, or afford to see a doctor, and there are plenty of them thanks to a gig economy that Wall Street just loved but which added immensely to our overall financial fragility.

Stock market declines show that people are sobering up. Donald Trump of course is making things much, much worse by his lack of leadership and counterproductive strategies. He’s also making it worse for himself by continuing to shake hands with people. Most of his supporters still haven’t figured out what a fraud the guy is and are doing really stupid stuff like licking toilet seats to “prove” coronavirus is a myth. Sadly, it is likely that in a few weeks they need to only go to their local hospital’s morgue to see how wrong they are, if they are not victims themselves.

Children are out of school, day care centers will probably just pass on the virus, so parents predictably will stay home with their kids and fret. For many of them, this will collapse their house of cards. Social distancing should help reduce the number of cases, but it’s likely that there will be far more patients in need of critical care than our hospitals can handle. Our wonderful private health care system will prove unable to handle the coming crush of cases, which will kill lots of people needlessly as well as probably feed a mostly downward economic spiral.

It’s Republican government that will prove bankrupt once again, as it did in 2008, in 1987 and of course during the Great Depression. We never learn. The fall in the stock market proves these stocks were wildly overvalued and did not factor in the risks that are now obviously manifest. Having come off a cruise ship on Saturday and now home, I got to experience it first hand at our local supermarket where the meat counter and frozen food aisles were mostly empty. So far people seem to be soldiering on, but there is the pervasive undercurrent of social disorder. Things could get ugly not just medically, but civilly. We may be seeing the partial collapse of civilized behavior.

So we’re doing what we did before: hunkering down. We can’t count on our medical establishment, so we have to look out for ourselves. We wash our hands regularly. We take calculated risks going to the store. We wipe surfaces. We reflexively do social distancing. We also try to handle things soberly, mindful of the risks but realizing that we’ll likely survive this; it’s not really the big one. Lots of people won’t though, mostly the elderly and infirmed, and we are approaching our elderly years.

We can’t stop all pandemics and likely we could not stop this one either. But it could have been managed much better. Similarly, the collapse on Wall Street was entirely predictable. We just chose not to keep in place the regulations we needed to cushion this fall. And in search of short-term profits we refused to provide sick leave for workers, raise wages, invest in our public health or do the sensible stuff that government is supposed to do. It’s all so pointless and unnecessary.

We can control only what we can control. We can hunker down. Our pensions should provide a steady income in good times and bad. Moving to bonds at peak market insulated our losses. We are fortunate. We will also likely thrive in this challenging time because we didn’t do the stupid stuff. Unlike Wall Street, we acted logically as best we could best on a sober assessment of the world as it actually is. It was smart of us to do it, but it didn’t have to be this way for the rest of us. As a society we chose to ignore the obvious risks right in front of us.

Expect a recession

The Thinker by Rodin

A recession is coming. It’s probably already here; we just can’t prove it yet.

The trigger was the emergence of the coronavirus and the resulting COVID-19 disease in late 2019 in China, but if it hadn’t happened it would have likely happened later in the year anyhow. As predicted it’s spreading all over the globe. People are already starting to hunker down. In some places it’s getting hard to find bottled water, toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

This is an overreaction. You don’t need bottled water unless the public water supply system goes out, which it won’t. And even if somehow the water is unclean, you can boil it. Fear of course makes people overly cautious, but it’s currently way overblown. It’s the fear that is driving down the stock market and making people buy too much toilet paper.

The world economy is now built on specialization and trade, so when China’s manufacturing sector takes an indefinite hit, it’s going to have large worldwide ripples. It’s already happening, but if you need proof you just have to look at Chinese ports, where little is going out or coming in. When items like rolled sheet metal don’t make it to manufacturing markets, value-added products can’t get produced. That will cause layoffs. But fear in general will cause people to be cautious with their money. The Fed can cut its discount rate by half a percent, but it won’t do much to solve the underlying problem.

Coronavirus was perhaps half the reason I sold twenty percent of my stocks and moved them into bonds on February 14, at just about peak market. Even then, it wasn’t too hard to see how this was likely to go. With the wholly inept response by the Trump Administration, it was clear that an intelligent response to the health crisis wasn’t going to be forthcoming. We could have been much better prepared than we were, but instead Trump cut the Center for Disease Control’s budget. Voters won’t forgive incompetence when it kills their family, friends and neighbors.

It’s also becoming clearer that this virus will not only put us into recession but turn into a pandemic. It’s pretty much there already. It’s not hard to catch and there is no vaccine available. Potentially 40-70% of us could contract it. For most of us, a bout of the flu will be much worse, but since it will spread so easily and has about a two percent mortality rate, it’s going to take a lot of lives.

There are 330 million Americans. It’s realistic that 10% of us will contract the virus this year, and there may be more next year. At a two percent mortality rate, it’s likely to kill about 660,000 of us this year, principally the aged and infirmed. This is just a ballpark figure, but it’s likely to be the biggest public health crisis since the 1918 Spanish Flu. I live in a 55+ community, with most of my neighbors probably 75+. If it gets me, it’s unlikely to kill me, but it’s likely to kill a few of my neighbors. Most neighborhoods will see at least a few casualties from this virus.

So of course we are going on a cruise. It’s hard to get out of as it’s paid for, but the cruise line won’t let in people cruise who fail a health check or who have traveled through certain countries recently. It’s unlikely to affect our cruise beyond perhaps being denied ports of call. But it’s still worrisome. 660 people on the cruise ship Diamond Princess out of Japan contracted the virus and 7 died, in part because Japan wouldn’t let them off the ship into proper quarantine facilities.

I’m not panicking. Prevention is mostly being vigilant, which means washing hands frequently. Still, cruise ships are great places to pass it on, as the Diamond Princess learned, because of the centralized air conditioning which can push the virus through the whole ship. In general, being in close quarters is not a good idea, and you can’t avoid that on a cruise ship.

Speaking of which, the travel industry will slump. Actually, it will go into a depression. And that will affect a large supply chain of its own, which will feed a downward economic spiral.

What can you do? Don’t overreact, but also take sensible precautions. Wash your hands regularly, particularly after touching foreign surfaces, with soap, for 20 seconds or more. A vaccine is probably at least a year away. This means you could easily get the virus anyhow, just realize that it probably won’t kill you, but it will be widespread.

With luck you can avoid it until there is a vaccine, but even when it’s available it will go to the elderly and infirmed first. One in 50 odds of dying is very good odds. Unfortunately, the way our society is ordered will make it worse here. So many workers have no sick leave, so they will come to work and spread it further. It’s the downside of a gig economy and our poor labor standards. Those who can will work from home. Those who can’t will bear much of the risk and be the principle carriers.

It also probably means that Trump will be a one-term president. He is managing this as ineptly as we feared. It won’t take too many MAGAers to die before their friends notice. It will help people put their prejudices aside and force them to understand the value of science again. At least I hope it will. It should.

Bernie Sanders is not nearly as socialist as some past presidents

The Thinker by Rodin

Campaign season involves a lot of predictable hand wringing. And so the hang wringing has started in earnest this year as Democrats decide who will be their presidential candidate.

Democratic Party leaders are starting to discover, as Republican Party leaders did in 2016, that the base is likely to reject anyone from their list of approved candidates. That’s because it’s looking more and more that Bernie Sanders will be that nominee.

Sanders they say is a fair weather Democrat, but so what? So was Donald Trump, who often claimed to be a Democrat. So is new “Democrat” Mike Bloomberg who famously ran New York City as its Republican mayor for eleven years.

It’s not hard to become either a Democrat or a Republican. Generally, it just involves going to your voter registration office and filing a form. There is no central party committee that gets to choose whether you are a real Democrat or Republican and if not reject your application. Both Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg are using this fact to advance their candidacies. I suspect that Democratic Party leaders are doing a whole lot less hand wringing over Mike Bloomberg’s candidacy than Bernie Sanders’s. Bloomberg’s candidacy is a long shot, so expect that after he loses the nomination that he’ll become a fair weather Republican again when it suits him. If Bernie Sanders loses either the nomination or the election, he’ll likely go back to being an independent from Vermont, just as he did after the 2016 race.

If enough Democrats joined the Republican Party just to change it, the Republican Party, as we know it now, would cease to be. Those Republicans would probably form another party. Our party structure is by design big tent. A party is nothing more than a coalition, which can be often fractured, assembled for the purpose of trying to acquire and maintain political power.

Anyhow, Democratic Party insiders are upset because they don’t see Sanders as a true Democrat, as if Bloomberg is one too. They fear his label of being a Democratic Socialist will guarantee his election loss because it will suppress turnout among “mainstream” Democrats or maybe prod these Democrats to vote to reelect Donald Trump. In head-to-head matchups against Trump, Sanders does as well as any of the candidates, currently winning by about ten percentage points. Obviously we are a long way from November 3, and this will likely change as Trump and Republicans refine their attacks. But rest assured regardless of whom Democrats nominate, they would do this. Republicans won’t sit on the sidelines.

The hand wringing is rather strange because if Sanders wins the presidency, he would by no means be our most socialist president. That would be Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who lived a privileged, upper class life, but who started all sorts of public works programs and instituted the social security system. He won four terms of office by standing up for the people. By current thinking, Texan Lyndon Banes Johnson would be a damned socialist too. Johnson definitely had some faults, but he got civil rights and voting rights bill passed, and started a war on poverty that allowed many to live better lives. He also proposed and got Medicare enacted, which set up a health care system for seniors. The most radical thing Bernie is proposing is taking our existing Medicare system and expanding it to the rest of us because, well, it works great! Ask any senior if they are dissatisfied with it. We’ve even had a socialist Republican president: Theodore Roosevelt, who busted up large corporations, greatly expanded our national park system and pushed through the Pure Food and Drugs Act, that ensured our food was clean and safe.

Democratic leaders have turned into nervous nellies because Republicans succeeded in shifting the Overton Window. Republicans convinced many Americans that government is bad, and private industry is good. That led to a collapsed safety net and income going disproportionately to the rich.

It’s likely that a Sanders candidacy would not be necessary had not these failings of our system gotten so severe. There should be nothing radical about not having to worry about being able to afford the health care you need. It’s being done by all the other first world nations, just not here. The inflated cost of our medical system is bankrupting us and exacerbating income inequality. Sanders is just one of the few candidates running for president ballsy enough to say out loud what the rest of us already know.

Taking Medicare for seniors and making it Medicare for All is not radical; it’s an evolution of a system that has already proven very effective, but only for those who reach a certain age. With a system that contains health care costs, we can use this money for other things, like maybe real wage increases for those of us who rarely seem to get it. I would think some Republicans could be persuaded to vote for Sanders for just this reason: who doesn’t like having more money to spend as they choose?

So much of our government is broken because moneyed interests, instead of the people, are in control. It’s a corporate-ocracy right now and it’s going to stay that way until we change things. The Democratic Party leadership’s response seems to be to make the giant sitting on your chest go on a diet, rather than wrestling him off your chest.

Barack Obama famously won on a campaign of hope. But famously he didn’t deliver much. We did get the Affordable Care Act out of it, and it was certainly better than nothing, but it too didn’t get it right. It was a response to fit our need into our corporate controlled government, and it was enacted only by the slimmest of margins. Government isn’t governing very well, so we need someone who will fight for the rest of us.

Mind you that if Sanders does become president, his task to make government work again won’t be easy. Minimally he will need a Democratic Senate and senators would have to agree to drop filibuster rules. Both are problematic in 2020. And even if this is achieved, progress is likely to be minimal, and courts would block a lot of his agenda. So his election would be the start of a longer campaign to truly make us a government of the people again.

But you got to start sometime and you use the vehicle that you got. If Sanders is that vehicle, I’m in. I’ll likely be voting for Elizabeth Warren instead, but that’s only because I believe she would be wilier at enacting a true progressive agenda. Both she and Sanders though want big, structural changes to government.

It’s as obvious to me as the nose on my face that that’s exactly what we need. Trump was elected on this promise too, but obviously failed to deliver. At least we know what Bernie Sanders stands for because he’s been consistent his entire life. So I’ll be most comfortable with him or Warren as the Democratic candidate and our president. We need someone in the White House that is truly one of us. Trump isn’t, and never has been.

Trump is likely a drug addict

The Thinker by Rodin

Trump’s presidency is going to be one for the record books, just not in a good way. I can’t wait for all the tell-all books that come out after he leaves office, once he is officially neutered. But I can already tell you what a lot of them are going to say because we already know the gist of them in our guts. At this point, not even his supporters would disagree that he is thoroughly corrupt and self-dealing; they just don’t care.

But it case you haven’t guessed it, Trump is probably a drug addict too. We don’t know exactly what he’s addicted to, but we have some pretty good guesses. We also know what he is not addicted to: alcohol. Trump is a famous teetotaler. He reportedly drinks up to twelve Diet Cokes a day. Caffeine is legal, so you can’t jail him for this kind of Coke abuse, but it in part explains his minimal sleeping. It’s unlikely he is shooting heroin, but it’s pretty clear he is snorting Adderall and maybe meth too.

This has been the buzz for sometime, but in my mind is went from possible to probable after watching this Thom Hartmann clip:

In the clip, Hartmann plays part of an interview with CJAD (Canadian radio station). The host interviews Noel Casler, a comedian. He attended parties with Trump in the 90s and worked with him on Celebrity Apprentice. Casler says that Trump snorted cocaine at these events, used meth, and got his stash from local drug dealers. He used Adderall as a kind of low grade high most of the time. (An article is here.) On set, the powder was frequently seen coming out of his nose, and he got through a lot of takes with the help of off camera cue cards. If we need more witnesses, we just need to talk to others at these parties or on the show. It sounds like plenty could confirm them.

Hartmann then discusses with his guest, Dr. Justin A. Frank, some of the symptoms of Adderall abuse, and boy, it sure sounds like Trump has them all. Other things could cause them, but it definitely flunks the Occam’s Razor test. Trump barely sleeps, tweets at 3 AM, seems to act impulsively most of the time and has almost no attention span. These are symptoms frequently seen with Adderall abuse.

It would also explain his sniffing. Last October, David Pakman did a similar story on Trump’s likely Sudafed (pseudoephedrine) abuse. In this case, you can clearly see the Sudafed in a drawer during a campaign when Trump was promoting eating Mexican by, er, eating from a taco bowl made in Trump Tower. It explains his constantly dilated eyes, but if it’s to control his sniffing, it’s not working too well. I’d recommend an antihistamine, but I suspect it’s the Adderall that’s the root of the sniffing.

Which also means that someone is giving Trump drugs. It might be the White House physician, but it’s unlikely. Much more likely is that it’s some drug supplier he’s been using for years. As for Sudafed, it’s a controlled substance too, as you may have discovered if you tried to buy some at the drug store. It’s generic, but it’s behind the counter and at least in my state they will record your purchase and write down your driver’s license number. The information goes to the DEA. Large quantities of Sudafed can be used to make methamphetamine. Maybe instead of taking Sudafed to open his sinuses, Trump’s got his own little meth lab somewhere in the White House.

Most of his supporters probably don’t believe these stories, but it looks like they could be easily corroborated, at least as something he used to do. Or if the 25th Amendment were actually viable, Pence would suspend his presidency until he clears a drug test, and threaten to invoke it again if he ever failed a drug test. Maybe he should get a weekly checkup from a neutral physician just so we can rest easier that it’s not the drugs doing Trump’s decision making. But anyhow, his supporters will probably be okay with his drug abuse too. It seems there is no behavior of his they won’t excuse.

That’s why the tell-all books are going to be fascinating reading. It’s mostly Trump’s bullying that have kept most of these books from coming out. His bullying is a real threat, and there are plenty of his supporters unhinged enough to threaten those who tell the truth about him. As I noted, he’s already doing this with Nancy Pelosi, Adam Schiff and Mitt Romney. So most will choose to wait until it is safe to publish. I bet there are many first drafts in the works.

In a normal society, when all this comes out it should kill the Republican Party. I believed years ago that Trump would end up killing the party, as he thoroughly corrupted it. But it was largely corrupt before he became its head. Before Trump though there were red lines that Republicans would not cross. It’s never been deficits, but in the past behaviors like drug abuse and infidelity have been red lines. No more. The only way to get kicked out of the Republican Party is not being a Trump toady. Ask Justin Amash.

It remains to be seen if the rest of American is as sick as Trump and the Republican Party. We’ll know on November 3.

Our constitutional crisis has arrived

The Thinker by Rodin

With the Senate’s “exoneration” of Donald Trump last week, and his subsequent but wholly predictable reaction to it, our constitutional crisis has now formally arrived.

I’ve been warning about it for years, twice in 2016 alone, but it’s now here. Unfortunately, there is no knight in shining armor to save us. Turmoil and a likely tainted election are ahead, with a good chance that Trump will try a constitutional coup before then.

You can see it in his increasingly unhinged tweets. He’s been posting over a hundred of these a day lately, but now that he feels he can govern with impunity, he’s off on a rampage. His rampage is likely to get much, much worse because we know what happens with narcissists with power. Arguably he’s got more power than any narcissist since Adolf Hitler. Like Richard Nixon, he’s got his enemies list, but unlike Richard Nixon he’s knows he can get away with pretty much anything now. In Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre, Nixon got next in line Robert Bork to fire the special prosecutor investigating him, after his attorney general and deputy attorney general wouldn’t do as ordered, and resigned. Robert Bork, who later went up for an ill-fated Supreme Court seat, had no such scruples.

Trump already has his cabinet of sycophants, so he’s taking it out on those who testified against him. His Friday Night Massacre removed Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and his European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland for testifying truthfully. Also gone, just out of spite, is Vindman’s brother and identical twin Yevgeny, who also happened to work in the White House.

This is likely just the start. An enraged Trump has a whole host of other targets including Mitt Romney who had the audacity to vote to convict him on one charge, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressman Adam Schiff. Moreover, he’s been combing government looking for ways to make others pay. All New Yorkers on the TSA’s Trusted Travelers program are being punished because its legislature made it a sanctuary state; they can’t use it. But that’s not all. Exports of New York titled vehicles have been put on hold until further notice.

Schiff’s life has been threatened. Threats are reported against Mitt Romney, who at least is independently wealthy to ensure his own safety is uncompromised. Doubtless Nancy Pelosi is getting threats too. This is probably not new for her, but the number of them is likely increasing. Trump is determined to make as many people hurt as possible for his mental illness.

With all but one Republican dutifully voting to acquit the president, the Senate obviously won’t hold him accountable should the House impeach Trump again. The election is supposed to straighten this all out, even though it will be an even more unfair and tilted election than the 2016 election. Meanwhile, Attorney General Bill Barr says he has to approve all political investigations now and is setting up a channel for wholly discredited “evidence” “uncovered” by Rudy Guiliani against Joe and Hunter Biden to be considered for prosecution.

All this is because no one can tell Trump that he is wearing no clothes. With the possible exception of Mitt Romney, there’s not one Republican in Congress who’s got the balls to stand up to Trump. Oh, and by the way, lots of Republicans, including Donald Trump Jr., want to kick Romney out of the Republican Party. At least one member of the Utah legislature wants the legislature to censure him for his vote, even though it doesn’t have the power. Like Donald Trump, this Utah legislator doesn’t seem inclined to let law get in the way.

All this amounts to a huge rage by Trump but also from all those who support him. Trump has not only proven that he has a raging case of malignant narcissism, but his supporters have one as well. Evidence does not matter in the least. The Senate will let Trump do what he wants. Bill Barr has forced the Justice Department to stop applying impartial justice. And our conservative leaning Supreme Court seems content to stand on the sidelines.

I expect Trump to keep pushing the envelope. When he discovers that no one will hold him accountable, he will keep upping the ante. It will get worse and worse; mark my words. Losing the election is his only fear. If he loses power, he can be held accountable for his crimes and he cannot let that happen. So if it comes to it, he will make sure the election system is corrupted, or Americans he doesn’t like simply don’t get to vote. Or institute some sort of coup, if he can get the military to do it. I can see him shutting down the Capitol.

Our constitutional system of checks and balances has been shredded. Republicans have proven that they will put party over country and simply don’t care that in doing so we are no longer a representative government. Which doesn’t leave a lot of hope.

Mass protests will do little; Trump and Republicans have proven inured to them already. A huge economic downturn might help, but I hate to root for that. Change tends to happen only during times of great pain.

What I really hope for is that white knight. House Democrats have largely done all they can do. Mitt Romney though could go the extra mile. He could say the emperor has no clothes: that Donald Trump is very mentally ill, he is destroying our constitutional system of government, and his mental health should be assessed by a panel of nonpartisan physicians. It probably wouldn’t change anything, but it’s what I’m hoping for at the moment.

In truth, this black time is turning obsidian. Only Trump getting a sudden deadly stroke might change this around. From his crazy, rage-filled days spent tweeting about his enemies, who knows? His blood pressure must be sky high. It may be closer than we think.

I’m not a praying man, but it’s time for me to pray … fervently.

Opening Pandora’s box

The Thinker by Rodin

The U.S. Constitution was ratified in 1789. After the constitutional convention, Benjamin Franklin was asked what sort of government we were going to get. He famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

Next Wednesday may be the end of our republic. That’s when the U.S. Senate is likely to acquit Donald Trump. The U.S. Senate is basically enshrining Richard Nixon’s assertion that if the president does it, it’s not illegal. Richard Nixon’s corpse would be smiling, if that were possible.

It will be an entirely predictable end to a trial in which no one seriously disagrees the president committed impeachable crimes, including the president’s lawyers. They just say that he has immunity from them. Republican senators seem to agree, setting the precedent that the president is above the law, or above any meaningful check by Congress. Senators can’t even be bothered to call witnesses. Many of them, rather than listening to the testimony presented, were caught reading books and doing crosswords instead.

So after his “exoneration”, it’s likely that if Trump wanted to arrest dissidents and deny them the right of a jury trial, he could get away with it. Because even if impeached again, the Senate won’t throw him out of office for offenses like this. There’s really nothing Trump won’t be able to get away with after Wednesday, and given his temperament you know he’s going to try. It’s likely to make all Republicans except the Never Trumpers giddy. It’s what they have been hoping for all along.

Oh, but there’s an election coming up! Voters will rectify things! Things aren’t so bleak after all! Since Trump’s election, Democrats have been on the upswing, winning the House, winning seats in the Senate and turning Virginia blue. But even if all of this happens, the precedent is now set. Congress has essentially voluntarily ceded power, allowing the Executive to become even more powerful, and itself more irrelevant. The script has now been tried and tested. Whether Republican or Democrat, the president can now simply refuses to respond to any congressional subpoenas. Unless two-thirds of the Senate agree to remove him from office, he or she has carte blanc.

A fair election in 2020 is problematic. There is the usual voter suppression and gerrymandering, which will be dialed up to 11 for November 3. The U.S. Senate is fine if other countries want to hack our election system or set up disinformation campaigns, even though it is explicitly against U.S. law. The U.S. Senate has effectively nullified lots of laws like this by simply refusing to hold accountable those charged with enforcing them. In short, the law means nothing to our senators, unless it can be used against their political enemies. Law is now meant to be applied selectively, and as a political weapon. Trump has an attorney general who agrees and who now states this as policy.

We are in a huge mess because our senators refused to do their job. Our system of checks and balances has proven able to be hacked. Our founders assumed that institutional forces would make these forces work. They did not want political parties, but we created them anyhow. As a consequence, 231 years later this system has proven fatally flawed.

The only chance of rectifying this is if Democrats win the trifecta in November: turning both houses of Congress and the executive blue. And even then there are institutional forces that make returning to a real republic problematic at best.

We can start with Donald Trump who you know will claim the election is rigged if he loses and will refuse to vacate the White House. Most likely he will see if he can affect a military coup to retain his hold on power. After all, if the election he is trying to rig goes against him, it must be illegitimate. Then it will be up to our military to resist the urge. I’d like to say I have faith they will resist, but we live in extraordinary times.

But even if Trump loses and goes, even if Democrats win a trifecta, there is a court system now full of cronies of Trump and Republicans designed to thwart any progress. You know the courts will find a reason to overturn the Affordable Care Act. Any universal health care plan that a President Sanders wants to put in place will be judged unconstitutional as well. A likely recession will weigh against a Democratic president and a Democratic congress, as the 2010 election showed.

Then there are the hosts of other issues that need addressing, with climate change at the top of the list. But since our constitution is now broken, it must be fixed too. That will require constitutional amendments that will be very hard to ratify. To start, the system of checks and balances needs to be changed. The impeachment and conviction process for presidents needs to change. The Justice Department must by statute and funding be under the supervision of the courts, not the executive.

It’s enough to make anyone despair. We cannot despair. Instead, we must get busy. We must reclaim our republic. Freedom is not free, and democracy is not free. We must fight for its return, with our blood if necessary.

A soaring stock market means little

The Thinker by Rodin

Donald Trump is hoping to win reelection based on the soaring stock market.

Good luck with that. A soaring stock market doesn’t hurt, but these days a soaring stock market amounts to more evidence that more income is being redistributed toward the wealthy. Why is that? It’s because you have to be relatively wealthy to own stocks in the first place.

To the extent most of us own stocks, it’s probably through mutual funds we own as part of a 401-K and/or IRA. We do this because these investments are typically tax-advantaged. Unless you choose a Roth IRA, you defer taxes on the gains of these funds until retirement, plus these investments are typically pre-tax dollars, meaning you subtract the cost of buying these funds from your adjusted gross income, which means you pay less tax.

The bottom line, according to a 2016 study by NYU economist Edward N. Wolff is that the richest 10% of households control 84% of the total value of stocks. About half of U.S household own some stocks, generally through retirement funds. The other half doesn’t own any stocks.

When markets rise, wealth rises proportionately toward those who own them. Since about half of households don’t own any stocks, there is no stock appreciation to reap, so the rich simply get richer, increasing income inequality.

Our household is definitely not in the top 10% but we do hold onto a lot of retirement assets, principally in bonds and mutual funds. Markets are up about twenty percent this year, but the rise is not as big as it looks. As you may recall, in December 2018 markets gave up their gains for the year, effectively making 2018 a wash on the stock market. Over two years then stocks have gained about ten percent annually, which is definitely good but by no means amazing. Stock market gains during Trump’s tenure so far do not equal Obama’s. Of course, in Obama’s case there was no way for them to go but up, as stocks were severely underpriced after the Great Recession.

People who don’t own stocks mostly don’t own them because they can’t afford to own them. Their money is going toward more important priorities: keeping a roof over their head and food, most likely. Rental costs generally exceed inflation, and food usually does as well. So they are being stretched more. Lower income people aren’t stupid. If they could afford life’s basic necessities, they probably would be investing in the stock markets. It’s simply not an option for them.

As we learned, investing takes perseverance. If you want to fully reap the market’s gains, you have to keep at it persistently, relentlessly, in good times and bad. As a federal employee, I rarely missed a paycheck. When I did, it was because the government was shut down. I never lost money when the government was shut down. Plus, I earned enough money to allow us to invest.

And that’s pretty much how we built wealth: through steady paychecks and doggedness. As I noted, we profited from the Great Recession. In retrospect, this was the biggest factor between retiring okay and retiring comfortably. We bought a lot of mutual funds when they were priced artificially low and kept them while market values increased. I’ve done the math. Were it not for the Great Recession, I expect that our investment portfolio would now be worth about 25% less than it is.

While many of my friends have and continue to struggle with this economy, today’s economy feels to me like an unearned gift. While hardly in the top 1%, I sometimes feel like we should pay a wealth tax too. A lot of our gains seem unnatural and surreal.

This increase in wealth is having me rethink how I want to use it. It still doesn’t mean I will buy a bigger house, a fancier car or a second home somewhere. It’s not quite that large. But as someone nearly age 63 with hopefully twenty-five more good years ahead of him, it does expand the possibilities.

For example, a year ago we were visiting Ecuador and the Galapagos. It was not a cheap vacation. The two weeks cost us at least $15,000, probably closer to $20,000 when you add in all the airfare and extras. It was amazing and incredible but we probably wouldn’t have done it without all this unexpected extra wealth. And it didn’t impact our bottom line at all. It seemed surreal.

Consequently, we are setting our sites further. We could have afforded two Hawaiian vacations for what we spent in Ecuador and the Galapagos. Now we are thinking: why not sail the South Seas? I hesitate to be away from home for too long, as we have two cats. But when they are gone, why not take a round-the-world cruise? Why not a month long train tour around Australia?

But if I were one of those in the fifty percent of households without any stocks, I’d feel resentful. They might want to visit the Galapagos too, or at least Hawaii, but it’s probably not an option. I would feel, rightly, like my pocket had been picked. That’s because it has. Their productivity has been swept up and placed in my pocket instead, but much more disproportionately into the pockets of the very wealthy who can’t begin to spend all of this new wealth. The difference is that I think I can use it to make the rest of my life much more meaningful. Rest assured a fair amount of it is going to help others too, roughly $400 a month or so.

To change this, we need that political revolution that Bernie Sanders keeps talking about. This comfortable retiree will be voting to bring it about.

Trump is bumbling his way toward getting us out of the Middle East

The Thinker by Rodin

Most of us were grinding teeth this week. After our country assassinated a general in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, we waited for the inevitable military response from Iran.

Shortly after Iran’s bombs hit two bases in Iraq where our soldiers were stationed, my Facebook page lit up with friends saying we were beginning war with Iran, or maybe even starting World War III.

In general, no one plans to start a world war. Certainly no one expected one after Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in 1914. Our political assassination of General Qasem Soleimani was more or less its equivalent.

We may still get one, but I noted on Facebook that Trump really listens to Fox News, and Tucker Carlson was against going to war with Iran. So ironically, we may have Tucker Carlson to thank for this not escalating this further, at least for the moment. But also, Iran showed more sanity in its response than we did when we killed its general, deliberately targeting its missiles at places on these bases away from American soldiers.

The strange thing is, the more saber rattling we do, the more effectively we push ourselves out of the Middle East. The Iraqi government’s response to our assassination on its soil is to send us packing. At the moment, the Trump administration is playing tone deaf. In reality, our 2003 war in Iraq has brought nothing but misery for the Iraqi people. As bad as Saddam Hussein was, they’d have been much better off had he stayed in power. Most likely most the 200,000 or so Iraqis that subsequently died would still be around, and their infrastructure wouldn’t have collapsed. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard probably would not be in the country. ISIL probably would not have arisen because there would have been no power vacuum. And of course thousands of our soldiers would not have died and we could have spent trillions of dollars on something else, probably more tax cuts for the rich.

Effectively, we made it easier for Iran’s paramilitary forces, not to mention its Revolutionary Guard (an official part of Iran’s government), to extend their influences west and south. This caused even more conflict, principally in Syria and Yemen, but also in places like Lebanon. For the real war in the Middle East is Sunni vs. Shia. Thanks to us, it looks like the Shia now largely control Iraq.

In a way this is good. Those who attacked us on 9/11 were not Shia, but Sunni-aligned. Ironically, the very nation that supplied almost all of the terrorists that caused 9/11 (Saudi Arabia) is now the getting more U.S troops so they can create more future Osama bin Ladens. So, effectively, Iran is winning a lot of ground in the Middle East, largely thanks to our country’s ineptness, and people who practice Shia Islam are occupying and controlling more territory.

None of this is good for peace or for the millions of refugees these conflicts have caused. And arguably it was counterproductive for Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and forces like ISIL related to al Qaeda. A lot of the success for driving out ISIL can be attributed to Iran-leaning paramilitary forces in Iraq and Syria. At times, our troops have worked somewhat awkwardly with these forces. At times, we have even working with General Soleimani, somewhat indirectly, to accomplish the same aims.

If Trump’s secret desire is to disengage us from the Middle East, he may be doing just that in his stupid and inadvertent way. If Iraq succeeds in forcing us to leave its country, at least they won’t have us to cause more death and destruction. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has proven quite effective at getting rid of ISIL. An Iran-dominated Iraqi government with the USA out of there may give Iraq something close to the peace it had before we invaded, minus the prosperity and liberality its citizens often enjoyed.

Withdrawing our modest forces from Syria is doing the same thing: making Syria safe for continued Shia domination. And without an actual war with Iran, which Trump seems now to want to avoid, the net effect of all of this is to extend Shia influence across the Middle East. It’s likely though that none of this had happened had not a headstrong George W. Bush plunged us into a war in Iraq, and our even more inept president Donald J. Trump had not bungled his way through the unbelievable complexities of the politics of the region.

All this of course is not so good if you care about restraining Russia’s sphere of influence. Trump’s actions seem all about letting Russia do just this. None of this brings more freedom and democracy to the people of the Middle East; in fact is does just the opposite. But if you truly want to make the United States more isolationist, Trump seems to be bungling his way toward accomplishing just this, while making his supporters think he is doing just the opposite.

And it will be a lot easier to be isolationist when increasingly the world community see us as crazy and radical as our supposed enemies. We’re not bringing freedom and democracy. We’re doing just the opposite instead. Reagan saw our country as the shining city on the hill. Trump sees our nation as a deeply isolationist one where only white people retain privilege and where we let the rest of the world fend for itself.

Trump is making our country an outlaw country like Iran, one increasingly not even subject to rule of law. Those looking for countries with real freedom and democracy best look elsewhere.