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.

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.

It’s the end of times! Again!

There are lots of political and sociological theories going around about … well, what’s going around: current events. We are living through a pretty stressful time: covid-19, hyper-partisanship, so-called “fake news”, a climate crisis, a refugee crisis, police brutality against people of color … it all seems to be heaped on top of each other with seemingly no way out.

Okay, there are ways out of all this stuff, but it means persuading people and power brokers to act not in their immediate self-interest and, like the Grinch, let their hearts expand three sizes. Good luck with that.

One theory is that societies go through periods of great turbulence with some regularity and in a few years we’ll achieve some sort of new consensus where something like a new normal can resume. In this theory, President Joe Biden is the antidote to President Ronald Reagan. It was arguably Reagan who popularized “the government is bad” mantra and since that time, well, there’s been a lot of bad coming from government.

Some are hoping that by making government work again, Biden has the Reagan antidote. Except he’s a long way from that and his attempts to break partisanship likely won’t amount to anything. Our democracy feels very fragile at the moment, and there are few signs here in America in particular that we are rising toward our better selves.

Yet, it does seem like we’ve been through this before. Maybe the fever will break around 2030. This will be roughly two millennium since the death of Jesus of Nazareth. Or maybe in 2063, when I expect to be dead, two millennium since the Jewish Diaspora, at least the big one where the Romans retook Palestine, utterly destroyed Jerusalem and those few Jews they did not kill left the area permanently. In any event, reading the Muslim scholar and historian Reza Aslan’s book Zealot, about the lives and times of Jesus of Nazareth, it’s hard to escape that feeling of we’re reliving, at least in spirit, those turbulent days.

I’ve read many books about the historic Jesus of Nazareth, but Zealot fills in some important gaps. For one thing, when Jesus was alive Palestine was rife with messiah wannabees. Crucifixion, as horrible as it is, was pretty routine, at least for anyone that seemed to threaten order. This penalty did not seem to deter these potential messiahs. Indeed, Jesus’s death never made the headlines of the time. Only one reference from the time by Josephus alludes to Jesus, as the brother James. All other references come from the Bible.

Anyhow, the Jews were just one of many natives who fought occupations, and the Romans in 63 A.D. were just the latest. While the Jews were largely wiped out by the Romans (and later, the Nazis) the Jews also practiced genocide. That’s how ancient Israel was founded: not by routing non-Jews from Palestine, but killing the non-Jews living there. This is a matter of settled history and is commanded in the Old Testament. One of the wonders about the new state of Israel created in 1947 is they didn’t kill all the Palestinians living there as the Torah commands. But they killed plenty to again create a state by and for Jews.

It seems we just can’t abide comfortably with people too different from ourselves. These days it’s all seemingly coming to a head. Future shock has arrived and we’re not coping well. It feels something like being crammed into an elevator with too many people.

We refuse to cope with our new and more complex reality; we refuse to believe this is how it’s going to be. For Fox “News” commentator Tucker Carlson, it’s happening through “replacement theory”: we Democrats are supposedly trying to cancel the votes of whites by allowing too many non-whites into the country. Implicit in this theory is the idea that non-whites don’t deserve the same rights as the rest of us. To address their fears, they must do everything possible to marginalize the votes of non-white Americans; hence the many voter suppression laws emerging from the outcome of the 2020 election. Can ethnic cleansing be far behind?

Jesus of Nazareth believed the end of times was near. “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” (Luke 21:32) He was obviously wrong about that, unless we’ve had a new Methuselah around since he was alive. Similarly, many of today’s Christians believe the end of times is near. It seems they want to hasten it all along so the rapture can commence.

Two thousand years should teach us that no messiah is on its way to establish the Kingdom of God here on earth. But by acting like the end of times is near, these people can certainly add to the chaos underway. Why care about the future if the end is near? Why take a covid-19 vaccine if you believe God will protect you from it anyhow, or rapture is imminent? Why use common sense when it’s easier to rely on gut feelings and prejudice? Why place hope in scientists when you don’t like what they are telling you?

Reading Zealot has affected me. It makes me angry that two thousand years after Jesus walked among us we are still mired in the same pointless conflicts and backwards thinking. What hope I can find is that more of us are just giving up religion. For the first time, a poll shows a majority of Americans are now unchurched. It may be in twenty years as this majority grows we will have a majority people who can act logically, rather than rely on a holy book.

If God exists, it works in mysterious ways. I can cite my wife, definitely unchurched but with Buddhist inclinations, as God at work in the real world. If God wants us to be loving, kind and create the Kingdom of God here on earth, she’s on the case by volunteering at a local survival center.

It’s her and others engaging in these largely thankless and necessary tasks of simply keeping people alive despite slim to no odds of solving these systemic problems. Her heart grows with compassion every time she volunteers.

I’m not convinced there’s much of this compassion within evangelical churches, except perhaps for people in their own congregation with that share their skin tone.

The Atlanta shootings and why pornography may be a good thing

Robert Aaron Long went on a shooting spree in Atlanta last Tuesday. When he was done an hour later, the twenty-one year old man left eight people dead, six of them Asian women who worked at three different area health spas.

Long was caught by police fleeing to Florida after having earlier been kicked out of his house by his parents. Of course, living in the Deep South, Long had no problem buying a gun shortly before committing these murders. But he seemed to have retained enough his wits after his arrest to claim he was a victim.

He was a sex addict, you see, and he was driven in part by the dichotomy between his high sex drive and what he learned at Crabapple First Baptist Church. An evangelical church, Crabapple Baptist taught Long to avoid sexual temptation and pornography. Long reportedly told police he was trying to stamp out sin. Kill these temptresses, he was probably thinking, and you can stamp out these sins of the flesh.

Of course, it was quickly noticed that he targeted mostly Asian Americans, and mostly women of Korean ancestry. It was hard not to infer that his crimes were motivated by ethnic hate and probably misogyny as well. At his church he learned that women were not supposed to draw men into temptation by, you know, dressing provocatively and such. Apparently in the Atlanta area if you need to press a little female flesh as a business transaction, you do so at “spas” where women of predominantly Asian ancestry may provide the services high-hormone young men like Long naturally felt he needed.

Focus on the Family leader James Dobson said that Long’s addiction to pornography fueled his crime. It’s unclear how much pornography Long actually consumed, but it’s clear that any he consumed left him feeling guilty and sinful.

I wish that Long had viewed a whole lot more pornography. I am sure that for some men pornography makes their sexual feelings worse, not more, manageable, particularly as a lot of pornography these days seems to be catering to men into violent power fantasies. That may be the case with Long.

For most men though pornography provides a literal release for their natural sexual urges that would have a hard time being released otherwise. Viewing pornography, typically accompanied by masturbation to orgasm, provides that release. Your hormones subside, at least for a time and that allows you to think more clearly. If you don’t release those hormones in some reasonably safe way, well, maybe you end up buying a gun and killing eight people in a regional rampage instead. It’s likely a lot easier to do something so awful if your religion teaches you that sinful behavior must not be tolerated.

I remember being twenty one too, and I can state confidently that I was at my hormone peak. So I have an inkling what Long was feeling and I can attest it can feel overwhelming. Unlike Long though I had broken free from my own faith of origin (Catholicism) and its teachings on women, pornography and masturbation. By that age I had figured out that pornography was probably helpful for me. Like most men, I was not the big man on campus. Mostly women ignored me and mostly I was too shy to express my interest in those I came across. For me, breaking away from Catholicism, much of it which I saw as hurtful, was a necessary and healing part in growing up.

I’m guessing though that my fairly deep Catholicism wasn’t quite as far down the religious rabbit hole as Long experienced at Crabapple First Baptist Church. I don’t remember the priests and lay ministers dwelling on sins of the flesh in particular, but it seems to have been a feature at Crabapple First Baptist Church. From my reading, it’s something of a feature at evangelical churches and perhaps Southern Baptist congregations in particular.

Most denominations require their pastors to be credentialed at seminaries. Becoming a minister at a Southern Baptist church does not necessarily require credentialing. You just have to convince a congregation that you have a calling from God. After all, John the Baptist never went to a rabbinical school. Given my druthers, I’d much rather have a minister with some credentials. Much of the basis of a particular faith may be bunk (which was true for my opinion about Catholic teachings, for the most part) but at least it should be consistent. Stray too much from its teachings and you are defrocked.

It does seem true that Baptist and evangelical churches in particular seem to dwell excessively on sins of the flesh, hyping these sins where perhaps more latitude would be helpful. If you believe yourself to be born again, it should be possible through the power of Christ to surmount your feelings of the flesh.

It should be, but it’s clear that, much like gay conversion therapy, it’s very unlikely to happen. If you believe in God, then you have to believe that God gave us hormones for a reason. Maybe it was to test our character, or maybe it was for a more pragmatic reason, like to ensure the survival of the species. In the past, most human lives were short and brutal. Procreating sooner rather than later was probably necessary. It’s only today with modern medicine, education and human rights where it gets hard. These days, to live a good life it helps to get educated and vested in a well-paying career first. Pornography may facilitate that.

Asian women, particularly those working in spas and massage parlors though are easy targets. You can decide that their culture allows them to be “looser” and therefore more sinful, when of course that’s not true. It’s probably the opposite, in most cases.

But it is harder for Asian Americans to fit in, particularly in much of the Deep South with its history of racial prejudice. This leads to diminished job opportunities. It’s not too surprising then that massage parlors are filled with predominantly Asian women. It’s likely that a lot of these women work very long hours for measly pay, or it’s one of two or three jobs they juggle trying to get by.

I obviously hope no jury buys into Long’s excuses. But I do suspect that if Long had gotten a lot less religion and spent a lot more time online watching pornography, eight people in the Atlanta area would still be alive.

Two practical suggestions to meaningfully address racism

One of the few good things about 2020 was that Black Lives Matter officially became a thing. It had been a thing for years, but it seemed in 2020 that White Americans finally decided it should be a thing they cared about. Many of us showed up for Black Lives Matter protests. We helped put a somewhat White face on a problem that ordinarily attracts mostly protestors of color.

2020 was also something of a wakeup call for me. Like most White Americans, I kind of slept through my own White privilege. Over sixty plus years, I think I’ve been pulled over by a cop four times. Once I got a ticket for not fully stopping at a red light. Once I was gently warned that my headlights weren’t on after I pulled out of an underground theater parking lot. Once I was ordered to pull over because I didn’t know that in my state if a cop car is on the shoulder you have to move to the left lane (they were just running an outreach campaign). And once I was told, almost apologetically, that I had a brake light out. In that instance no ticket was written. I never went to jail and at most I paid $75 for a ticket. I’m sure this contrasts dramatically with non-White Americans out there for whom having a police car with its lights on pulling them over is more routine than not.

Most of us don’t want to be racists, and even most racists will claim they are not racists. But most of us White Americans probably are at least subconsciously racist to some extent. I grew up with no memory of even seeing a Black American until I was in my teens. I’d like to say I exhibited no racism when I finally started to interact with Black people, but the truth was I felt awkward feeling awkward. I was the same way with a gay cousin who liked to hit on me. I didn’t know how to react so I reacted awkwardly and warily. It is this newness of being in what appears to be a new and uncertain environment that I think is the cause of implicit racism and homophobia too.

Thankfully, life broadened me. It brought me to the Washington D.C. area. When you are inundated with people of color every day, soon you become wholly inured to it. You realize quickly that there’s very little different about you and them. One of the weirdest things about moving in retirement was to return to a place that was much whiter than the place I left. I didn’t think about it at the time. Despite living in a liberal area, it’s hardly diverse and is about 85% white. Still, in the five years we’ve been here it’s hard not to notice that the place is coloring up.

I’ve come to acknowledge that I carry some implicit racial bias. The question is whether I choose to do something more than attend occasional Black Lives Matter rallies and maybe put a BLM sign on my yard. My life is still pretty insular. Most of my friends are White. Most of the people I see and interact with are White too. How does a White guy like me make friends with more people of color? If I truly care about addressing racism, how can I tangibly make a difference? Showing up at a rally is nice, but I’m just one in crowd.

A couple ideas have come to mind. First, use what I know to help people of color. What I know is IT: Information Technology. I’d like to say it made me rich, but I’m not rich in the conventional sense, just rich in a general sense. And being retired, I’ve got time on my hands. There should be people of color around here with a bent toward IT that could use some mentorship. So I have in mind to reach out to the school system and see if I can find pockets of these people and make myself available, likely after the pandemic is behind us. A lot of what I do to make money probably won’t interest a lot of these people, once they see what it involves. But it may interest some of them and it may help them generate the skills and confidence to nurture their talents.

Another one hit me recently: I could be a White guy who volunteers to walk with people of color when they are dealing with power situations. Power is usually controlled by White people. For example, you won’t find too many Black landlords, because fewer Blacks have the assets to acquire property and rent it out. I could simply volunteer to stand next to them when they are in these situations, and use the power of my Whiteness to see if it makes a difference. I have come to believe that this is a real thing. If I stand with a person of color when they petition a landlord or plea for public housing, it is likely that merely standing with them and advocating for them will affect the power dynamic. I’m retired so I have the time. I also have a car so if necessary I could pick them up and take them back to home or work. I can use the implicit power of my skin color so that, at the very least, they are likelier to be treated as kindly as I generally was as I navigated through life.

Perhaps this could become a thing that could go national. Create a website, say bringawhitey.org. It would allow people of color to connect with Whites who want to use our inherent power to mitigate racism. I imagine like any other social media site it would need some reputation management system, so people of color could feel assured their volunteer White person was genuinely antiracist. People could be matched based on location, need and availability. We White people might need some professional training first. We’d probably have to learn how to use our power correctly and be up on what was and wasn’t allowed. There would need to be clear boundaries by all parties. But I am willing to bet that if I walked up to an apartment rental office with a person of color and said, “My friend Brian here is looking to rent an apartment,” it would get a whole different response than if Brian went in by himself. And if I detected some implicit bias and gently called it out, I’m betting it would have a whole lot more effect than if I wasn’t there. There might be an implicit assumption that because I am assumed to be Brian’s friend, that he’s safe somehow.

Some of this is doubtless a gnawing feeling of my unearned privilege that now that I’m fully aware of it I feel needs some redress by me. As a teen I was aware of my implicit racism simply from my feeling of discomfort being around people of color. Even then I was ashamed of it.

Now though I am both aware of it and have spent so much time around people of color that racism makes me viscerally angry. Perhaps steps like these would allow me to move beyond anger and into doing something productive with this anger. It’s likely I’d expand my pool of friends of color in the process.

The dangers of the shorted short sell

I know something is a story when my wife gloms onto it. So, it was pretty extraordinary when she focused on the financial crisis involving short sellers of GameStop stock. I’m doubtful she even understands what shorting a stock means. I’ve watched a half dozen videos on this and I still find it confusing. What she does understand is that some “little guys” found a way to hurt big investors and make them pay. That got her attention and made her absolutely gleeful.

When you short a stock, you are basically betting on a stock’s price going down. Counterintuitively, when the stock goes down, you make money. This happens not because you own the stock, but because someone lent them to you for a fee and sold them to you at the then going market price. You really only are lent the stock though because you must pay them back at an agreed upon date, which you do by selling them again before or when you have to sell them. If they go down in price while you were lent them, you pay less to buy them on the open market, keeping the profit.

If this sounds risky, it is, which is why it’s a game generally played by large institutional investors that can take the time to research stocks and make hopefully informed bets on which stocks are likely to tank. That’s because you don’t know for sure the price will go down, so you need the credit to pay back the market value of the stocks you were loaned if they go up and you don’t have the cash to sell them at their current market price. If they go up a lot, you could go bankrupt.

Stock shorting is completely legal, but that doesn’t mean it should be. As we learned this week, the system can be gamed, in this case by Reddit forum readers. They discovered that there were more shares of the stock being sold short than existed, a phenomenon made possible because there is nothing stopping a short seller from selling his temporarily owned stocks to another short seller. If a lot of little investors buy up a lot of this stock, not only will its price go up artificially, but short sellers take it on the nose when they have to pay more to buy the stock than they paid for it.

In the case of GameStop, there was for a time literally no shares to buy. That’s because stock trading apps like Robinhood, but really the brokers they use to trade these stocks, could not buy more of a stock when there were no shares for sale. In Robinhood’s case, it did not allow you to buy GameStop, but it would allow you to sell shares you had. This has the effect of lowering the price of the stock, which mitigated the loss of large institutional investors into short selling. In short, at least for a time, the game was rigged in favor of large institutional investors.

But at least for a little while, the little guys won. They effectively transferred a lot of wealth from these large companies into their pockets instead. They did it by artificially inflating a stock’s value well beyond its worth by earlier buying the stock, and counting on the fact that the stock was so over short-sold they would cost an obscene amount to buy when short sellers were required to buy back the stock at the going rate.

Robin Hood indeed. In this case though the money did not flow from the rich to the poor, but from the rich to probably mid-tier investors who learned they could out-short the short sell system through collective action. They are doing the same thing with other stocks currently often short sold, like the AMC movie theater chain. Any company in what appears to be a disappearing market becomes a likely short sell candidate stock. All these stocks are almost certainly bad long term investments, but at least for a while they can look obscenely profitable.

What if anything should be done about this? If it were up to me, I’d make short selling illegal. You should not be able to buy any stock on money you don’t have. Of course, Wall Street runs on borrowed money, so they wouldn’t like my approach to solving this problem. To them, it would be like someone not being able to replace their roof until they had the cash. This argument doesn’t work with me. Replacing your roof is a necessity. Buying a shorted or even undervalued stock is not a need; rather it’s a want.

So, it’s a game I won’t play, but it’s one I and all of you may end up playing indirectly. We’ve got plenty of money in stocks, just indirectly through mutual funds and EFTs. And they are all managed through middlemen. Right now, much of our wealth is in TD Ameritrade, but it’s likely to move to BlackRock, the world’s largest investment fiduciary. BlackRock also manages lots of funds that specialize in short selling. I don’t want any of my assets to be tainted by any of these funds that BlackRock may manage, but maybe it would. Maybe it would drag down investments as a whole if too many of these assets are in shorted stocks.

This may itself explain the stock market’s recent slump. It’s trying to price in what’s going on with the new uncertainty in the short selling market. The only real way to remove this uncertainty is to regulate it, so hopefully the SEC will institute some rules. From my perspective, short selling would become illegal just as selling and buying stocks based on insider information is today.

I don’t see much difference between what we are seeing now with shorting the short sellers and the house of cards that collapsed in the Great Recession. The difference this time though is regulators have the ability to handle this before it becomes a much greater risk to the financial system. I’m hoping they will sober up in time before all us investors are disproportionately affected.

Running down the QAnon rabbit holes

It sucks to be a QAnon believer right now. Their god, Donald J. Trump, let them down. No message went out the day before Inauguration over the Emergency Broadcast System that their Lord and Savior was going to rescue the country from the peril of democracy and that the army was imposing martial law. Somehow, Joe Biden’s inauguration went off without a hitch. In fact, he was sworn in about ten minutes before he was legally the President of the United States. After four years of chaos, Biden seems to be aggressively focused on working for the American people instead raging, golfing and tweeting all day.

A less biased QAnon devotee might simply decide it was all BS, and at least a few of them seem to have sobered up. For most of course what didn’t happen requires recontextualizing and reinterpretation. So that’s mostly what’s going on in QAnon world at the moment. Some have figured out that Trump was never their savior, but that doesn’t mean someone else isn’t waiting in the wings. Maybe it’s Joe Biden.

Others are suffering from a guilt complex. They didn’t try hard enough on January 6 and that’s why it failed. Here’s one way it probably wouldn’t have failed: had Trump actually marched to the Capitol with them (admittedly, it would probably have severely taxed him as he reportedly only took elevators in the White House), perhaps leading the pack, pushing his way through the doors of the Capitol. Imagine how the Capitol Police would have reacted to that? Do they shoot the president? It would be a Storming of the Bastille, just in reverse. That probably would have been the end of our democracy.

But that would have been scary, and Trump is basically a coward. So instead, Trump went inside the White House to watch it on TV and criticize the insurrectionists he urged on for looking low class. And QAnon-ers and other conspiracy minded folk were forced to try to figure out what went wrong. Now Trump is officially an ex-president, stands some low but measurable probability of actually being convicted of impeachment this time, and still hasn’t found a Twitter alternative. No one knows what he’s doing at Mar-a-Lago, and most of us don’t care. It’s a good bet he’s mostly golfing, ranting at staff and drinking Diet Cokes.

For the moment, the whole QAnon movement looks rudderless,, not that there was ever anyone really in charge. Q him(her?)self was always cryptic. Like Batman, he couldn’t give away his secret identity. My theory of the moment is that it was Sheldon Adelson. Like Batman, he has plenty of money and wasn’t afraid to spend it. It’s just that Adelson has been declining for years, like Q, and is now unfortunately deceased.

Or just as likely Q is some troll from the liberal left having some fun. If so, he likely had a drinking problem, as his posts got less frequent and even less coherent with time. Maybe he is the guy that invented BitCoin. At least he knew how to obscure his identity. Or maybe it’s Julian Assange. It was likely someone who knew a thing or two about technology, as it takes a lot of tech smarts to evade detection all this time. Lately though according to reports it seems like Q has gone missing in action, or nearly so.

Wittingly or unwittingly, Q certainly did stir up a crowd, and knew what buttons to press to get his followers riled up. There were probably hundreds of other Qs out there trying something similar, but his was the one to get some traction.

It’s not a hard sell to make. There is always a crowd ready to believe in conspiracy theories, particularly here in the United States. You just don’t expect though that two QAnon supporters would actually get elected to Congress in the last election: Marjorie Taylor Greene (GA) and Laura Boebert (CO). Reportedly, Boebert was giving insurrectionists an inside tour of the Capitol the day before the coup attempt. Followers of Q can develop their own Internet entourage if they can play this crowd. I could be susceptible too, if I started getting thousands of reads and likes per day. Perhaps I could if I could whip up just the right conspiracy meme.

Q though seems to have spawned a lot of hate groups and a lot of organizing on various platforms, most of which are now shutdown. So, Q does seem to be something of a force. President Biden though won’t turn up as Q, as he’s too nice a guy not to mention a technology lightweight. But unlike Trump he’s smart enough to recognize a real national security threat when he sees it. Expect that white nationalist domestic terrorism to be the principle national security threat that he concentrates on during his term. This stuff is wacky and weird, but it’s obviously dangerous enough, as January 6 proved.

Luckily for the FBI, there are plenty of rabbit holes to investigate.

K-ing our way to a recovery

My Thanksgiving was spent with family. Only in this case, family means my wife and me, plus two cats who got a few scraps of turkey with their supper.

It was a scaled down meal absent some of the extra fatty dishes my wife makes during the holidays, like her cheese souffle. Also missing was our daughter, who likely wouldn’t have shown up anyhow because she lives four hundred miles away, but had planned to visit us a few earlier. But she needed a fresh covid-19 test and couldn’t get one in a short enough timeframe to satisfy the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. So, her Thanksgiving was similarly downscaled but, in her case, it was a rotisserie chicken that her cat helped consume.

The same thing will play out for us at Christmas. In fact, it’s been this way since we returned from a cruise last March, one of the last cruises to go out before covid-19 shut cruising down. We’re socially isolating, along with our many retired neighbors. There is no community holiday party this year. Our condo association’s annual meeting will be on Zoom. Socializing is now saying a few words to neighbors behind our masks at the mail kiosk.

But the end is now in sight, with at least two very promising and very effective vaccines likely to be available soon. As seniors, we’ll likely be nearer to the head of the queue than most. But really, we should be one of the last. There’s a good reason we haven’t contracted covid-19: we hardly ever go anywhere; retirement give us the privilege/luxury to do so. It helps not to be particularly extroverted. For us, coping is not that hard. It’s a bit like serving a sentence of home confinement. A trip to the store once or twice a week is the closest we come to mixing with society. Here in Massachusetts, virtually everyone wears masks outdoors and in stores. It would be truly extraordinary if we somehow contracted covid-19.

We’ll survive this thing pretty easily and comfortably. As for our country, not so much. We’ll likely surpass 300,000 covid-19 related deaths by the end of the year. By the time this is contained, the total is likely to be between 400,000 and 500,000 deaths, and may be higher. This would make it actually worse than the Spanish Flu of 1918 and 1919.

It’s easier to ignore perhaps because it’s affecting minorities disproportionately, and anyone who has to go out in the real world regularly, which are generally blue-collar types. This was true of my niece Cheryl, who teaches Chinese. She likely acquired it from a student and brought it home to her immune-compromised husband. She wore a mask but it wasn’t enough. Both of them survived it and neither required hospitalization, although there was some rough going. The rest of my siblings remain unaffected, or at least never exhibited symptoms. Most have jobs that allow telecommuting. They do sensible stuff just like us: go out infrequently and always wear masks.

It does get comical at time. I have a sister who retired to Titusville, Florida. Every time she goes out, she’s virtually the only one wearing a mask. Floridians by and large believe in freedom, which in this case means their right to infect others, a right recently upheld by the Supreme Court, at least as it pertains to religious services, as I noted in my last post. In the past, the Supreme Court decided that freedom of speech meant you couldn’t yell fire in a crowded theater. Our latest version of the Supreme Court though thinks its equivalent is fine in houses of worship. Go figure.

Anyhow, my sister observes her fellow neighbors doing stupid stuff. The family across the street brought in extended family and friends for a raucous Thanksgiving meal. It’s likely that part of this extended family will catch the disease from this socializing, but she reports Floridians for the most part just don’t care. They are enjoying their freedom to be mindlessly stupid. My sister and brother-in-law will survive where some of this family may not.

Trump and the Republican Party are giving us hundreds of thousands of Darwin Award winners. A decade from now we’ll look back on this pandemic and wonder how we could be so stupid. For many there wasn’t much choice: it was either that or starvation. After providing initial relief to keep people home, Congress subsequently decided the pandemic wasn’t that big a deal, and wouldn’t pony up more money to reduce our death rate by keeping people solvent while waiting safely at home.

It’s not too hard to predict that the rollout of a vaccine will go badly too. Guidance from the CDC on who should get the vaccine first is likely to be followed in a scattershot manner by the states. Probably twenty percent of us will refuse to get inoculated, letting it linger. But there are also staggering logistical issues in producing and distributing the vaccine. It will likely require two shots and super cold temperatures for storage, plus the candidate vaccines seem to have a shelf life of about a week. For some, they will refuse it because the shot hurts a lot. I’ve had the shingles shot and it’s a lot like that. It did hurt for a few days, but I got better. In any event, a true recovery is likely to arrive later rather than sooner, despite the quick production of an effective vaccine. It’s likely to be another six months before we get a sense that we have gained some control over the disease. The longer we dawdle in doing a good job, the worse our economy will fare compared with other countries.

Perhaps Republicans don’t care because it fattens their bottom line. This is turning out to be a K-shaped recovery, meaning that if you own stocks or can work from home, you’ll probably emerge a winner. Otherwise your personal economy is likely to sink you further toward or into poverty. In that sense only, Republicans have done a good job: they’ve improved the bottom line for those with wealth.

In February before the pandemic became a tangible thing, I moved a lot of our portfolio into bonds convinced that it would be a U-shaped recovery. It is, but not according to the markets. I did keep our net worth up for a while compared with the collapsing financial markets, but I didn’t expect the Federal Reserve’s success at propping up businesses would work so well. With fewer expenses due to the pandemic and markets soaring in spite of our anemic economy, our wealth is soaring.

I can’t find much to spend all this new wealth on, but I do feel guilty for having it. In reality though government responds to those with wealth, and that’s why we’re doing so well. It’s all those other suckers who keep the economy going who fall by the wayside.

Those and stupid people like my sister’s neighbors. Those of us with some wealth, who can easily socially isolate and wear masks will emerge from this triumphant. But our society will be markedly less stable than it was before the pandemic.

So hold onto your hats. The real reaction to the pandemic might show up in 2022.

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

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 33 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 COVID-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.