The Fed can’t save the rest of us

It’s tempting to say there are four branches of government. In addition to the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches, there is effectively a fourth branch of government: the Federal Reserve.

Often called the Federal Reserve Bank, it’s not a bank at all. You can’t deposit money into it, withdraw money from it or take out a loan with it. Many Americans have a vague idea what it does but almost no one knows where it’s actually located (Eccles Building, corner of 20th Street and Constitution Avenue in Northwest D.C.). More often referred to as “The Fed”, it is an institution that controls the supply of U.S. dollars. It also controls the banking system in the United States and has since 1913 when the Federal Reserve Act was passed by Congress.

The Fed has seven governors, most famously its chairman, currently Jerome Powell. While you may not pay much attention to the Fed, the financial world certainly does. When the Fed chair testifies or speaks, it can move markets instantly, often severely. Your portfolio can crash or soar depending on what these seven governors decide. They indirectly affect huge swaths of the economy, including interest and unemployment rates.

The curious thing about the Fed is that unlike the rest of our government it operates largely independently of politics. It’s mostly controlled by Republicans, since Republican presidents appointed most of the governors, currently with a 6-1 Republican lean. Each governor gets a four-year term, but once appointed, there’s not much anyone can do to remove a governor. It’s basically unaccountable.

The Fed’s special sauce is to control the money supply of U.S. dollars. It can create dollars as needed and doesn’t need to actually print them. For those few who still need paper or coins, the U.S. Treasury makes them. Lately, the Fed has created trillions of dollars in response to the pandemic. It does have a mission: maximizing employment, stabilizing prices, and moderating long-term interest rates. But really its only tool to do these things is to control the supply of U.S. dollars and then to figure out what to do, if anything, with that supply.

Before the Great Recession, its only real tool was to set a benchmark interest rate for banks to get money from the Fed or each other. In that recession they invented a new tool: quantitative easing. It gave itself permission to buy a lot of quasi-public debt, specifically U.S. housing debt in mortgage-backed securities in government managed institutions like Freddie Mac. This had the effect of flooding the market with cheap cash. The Fed hoped the money would be used to create stuff, but a lot of it was used by companies to buy back their own stock, inflating share prices without adding any value. As a result, the stock market had a slow recovery.

During our more recent pandemic recession, the markets weren’t calmed much by moving interest rates to near zero again and quantitative easing. Been there, done that. So the Fed invented new policies. This time they would use dollars it created to buy corporate debt outright, and in unlimited supply. This had the effect of flooding major companies with money, which again was mostly used by companies to buy back their own stock. It over-inflated the stock market.

One indirect effect was to push up the value of people’s portfolios, at least those who had portfolios. This gave them trickle down money to spend. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to spend it on as the economy was in the tank and most people were home, but at least there were houses to buy with the money. It caused a run on housing prices, which is counterproductive if you are a renter.

But it’s good we had the Fed. In the Great Recession, particularly after Republicans took the House in the 2010 election, the White House and Congress were at loggerheads on new spending to stimulate the economy. Sensing it was good for the party if they were obstacles, Republicans didn’t allow much of it. The Fed’s actions did allow a slow recovery, but it was needlessly slow and painful because of inaction in Congress.

In the pandemic recession, Congress was able to get relief to a lot of Americans, so the Fed’s actions were more ancillary. The Fed succeeded in calming then boosting stock prices and making money cheap to borrow again, which helped the economy. It also inflamed inflation concerns.

My point is that the Fed has limited tools at its disposal. To the extent that it can lower unemployment, its actions are indirect at best. It’s much easier for it to move markets up than it is to bring down unemployment rates. The latter is a problematic outcome of the former.

There is the perception that the Fed has saved us in the last two recessions. But mostly it succeeded in pushing up asset prices, deciding that our country as a whole was too big to fail. But the stock market is not the economy. It can’t fix the economy. That can only happen if the White House and Congress work together to take necessary actions.

We saw some of that while Trump was president: expanded unemployment benefits, rental assistance, etc. That has continued under the Biden Administration, which got additional stimulus into the economy as one of its first priorities. This is money that largely went to everyday people for things like child care. This money allowed people to avoid some poverty but also to stimulate the economy. This way, along with spending bills like Biden’s Build Back Better proposal, affects ordinary people and the economy as a whole. The Fed’s effect is indirect, at best.

There aren’t many tricks left in the Fed’s toolbox to use in the next recession. Instead, what we need is functioning government in Washington where legislation that actually meets the needs of the people occurs. But if Republicans win back one or more houses of Congress in 2022, it seems they will be more preoccupied with Biden losing a 2024 election than doing what’s in the interest of the American people.

Save the republic?

It all feels so inevitable because this is a play we’ve been watching unfold for decades. Republicans have known that long that demographics are against them. For conservatives, it’s largely always been that way because they stacked the deck so that if they lose, it won’t be very often.

Assembling this country we call the United States involved enormous compromise, mostly by Northerners to bring in the Southern states. Since the constitution was ratified, southern states have been granted disproportionate federal influence. Slaves counted as three fifths of a person for electoral voting purposes, despite having no legal rights. This allowed Southern states to mostly control the Electoral College and the presidency for our first hundred years.

In fact, the Fugitive Act in the 19th century resembled Texas’s latest anti-abortion law in that it allowed private individuals to recapture slaves in the North and bring them back to the South, usually for a nice bounty from slaveholders. To elect Abraham Lincoln, it effectively took the Southern states to secede. Some of our most progressive constitutional amendments, including the 13th, 14th and 15th were possible only because Southern states were temporarily not part of government.

So the November 2020 election should not have been much of a surprise, nor the insurrection that occurred on January 6. We’ve been leading up to it for decades, but Donald Trump became the perfect poster child for the movement. It amounts to a refusal to follow the law and constitution when it gets too inconvenient.

It’s getting too inconvenient for Southern states. Joe Biden decisively defeated Donald Trump, despite extreme gerrymandering, despite extreme voter suppression and flipped a number of reliably red states like Georgia. Our republic just barely held it together on Inauguration Day. Lately, Republicans have refused to govern. Just yesterday they refused to a person to extend our debt limit, a limit they happily agreed to ignore for a few years when Donald Trump was president because they wanted those sweet tax cuts. Red states are trying hard to find more creative ways to ensure the 2020 election never happens again. In some states they’ve given the legislature permission to appoint different electors if they don’t like the way their citizens voted.

Some of their crazies are angling for a new civil war and are praying for a nice right-wing dictator to do away with our constitutional democracy, which is clearly hanging by a thread. In short, they seem to want to end our republic. They can’t abide with the idea of majority rule unless they are in the majority.

It’s all quite naked and dispiriting. Increasingly, I ask myself if there’s a way we could just have a nice, civil divorce. But I can’t see something like a gentleman’s agreement along the lines of Czechoslovakia splitting into the Czech and Slovak Republics. Southern states aren’t that civilized. Their idea of a civil divorce would be if they get everything, like all the nukes and armed forces. They would leave Blue states bankrupt. And that’s the best scenario.

It’s like trying to negotiate with a terrorist. That’s increasingly what these Southern states resemble. They believe in Barry Goldwater’s maxim that extremism in the defense of “liberty” is not a vice. Only their idea of liberty does not extend to non-whites, and increasingly not to women, at least over their reproductive rights.

The irony in all this is that if Democrats had sufficient backbone they probably could solve a lot of this problem, or at least put it in abeyance. Consider what could happen if two Democratic senators put the filibuster in abeyance just to pass a civil rights bill that ensured equal access to the vote to all citizens and impartially drawn congressional districts. But that of course would allow all voters to be equally enfranchised, something Senators Sinema and Machin don’t seem to want to do. At best they are naive. At worst they are acting as Republicans.

I do know I am tired of it and scared for our future. I have a feeling that ten years from now our nation will resemble nothing like what it resembles now, and it’s plenty bad now. It’s going to get much, much worse. I can feel it. So if there was a way to do a quickie divorce on states like Texas, Alabama and Mississippi, I’d be all for it. The “leaders” in these states are incorrigible,

There are plenty of anti-vaxxers on the left

It’s tempting to put all the blame for the pandemic on Republicans. At least when it comes to anti-vaxxers, blame can be allocated on many Democrats as well.

This is because there are plenty of “all natural” Democrats out there. While I hate to generalize, you will find a lot of them shopping at Whole Foods and attending yoga studios. They are busy eating organic, going vegan, eating whole grains and living minimally.

These are not bad things in and of themselves. They feel clean and wholesome by going all natural, which is why many times they prefer herbal supplements and holistic healers over prescription and non-prescription drugs and board certified physicians.

They believe they can become effectively immortal, or at least live to see 100, by going all natural. With this mindset, it can be hard to see something like a manufactured vaccine as something that you should let into your body. So they spurn vaccinations for themselves and their kids on principle.

These otherwise generally liberal people make strange bedfellows with many on the right who are also anti-vaxxers. At least these anti-vaxxers on the left seem to have at least the fig leaf of a rational explanation for their behavior. For those on the right, it seems to be about owning the libs by playing Russian Roulette.

I actually agree with a lot of their positions. Inarguably, eating vegan is better for the planet. Avoiding pesticides and other chemicals used in making food is also noble, if impractical for a lot of people. Nutritionists recommend whole grains and generally have no problem with people substituting vegan sources of protein for meat and fish. There’s generally nothing wrong with yoga either. If everyone were a vegan and lived sustainably, unquestionably our planet would be a much healthier place.

The problem is any philosophy can be taken to an unhealthy extreme. The assumption that if everything we ingest is clean we can live to be 100 and avoid disease is, well, bunk. In fact, there was a time when most of us were vegans, not out of choice but out of necessity. If you were a serf, you likely never ate any meat, unless there was a party at the manor and they let you in.

Meat was prohibitively expensive. Most people back then didn’t make it to age 30, and that was largely because there was little sanitation going on and diseases could run rampant. Modern medicine didn’t really come into being until late in the 19th century, and it was not available to most people as it was beyond their means. The history of diseases is they don’t discriminate: they infect and kill everyone equally, at least until you know enough about the disease so that you can improve your chances of not getting it. And that’s only possible through science.

There’s plenty of proof going on right now. About 1800 Americans are dying daily in this latest covid-19 wave, caused this time by the double whammy of a bare majority of people being vaccinated and an incredibly virulent delta covid-19 variant. One of 500 of us American is an official fatality from the pandemic, and number will doubtless keep rising. These days, if you are unvaccinated you have an eleven times higher likelihood of dying from covid-19. Plenty of these fatalities come from all-organic, all-vegan anti-vaxxers.

While their heart is in the right place, it sometimes overrules their heads. Survival belongs to the fittest, and while it may seem that the more fit and healthy you are the more likely you should be to ward off diseases, there’s little evidence to support this.

The evidence against it is plain to see in the statistics, but it requires you to engage the left side of your brain long enough to get vaccinated. Ideally, you can also engage that part of your brain long enough to allow board certified physicians to treat you instead of (or at least in addition to) holistic healing practitioners.

I admire many of these people and count some of them among my friends. I sometimes wish I could become a vegan, or at least a vegetarian. I eat a whole lot more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains than I used to. I’ve experimented with holistic medicine from time to time too, and found chiropractic care particularly useful. It’s going all in on anything that tends to be dangerous, as it clouds your thinking and makes it hard to see beyond your implicit biases.

The saddest part is that these people really don’t want to acquire or spread disease, but do in part because their thinking has become too muddled and dogmatic, allowing that vector that allows diseases like covid-19 to get in.

A surfeit of adult babies

We’re coming up on the twentieth anniversary of 9/11. It was an unwanted seminal moment for us Americans, including me.

I was working by the National Mall at the time and recall the smoke rising from the Pentagon (where I had worked until 1998) and the otherwise surreal picture perfect day. It caused me to reassess a few things, including the risks of working in downtown D.C. As a result, about two years later I had switched jobs to one at the U.S. Geological Survey a few miles from my house in suburban Northern Virginia. It felt too dangerous to work downtown in a building butt up against the railroad tracks.

One result, in retrospect, was it made us more distrustful and paranoid as a people. Suddenly we had a reason to suspect all Muslims hated America, even those born and raised here. By definition, paranoia is generally not a reasonable fear. It’s still here today, but it’s far more irrational twenty years later.

When you live in fear, you tend to strangle reason. Civil rights and democracy can become nice-to-have things. Many of us crave autocracy instead, confident that a strong leader who mirrors our prejudices is the only solution to our need to feel things are somehow in control.

Still, not in my wildest dreams did it devolve into what we actually have today. Essentially, we have huge numbers of adult babies: grown up Calvins, determined to bring the whole system down because reality makes them anxious. Previously they were conservatives and took comfort in rule of law. Now they want to blow it all up and unleash the war and chaos that bothered them in the first place.

There’s no convincing these adult babies, at least with reason. They die disproportionately of covid-19 because they mostly aren’t vaccinated. Even as they die hooked up to ventilators they don’t believe they actually have covid-19. They ingest horse paste thinking an anti-parasitic is going to kill a virus when, at best, it’s only going to give them a bad case of the runs. They line up to receive monoclonal antibodies, a clinically proven treatment for those with cases of covid-19, while rejecting three highly effective vaccines clinically proven to dramatically reduce the likelihood of acquiring the disease, or if you get it, greatly reduce its likely severity. Their own opinion leaders, most of who were quietly vaccinated, are urging them on to recklessly endanger their own health. They have no idea what freedom actually means and no belief that shared sacrifices like masking are sometimes necessary. Freedom seems to mean the unrestrained ability to bring sickness and death both to intimates and society at large if you want to.

Reality is so inconvenient that apparently it must be killed. Public health officials warned that if we didn’t follow their advice we’d end up exactly where we are at. These adult babies have needlessly killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, many of whom make up their intimate circle. If life feels too discordant or truth feels too close, outlaw it. So don’t allow any critical teaching about racism in our public schools. Lying is now the point and apparently if you lie enough, it becomes truth.

And so we get a pro-life party willing to let their kids come down and die of covid-19 in public schools because masking Junior is somehow anti-freedom. Apparently they can deal fine with their own cognitive dissonance, since they’ll deny covid-19 is real through their dying breath. So everyone else has to as well.

Just grow up already! Except they can’t. Their psychoses are so engrained and advanced that there is no way out except through self-destruction that threatens the safety, health and civil order needed for society to function.

Since they can’t, I am finding it’s completely rational for me to wish they were all dead. They seem to be busy doing just that to themselves. I just hope there are enough of us rational people left to bring back order to the chaos they are unleashing.

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.

Biden is unlikely to pay a political price for getting us out of Afghanistan

The images all over the news and social media on Afghanistan are heart wrenching. It was made more so when the predictable happened: a suicide bomber affiliated with ISIS-K, an Afghani ISIS affiliate of sorts, killed thirteen U.S. soldiers and more than a hundred others outside the gates of Kabul’s airport. Everyone seems to be pointing fingers at Biden, as if there was ever a way to get us out of Afghanistan in a safe and orderly manner.

Lost among all the finger pointing and nervous nellies wondering about all the political implications is what, in general terms, has been a pretty good withdrawal, under the circumstances. We evacuated more than 100,000 people out of the country in only a few weeks, massively dwarfing the 7,000 of so when we hastily pulled out of Vietnam. Yes, we’re leaving some equipment behind but most of it is obsolete or had been rendered inoperative. The cost and hassle to remove this equipment, much of it by road, was more than the cost of leaving it there. Leaving behind equipment is standard practice when getting out of conflicts like this.

Biden is unlikely to pay much of a political price because Americans want us the hell out of there. A Hill-Harris poll, for example, shows 73% support for Biden’s actions. Generally, foreign policy is simply not a factor in elections, which turn mostly on local issues. You’d have to go back to 1968 to find an election where foreign policy was a major issue (Vietnam in this case). Richard Nixon’s “secret plan” for getting us out of Vietnam was likely why he won that election.

Even Donald Trump realized that staying in Afghanistan was a political loser, which is why he negotiated with the Taliban and released thousands of Taliban fighters. His agreement with the Taliban had some upsides. For example, the Taliban pretty much agreed to stop targeting our soldiers, an agreement they lived up to. Until the recent incident at Kabul’s airport, just three U.S. soldiers had died in Afghanistan in 2021.

Our withdrawal from Vietnam also suggests it will be quickly forgotten. Until Afghanistan, it had been our longest war. At the time (I was a teenager, so I remember), Vietnam fatigue was overwhelming. Virtually no one wanted us to stay there. Like in Afghanistan, South Vietnam’s government was wholly corrupt and there was no fixing it.

If you want to hold Biden responsible for something, it’s for putting too much faith in the Afghani army. The fall of Vietnam suggested Afghanistan too would fall quickly too. I was not the least bit surprised that the Taliban rolled into Kabul with virtually no opposition. I was also not surprised that Afghanistan’s president would slip away to a foreign country, reputedly with millions of dollars in secret bank accounts. The same was true with South Vietnam’s last “president”, Nguyen Van Thieu. What would have been surprising if it Afghanistan’s president Ghani stayed and fought it out.

The good news is that our returning soldiers should get a lot better treatment than those who served in Vietnam. Most were scorned for their service, and tried to hide that they had ever served in Vietnam. Many Americans took it out on our soldiers that we lost there, so a lot of these soldiers ended up depressed, unemployed and suicidal. Mostly though America wanted to forget Vietnam. At the time we were much more consumed by the oil embargo, the gas lines it brought and high inflation.

Of course, now we have a much bigger distraction: covid-19, the story that seems to never end. We’re starting wave number four and in many places hospitals are overrun with covid-19 patients. In Louisiana, residents are likely to suffer a double-whammy due to Hurricane Ida’s landfall.

It’s becoming impossible to ignore these events close to home as we are all impacted by them. A week ago it was Hurricane Henri that affected us locally. Fortunately being more than a hundred miles inland, its affect was minimal. These more powerful storms, not to mention forest fires in western stakes, bring smoke, haze and air pollution eastward. We just have to look outside our window to see issues that matter to us.

Frankly. most of us don’t give two hoots about the wreckage of our presence over nearly twenty years caused in Afghanistan. What we can say is that soon we’ll be wholly out of there, and that huge sunk cost estimated to have cost us $2T won’t enlarge.

After Vietnam, many political refuges (“boat people”) there fled to refugee camps in Thailand and off China. We’ll have over 100,000 refugees to handle this time around, so there will be recurring news items as processing that volume of people is bound to be tiring, time consuming and messy.

But mostly these will be a back page stories. Over time, Vietnamese refugees made new lives for themselves in the United States, and enriched our country with their talents, hard work and productivity. It is likely the same will be true with these Afghan refugees.

Should Biden run for reelection, I’m sure Republicans will raise the withdrawal as an issue. It’s just that almost nobody will care.

Biden is being presidential

I’m trying to remember the last time we had a president do something actually presidential … in a major way I mean. I’m not sure it has happened in my living memory, until recently.

Joe Biden is getting us out of Afghanistan, albeit with a large amount of pandemonium and confusion that comes with the decision. He’s proactively doing something no modern president has done. He’s fixing a mistake Bush, Obama and Trump dodged.

Most presidents want the veneer of being presidential, not to demonstrate the real thing. Even Barack Obama knew our presence in Afghanistan was doomed to fail; he just couldn’t pull off what he wanted to do, which was get us out of there entirely. In 2009, he surged troops there but also said he would get us out of in 2014, signifying to the Taliban that they just needed to wait. “Out of there” amounted to leaving a substantial number of troops in the country indefinitely while proclaiming that our war there was over. Like Bush before him, we were going to stand up an independent country that wouldn’t need us forever. And like in Vietnam, his generals and his State Department prettied up the reports to put lipstick on the pig. It was all a house of cards, something Obama probably knew but couldn’t find the strength to do.

Biden became presidential by doing what needed to be done and actually getting us out of there. It’s an effort obviously still underway. It doesn’t appear that he will change his mind and I hope he doesn’t. We’ve needed to be gone for a long time. This was always doomed to be an unwinnable war.

Granted, as Senator after September 11, Biden voted with virtually all of the rest of Congress to effectively wage war against Afghanistan. We were actually at war with those who caused September 11, and at the time al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were holed up on Afghanistan. In fact what led us to war in Afghanistan was achieved about eighteen months later when bin Laden left Afghanistan and went into hiding in Pakistan. That was the time to get out of the country.

It should be noted that President Bush turned down two opportunities to have the Taliban work as our agents. They were quite willing to turn over bin Laden to us; he just didn’t like their conditions, which would leave them in charge. Instead, he spurned them and we went on another righteous but pointless excursion of nation building. It was window dressing for what we really wanted: an imperialistic state there that we basically controlled. We controlled the government by making it impossible for them to exist without our funding and expertise.

This experiment in nation building was, like most of the others that preceded it, doomed from the start. More than ninety five percent of Afghanistan’s people are illiterate. It’s a third-world country that the U.S. expected could quickly evolve to act like a first-world country. Not surprisingly, it didn’t. We set up a lot of Potemkin cities to provide us with the illusion that Afghanistan could be a democracy, merely to make ourselves feel better.

For all practical purposes though, Afghanistan is not a country. It is too ethnically divided to be one. Multiple states are possible perhaps run by the ethnic minorities in that part of the “country”. Trying to make it one just proved how impossible a task it actually was.

As the saying goes, you got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them. Biden became presidential by folding our hand and acknowledging reality. It was sustained only by spending vast amounts of money and by wearing rose colored glasses.

With the possible exception of Japan, we’ve done a lousy job of nation building. We like the idea of spreading democracy but are inept at doing so. The latest twist is that right here in our country many of our own citizens are working hard to ensure the U.S. becomes an autocracy. Many of Biden’s biggest critics on Afghanistan would be quite happy if our government looked and lot like their new Taliban-run government, just with Americans praying to a different deity.

I had misgivings about our war on terror from the start. I was in a tiny fringe, but it drove me to seek compatriots online on sites like Daily Kos. Everyone else I knew was excited to rally behind President Bush. I was concerned about mission creep and my concerns were justified.

This blog started in December 2002, after September 11. But if you read this post from eighteen years ago, you will read that I was in Washington D.C. with thousands of others protesting what looked like and became our imminent invasion of Iraq. That turned out to be a huge folly too. The lessons of Vietnam remained stuck in my brain at least.

While Vice President, Biden was the dissenting voice urging President Obama to get us out of Afghanistan. All these years later, as president he took the opportunity to do what should have been done more than fifteen years ago. Yes, it’s miserable to many Afghanis and of course we should get out as many interpreters, allies and legitimate refugees there as possible. But out we should get and Biden should stick to his plan. It’s also risky for Joe Biden’s reelection strategy, but it’s what needed to be done. To be presidential, you must put the country’s needs above your own political needs.

The real problem is not in Afghanistan, but in our own country. We have to give up the illusion that the United States’ might can impose order and our will where it cannot. It’s folly to try. We keep making the same mistake over and over again.

But in the minds of too many Americans, this is a delusion they cannot give up. Our country is not all that special and epic mistakes like these simply enforce this impression on the rest of the world, which largely doesn’t buy into our bullshit anyhow.

covid-19 will get us all

One thing has become clear to me: finding protection from covid-19 from herd immunity isn’t going to happen, or won’t happen until much, much later in the pandemic when it becomes moot. That horse has left the barn, so to speak.

The reasons are many. Here in the United States it was because enough of us didn’t get vaccinated quickly enough, even though the vaccines were there well before they were in the past, and were much more effective than usual. Elsewhere it was a combination of not having quite effective-enough vaccines or, more likely, inability to get the vaccine. The latter is the case in most of the third world.

The virus causing covid-19 is nearly everywhere and if it isn’t where you are, it’s only a matter of time. The good news is that the vaccinated among us, and even many unvaccinated people, won’t acquire symptoms. We’ll still breathe the stuff in and it will infect us, we’re just not going to notice. But many of us who are vaccinated will still acquire the disease, but its symptoms will be relatively mild. It will feel like the flu, you might lose a sense of taste for a while, but probably won’t last as long as the flu. That’s the second best case. Most likely both my wife and me will suffer this fate at some point. Most likely so will you. In a way, it’s a pretty good, if inconvenient fate.

The virus is becoming endemic, and will become endemic. It will become part of nature and just another virulent microbe out there to join with all the others, just one that will kill millions of people and sicken tens or hundreds of millions of us in the short term. In time, we and our children will probably adapt to it. For the next several years at least though at best it’s going to be an inconvenience. Expect periodic booster shots to hopefully immunize you from the latest covid variants. Expect more testing, more occasional outbreaks, and bouts of on-again off-again mask wearing. Expect more working from home.

And expect more disease. Children under twelve don’t have a vaccine yet, though that will probably change within a few months. As they are all heading back to school, it’s going to spread at about the rate the chicken pox spreads, but maybe less if kids managed to stay masked while in school. Right now they are an emerging conduit for the disease. I’d say the unvaccinated are too, except they are hardly an emerging conduit. They have been spreading the disease for a long time.

To some extent it will also be people like me who are vaccinated who will also spread the disease, simply by breathing it in and exhaling the virus if we’re infected but symptomless. That’s why public health officials encourage (and in some cases demand) masking in public spaces, even by the vaccinated. Our city is now requiring masking in public indoor spaces again. A year ago it was a hassle, but now I nearly don’t think about it. There’s an emergency mask in my car in case I forget, and when I go anywhere I slip a mask into my pocket in case I need it.

This will all be the new normal. The good news is that in time we’ll get inured to it. Five years from now most of us won’t understand why there were so many anti-maskers out there, and those who were anti-maskers will probably deny they were. Also coming will be more requirements to get a covid-19 vaccine. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will soon formally approve these vaccines (their emergency status will be removed), giving broad sanction to employers and public health agencies to require it. In some places like New York City you effectively have a “vaccinated-only” club. You will have to show proof of vaccination in order to dine indoors or attend a concert of play. We’ll be seeing two show on Broadway next month, and have already been informed we must show proof of vaccination to get inside.

So you can expect the hassle of being unvaccinated will continue. It is likely, particularly after these vaccines get final approval, that even some of the most virulent anti-vaccine adherents out there will get vaccinated. Life will become too inconvenient to be unvaccinated. In some places you are seeing open resentment and scorn by the vaccinated at the unvaccinated. Peer pressure may allow us to reach herd immunity. It’s just that it’s happening so slowly that if it happens it’s likely to feel moot.

The unvaccinated are effectively slowly taking themselves out of the gene pool. Those who haven’t died but acquired the disease live with its affects, some of which may turn out to be lifelong, reducing their probable lifespan and quality of life. Survival requires adaption, either through vaccination or being one of the lucky unvaccinated ones who won’t show symptoms.

Hopefully as a result of all this we’ll learn some lessons and the next time a pandemic strikes we’ll not only be more resilient but naturally inclined to follow the advice of our public health professionals.

Scaring us stupid

My wife volunteers at both a local survival center and at a local hospital emergency room. In the first job she packages and hands out food to those who don’t have enough of it. In the second she offers comfort to those in the emergency room or in various bays, as well as makes a lot of beds in the ER after a patient leaves.

When she comes home I often tell her she is doing God’s work. This is true. God can’t be bothered to do it himself. He’s got bigger fish to fry. Manna is not going to come down from heaven to feed the hungry. God won’t magically protect you from covid-19 either. If any of this is to happen, it will take people doing good stuff. God is either absent, dead, never existed, or only works through people like my wife.

Ending covid-19 won’t happen through prayer, and reducing greenhouse gases won’t get solved by putting positive thoughts out there. We won’t cure our political dysfunction by doing more of the same. Doing nothing will only move us more quickly toward a dystopian future that is well underway.

The more you try to ignore the reality, the more is smacks you aside your head. That’s true of Southern states in particular right now as the covid-19 delta variant runs rampant across it. It’s happening in other states too, like here in Massachusetts, it’s just not as bad because more of us are vaccinated. When a local outbreak does occur, such as at Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod, the cases tend to be mild and no one actually dies.

That’s our best case covid-19 future for a while. Hopefully vaccination rates will continue to creep up and most people won’t have a cow if they have to mask up again for a while. With luck enough will get vaccinated, not to bring about herd immunity (that now seems a pipe dream, given chronic obstinance to vaccination by many) but to keep a nastier and more lethal covid-19 variants from emerging.

The peculiar nature of these pandemics is they tend to evolve into something worse over time. That was certainly the case with the Spanish flu a hundred years ago, when the second wave was much more widespread and lethal. The delta variant is very scary since it is much more transmissible than previous variants, equivalent to the transmissibility of the chicken pox. It’s quite possible that the next variant will be even more transmissible and potentially resistant to current vaccines.

In short, the next variant may kill a lot more of us, including people like me who are fully vaccinated with one of the best vaccines available. What we can do is get vaccinated if we are not, wear masks when health experts recommend it, work from home if that’s an option and, oh, stop doing stupid stuff like allowing Florida children to go back to public schools maskless while the state is suffering the largest number of new cases per day in the country.

But if you are looking to bring about the end of days, as apparently many evangelical Christians are hoping to do, keep doing what you are doing. Just don’t expect you’ll be around to witness The Rapture. Covid-19 is but a harbinger. There are a full suite of other problems to address including climate change, overpopulation, deforestation and mass migrations that will only get worse if we sit on our hands. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and to fix or at least mitigate things can only be done by human actions.

There are times when I think maybe a little dystopia could be good for us. Appealing to reason or patriotism doesn’t seem to be working with a lot of people. Many people have lost the ability to see or care about anything beyond their immediate circle of family and friends. They think guns and lots of bullets will see them through any tough times, when it will actually take plenty of food, medicine and other people with skills they lack. They assume government is evil when government is the solution. There would be a lot more of us dead right now, perhaps even me, if government-funded vaccine efforts did not start shortly after covid-19 infected people.

If they are going to inadvertently self-select themselves for extermination, I often feel they should keep on doing stupid stuff. It will leave a lot of widows and orphans and innocent victims, but maybe survivors be cared for by others with more common sense than they are exhibiting. Because it’s clear they aren’t getting it now. The rest of us want to live.

Modern life should be scaring us straight. Instead it’s scaring us stupid.

Sorry, digital currencies aren’t actual currencies

It’s hard to go a month now without a post from me on cryptocurrencies. I dabbled into this market on July 1st when a client paid me in BitCoin, which worked out to $88.31 at the time of the exchange. Since then its price has increased at a much greater rate than the market in general.

Yesterday I moved it from my digital wallet to BlockFi, a crypto exchange, and it was worth $109.47. So over just one month, I made a 24% return. If I could do this for a whole year, the return would be 288% and it would be worth $254.33. It’s safe to say that there is no other asset that I own that would reap that sort of return.

I can’t see eleven months into the future. You will get a million different opinions about where BitCoin’s value will be going. What I can say is that it fluctuates a lot. Since yesterday, its value dropped to $103.71. Volatility comes with the digital currencies territory.

What doesn’t change that much is the value of the U.S. dollar on a given day. Right now there are innumerable news stories because inflation in the last twelve months has been running in the 5-6 percent range. But if I had planned to spend my BitCoin today on something tangible, I’d be paying 5.26% more for it than yesterday. So in a way my BitCoin inflation rate was 5.26% and this occurred over just one day. Wow! But no one seems to be holding BitCoin to the same inflation standard as the U.S. dollar.

Why is this? To paraphrase The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, I puzzled over this until my puzzler was sore. Both are currencies, right? Well, no. BitCoin, Ethereum, Dogecoin and the rest are not actual currencies. Just because someone slaps a label to it, doesn’t make it an actual currency.

Okay, it is a currency in the sense that you can trade it for things of value, like until recently a Tesla. Right now at least though you can’t buy most things in these “currencies”. In my case, I buy them in U.S. dollars. Given that you can’t buy much with them, they are only currencies in a very limited sense. If you really want to buy something with your BitCoins, you are probably going to sell it to someone who will give you a local currency like the U.S. dollar in exchange for it. That’s what I aim to do with my BitCoin. It will feel real when its value in U.S. dollars hits one of my accounts denominated in U.S. dollars. Until then, it’s funny money. But actually, it’s not money.

So the fundamental premise behind “digital currencies” is false, as except in some very limited cases you can’t use these as money. That could and maybe will change over time, but right now for most practical purposes, they’re not currencies. They are not money.

So what are they? Some call them assets. For me, calling them assets fails the smoke test too. An asset is something you own, and it amounts to something tangible and real. These assets are often denominated in shares, so in that sense they are somewhat virtual. As an ex federal employee, I’m still in its Thrift Savings Plan (TSP), their fancy name for 401K/IRA. I have, for example, 2686.0352 shares in the TSP C Fund, which is a basket of funds. It’s likely that some part of its current value of approximately $203,000 is invested in IBM, so I own part of that company along with lots of others. I can claim my share its capital gains and dividends, at least when I sell them — it’s a tax-advantaged account. I own some part of the buildings that IBM owns and the computers and equipment inside them and in its warehouses.

What can I say about the assets behind my BitCoin? Well, I can say there are no assets. That’s not to say it doesn’t have value. If I can convince someone else to buy my BitCoin and give me U.S. dollars, I can take and spend those U.S. dollars pretty much universally. There is no BitCoin headquarters to go to if the currency goes bankrupt. If it does, I’ve lost the value of my BitCoin. Its value lies merely in its perception.

The same is true with U.S. dollars, of course. Dollars are perceived to have value because the U.S. government stands behind them. You aren’t entitled to your share of the gold in Fort Knox if the U.S. government collapses, but we do know there is an institution, a lot of smart people, and the full faith and credit of the government supporting it. If my bank account is FDIC insured and my bank goes belly up, the government will give me the value of my account in U.S dollars, up to $250,000.

If for some reason you have an incompetent government, then a currency can collapse too. Venezuela’s currency is just one of many recent examples. So I have plenty of incentive to keep the U.S. government functional. No wonder I obsess over whether certain radicals might succeed in doing away with our democracy and setting up an autocracy. If nothing else, the value of my U.S. dollars would get very iffy.

Those into “digital currencies” are placing faith in them too, mainly that they can’t be hacked or undermined. That’s pretty dubious to my way of thinking. One thing is clear is that they are subject to the laws of supply and demand. If demand ceases because they aren’t trusted, they become effectively worthless. Just like Venezuela’s currency.

These “digital currencies” are actually speculative assets where the asset is basically the successfully operation of an advanced computer algorithm (which spits out a “coin”) and the faith that blockchain-powered servers will be around to certify transactions in these assets. All of them share one fundamental weakness: they require the Internet. Some share another weakness: they depend on governments to allow their use. It’s hard to transact these “currencies” in China because for the most part its government won’t allow it.

Currencies facilitate the exchange of value. But they have one other important asset: they hold their value within a reasonable range of inflation over a long period of time. If they don’t, this money will move toward other currencies that do a better job of retaining their value. In short, they facilitate savings so that their value can be quickly and conveniently spent.

Digital currencies currently do not excel in either easily exchanging value or as a reliable source of savings. To my mind, this tells me they are not a currency.

So don’t treat them as such. With time, it’s likely the U.S. and other governments will create their own digital currencies. The blockchain technology that is the foundation of these “digital currencies” is something of value. It will be leveraged by other more stable entities like the U.S. government to more conveniently, securely, cheaply and transparently exchange value.

It’s hard for me to see a business case for “digital currencies” once governments start issuing their own.