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.

An outline of some Republican rubbish

The stuff many Republicans believe I often find hilarious. I like to think that many of them don’t actually believe half of what they say, because otherwise I’d have to categorize them as remarkably stupid and incurious. But I guess if you can accept the notion of an alternative fact, then actual facts are irrelevant.

Anyhow, submitted for your consideration, as Rod Sterling would say, here are a few of these “facts”/assertions and why, if you think about it for just a little bit, calling them rubbish is actually assessing them too highly.

Claim. There’s a microchip in your covid-19 vaccine put in by the government to track/control you.

Response. Have you ever watched a doctor or a nurse draw vaccine from a vial? They pierce it with a needle and hold the bottle upside down. One vaccine bottle typically holds five doses, from which the practitioner withdraws the correct dosage manually. If there were microchips in there, they would be pretty easy to see and likely could not be sucked into the needle. And if there were, there is no guarantee a given dose would contain a microchip. But even if there were, what’s the smallest microchip out there? The smallest RFID chip is about the size of a period. That’s pretty small, but not so small that you could not see it in the vial. A more typical RFID chip is about the size of a grain of rice. But even so, the government doesn’t manufacture vaccines. The private sector does. A simple random sampling of vaccines would allow the hypothesis to be tested and disproved.

Claim. No one should trust covid-19 vaccines because they aren’t approved by the FDA.

Response. Three vaccines have been approved for emergency use. While none of these vaccines have yet won final approval, they have been approved for emergency use based on overwhelming scientific evidence that they are safe and effective. But even if you think the FDA made a mistake, you can simply look at the statistics for those who were immunized who subsequently acquired covid-19. With a few exceptions, today covid wards are almost entirely filled by people who are not immunized. Not getting the vaccine puts you at significant risk of acquiring the disease, particularly because new variants become increasingly transmissible.

Claim. Climate change isn’t happening but if it is happening, it’s due to a natural process, not a manmade one.

Response. Natural climate changes take thousands of years at best to be noticed because the earth’s climate evolves slowly in its natural state. But it’s not hard to change the climate in a few hundred years if you deforest much of the landscape (forests naturally remove carbon from the atmosphere) and if population growth and growth in general depends largely on using fossil fuels which when burned release carbon. A simple lab experiment will demonstrate that heat will be retained better and temperatures will be higher in containers with more carbon in it, compared to a similar container with less carbon. But even so, have you been out west recently? Isn’t 122F in Canada more than just highly abnormal?

Claim. The 2020 election was stolen and Trump actually won.

Response. Trump lost the popular vote by over 7 million votes. Regardless, the Electoral College selects the president. Trump needed 38 more electoral votes to win. Based on vote counts in the states where he lost narrowly, he would have needed to flip Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin to change the outcome. These states have undergone repeated audits that have not changed the results in any significant way. Moreover, Republicans control all these states with the exception of Wisconsin which has a Democratic governor but is otherwise Republican. So Republican officials in these states would have to have been trying to elect Biden for this to be true. At least 86 court cases claiming electoral fraud were filed and rejected as meritless, often by Trump-appointed judges.

Claim. A big wall on our southern border will keep out illegal immigrants.

Response. Of the few miles of wall constructed during Trump’s term, it was easily defeated by a relatively cheap and portable electric saw. Even if we constructed an impervious wall, it’s not that hard to scale a wall with a sufficiently tall ladder or to tunnel underneath it, as is happening now. Regardless, there are much easier ways to get into the country. The easiest way is to fly in and overstay your visa, which admittedly requires the money for a passport, possibly a visa and an airline ticket. The cheapest way to keep them out is to improve the living conditions and economies in these countries so they don’t feel the need to migrate. It’s likely that one tenth of our defense budget allocated for this purpose could fix the problem, much the way we fixed Europe after World War Two with the Marshall Plan. Regardless, we need a lot of immigrants anyhow, to do work we don’t do and because our economic growth will be stifled if we don’t. Also, decriminalizing drugs will naturally take care of a lot of the crime occurring in these countries, as well as reduce crime in our own country.

Claim. The Capitol riot on January 6 was actually caused by the left and Antifa.

Response. Over six hundred arrests have been made since the insurrection and not one of them has been linked to Antifa or leftist movements. Also, Antifa is not an organized movement.

Claim. The government is coming door to door to force you to get the covid-19 vaccine and to take away your guns and bibles.

Response. The Fourth Amendment prohibits entry by the government into your home without probable cause, so a judge would first have to approve entry based on evidence. There’s generally nothing prohibiting anyone from knocking on your door, but no law forces you to open it. If police do have a warrant, the warrant prohibits them from confiscating property unrelated to the warrant. So they won’t be taking your guns unless they have a warrant that you are harboring illegal guns, such as automatic weapons or bazookas. As for taking away your bibles, of course they won’t do that unless you carved out the inside of a bible to hide something illegal related to the warrant. Oh, and if you haven’t noticed, it’s not hard to get replacement bibles. It’s hard to walk down the street without tripping over one. Also, if you are alarmed by the idea of a government agent coming to your door, why aren’t you alarmed by the postman delivering mail to your door six days a week?

Is inflation really a problem?

Prices are up, in some cases by a lot. These include food, gas, rent, rental cars, and airline tickets, to name a few. Why is this? Is it going to be a lasting thing? What does it all mean?

I ask the latter question because most Americans have never had to deal with significant inflation. You have to be an oldster like me growing up in the 60s and 70s to remember significant inflation. The funny thing is that it seemed kind of normal at the time. Generally wages kept up with inflation and even home mortgage rates close to twenty percent didn’t seem to deter too many home buyers. Yes, there were periodic gas lines that no one liked, but while inflation seemed pretty bad, at least assets tended to keep up with inflation. I remember renting a room in a house in 1979. Its absentee owner lived across the river in Leesburg, Virginia. The house was an investment and something of a hedge against inflation.

Something like that is underway right now, as real estate prices are one of the leading signs of inflation. Stocks too, although yesterday’s two percent selloff in the markets may indicate the days of double-digit stock growth are over. Prices are up, but wages are often up too, certainly on the low end. The federal minimum wage may be $7.25/hour, but almost no employers are paying it.

These days, the effective minimum wage is closer to $15/hour because if you want to hire workers that’s about the wage floor that employees will accept. Arguably though $15/hour is not what its proponents once hoped it would be: a living wage. In part because food and rent cost more, the price of a real living wage just keeps going up. On average, you would need to make $20.40/hour to be able to afford a one bedroom apartment in this country, assuming you have only one full-time job.

The premise is that inflation is bad. By that logic, deflation is good, but no economist I know of wants deflation. For one thing, in a deflationary period there is no incentive to spend as your money tomorrow will buy more than it will today. What economists really mean is that significant inflation is bad. Ideally they want to see it in the 2% – 3% per year range.

Right now prices are up 5.4% compared to June 2020. Obviously certain costs, like rent and rental cars are up a whole lot more than that, but there are other costs that have risen a lot less than that. Assuming your income grows by at least this amount too, you are at least treading water. A year ago it was pretty hard to find a job if you needed one. Now it isn’t and at least on the lower end of the wage scale you may be better off. “Better off” though is pretty relative. Things likely sucked terribly a year ago, if you remain employed and worked a low wage job. So with rising wages and more jobs available, they are likely to suck less today. It may feel like a skinnier elephant has decided to sit on you.

Low inflation though tends to mask other problems. If wages creep up 2% – 3% a year, who is better off? Probably not you, as it keeps you in pace with inflation so your standard of living doesn’t really increase. The Federal Reserve has the primary tools to manage the inflation rate. It does this principally by setting benchmark interest rates banks use to borrow money from each other.

The practical effect though is to keep the economy from growing too quickly, so if they judge inflation is becoming a problem they will raise interest rates. Higher than usual economic growth though should raise wages if the labor pool is relatively stable. In short, whoever is on the Federal Reserve and the interest rates they set have a huge impact on your life and standard of living. But the Fed is independent from the federal government. In effect, Congress has delegated a lot of its powers to a bunch of unelected people.

Some have argued that the Fed has done a lot of money printing during the latest recession and that’s the cause of the inflation. The Fed is the sole institution charged with creating new dollars and it’s been liberal in its money creation. It hasn’t been using its ability to impact your bottom line, at least not directly. One unique action it has taken this time is that it has been buying corporate bonds with money it’s created. This stabilized financial markets and allowed my portfolio to grow by about twenty percent last year. But arguably its policies have also created the inflation now increasingly seen as a problem. Low Fed rates have spurred low mortgage rates, which helped spur the huge rise in real estate prices.

I’m betting most of you reading this don’t have much in the way of a portfolio and live paycheck to paycheck. In which case, these actions by the Fed don’t mean a whole lot, except maybe it helped the country get out of a recession faster than it would have otherwise. Federal government spending in the form of one-time payments and expanded unemployment benefits likely had more of an effect on most of my readers. In most case, the effect was to keep a lot of people from descending into poverty, which was only partially successful.

For relatively rich people like me with portfolios, the recession was in many ways great! We got a lot of unearned income that significantly padded our already pretty sizable wealth. All these actions then had the effect of further widening the wealth gap, marginally helping those who needed it most while greatly enriching those of us who were already very comfortable.

What may actually help are temporarily child tax credits, $300 per child per month, passed as part of the American Rescue Plan. These credits are now starting to go out. If you have two kids, that’s $7200 more a year in income than your family had before, assuming these credits become permanent benefits. That’s the proposal now in front of Congress which looks likely to pass as part of a budget reconciliation package in the Senate. How would it be paid for? The proposal is to raise taxes on the wealthy, essentially redirecting income from the wealthy to those who actually need it. It’s old fashioned income redistribution, something we haven’t seen changed in a long time. The trend has been to end or cap benefits like these.

As long as inflation is kept low, it becomes harder to address the income gap because leaders assume the economy is under relative control. It is, just not necessarily in a way that benefits the most people. The Fed’s policies in many ways exacerbates and encourages income inequality, in part because of their limited toolset.

Don’t you be fooled: the bottom line is not a low inflation rate, but who controls the wealth and whether the those with less of it have a realistic path to get more of it. The tight reins by the Fed are actually a big part of our problem.

The fruits of freedom

Across mostly red states, Republicans are noisily celebrating their freedom. Only one freedom seems to matter at the moment: freedom from taking the covid-19 vaccine, a freedom that hasn’t been denied them so you wonder what the fuss is all about.

It’s unfortunately quite clear that they want to extend this freedom to plenty of others in their states, whether they particularly want it or not. Dr. Michelle Fiscus was until this week was the medical director for vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health. She was fired for excelling at her job, which apparently included trying to get teenagers and children vaccinated.

We’re seeing the results of all this “freedom” right now, mostly in red states, as covid-19 infections start to spike again, almost exclusively among the unvaccinated. No surprise, those infected are mostly acquiring the newer delta variant of the virus, which is much more infectious than earlier versions. Most of these states have no mandates to wear masks either, making it straightforward for the virus to spread widely in these communities.

In Springfield, Missouri patients are being offloaded to other hospitals as it’s getting hard to treat all these cases locally. Another covid-19 wave is obviously arriving, mostly in red states, but most states are seeing increases. It’s just that in bluer states, it’s more manageable, as more people are immunized. In Missouri, mostly unvaccinated people should be celebrating their “freedom” as they try to hold on to life while hooked up to hospital ventilators. Take that, big government!

But I’m celebrating real freedom. Real freedom gives me more choices to do what I want to do when I want to do it, and do it with reasonable safety. That’s because I’m fully immunized against covid-19. I’m immunized against a whole lot of other stuff too, as my doctor makes sure I’m up to date on my shots including (a sign of age) a shingles shot. My blood stream is teeming with antibodies to attack likely flus as well as lots of other preventable diseases.

How are we celebrating? Well, my wife is off to Las Vegas tomorrow, where cases are rapidly rising. Yesterday, over eight hundred new covid-19 cases were reported in Nevada. She and her friends are immunized though so she’s pretty safe to meet with her friends at an off-strip hotel. Everyone coming is vaccinated. She’ll have to wear a mask on the plane and while in airports, but otherwise she is minimally inconvenienced.

To me it’s still a bit novel to walk around most of the time without a mask. I do this confident that I now have a very low risk of acquiring covid-19 but I’m mostly outdoors anyhow where it’s not a problem. When in stores I’m mostly unmasked too, as are most shoppers. I keep a spare mask in my car in case I need it, and I do need it from time to time. A recent visit to the doctor to treat a UTI required me to wear a mask. But mostly I breathe the fresh air again and do it with confidence. My vaccine has a ninety percent efficacy rate, so should I acquire the disease it is likely to be mild and it’s very unlikely I’ll end up in a hospital and on a ventilator.

We’ve also got trips planned, principally a New York City theater trip in September. We’ll probably have to wear masks during performances, but again we can go confident that we won’t get infected and enjoy some fine Broadway shows, one of our true passions. These shows are returning because the state and the city got vaccination rates up high enough where herd immunity may be within reach. This was the holy grail the anti-vaxxers we shooting for. They just were hoping that enough others would get the vaccine so they wouldn’t have to. Unfortunately, politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have convinced a whole lot of other people not to get vaccinated too, making it out of reach there. I hope they are enjoying their “freedom”. I’m enjoying mine, because it’s real.

I’m hoping one of these days it will occur to some of these people that government can actually expand freedom. Freedom from dying from preventable diseases doesn’t just happen. The private sector doesn’t decide to create the vaccines needed to keep from dying from these diseases. It’s a role only government can take on. In reality, most freedom means nothing if you don’t first enjoy good health.

Consequently, these “freedoms” being enjoyed in principally red states are anything but. If anything, they are anti-freedoms. The more who practice this “freedom” the less the rest of us can enjoy actual freedom, because we often bear the cost of their reckless selfishness.

I’ll be enjoying two shows on Broadway in September, and the city too. Most likely I won’t be hunting for a hospital with respirators and oxygen, as many people in and around Springfield, Missouri and many people in principally red states will be doing instead.

The futility of playing Russian Roulette with covid-19

The state of Maryland reported yesterday that everyone that died of covid-19 in the state during June was unvaccinated. Moreover, 95% of covid-19 related hospitalizations in Maryland in June were from people who haven’t been inoculated.

This tells us something that should be obvious: these vaccines work. The news is especially good here in the United States where we have three very effective vaccines, including the “one and done” Johnson & Johnson vaccine. They appear to be ninety percent effective or greater, even against the new and more contagious delta variant now wreaking havoc worldwide.

It’s not like it costs money to get the vaccine. It’s free, even to the undocumented. It’s not like it’s hard to get a shot either. It’s available pretty much everywhere now, including in many doctors’ offices. If I needed a shot, I could get one at a Walgreens pharmacy a mile from my house. Check how far you would have to go to get a shot here. If that weren’t enough, President Biden is pushing for door-to-door outreach to try to increase the vaccination rate, hovering at just under seventy percent of eligible adult Americans. And yet plenty of Americans still aren’t convinced, and likely won’t be convinced, to get the vaccine.

It’s not too surprising that the variants are becoming more lethal over time. Although viruses aren’t technically alive, those variants that are easiest to acquire will naturally tend to infect more people. If there is an epsilon variant, it won’t surprise me if it is more transmissible and deadly than the delta variant.

Generally, our survival instinct is pretty powerful. But it appears that about thirty percent of us have an instinct more powerful than survival: believing in untruths. If you hear the message from your peers that these vaccines are fake or contain a microchip controlled by Bill Gates or that it’s part of a great conspiracy, somehow these things can override the basic survival instinct for a lot of us.

While I don’t wish misery and death on anyone, it is clear that these people are predominantly Republican and conservative, not to mention Trump supporters and wholesale swallowers of The Big Lie. Many have guns in their household too. Effectively they are playing Russian Roulette with their own lives and the lives of their family members who are also unvaccinated. It’s not too hard to figure out that there will be yet another covid-19 wave, probably in the autumn, and that almost all the fatalities will be from these people who simply refused to accept basic science.

When the pandemic started, it was an equal opportunity disease. Well, not quite. Certain people like me were well protected as we didn’t have to go out and earn a living. And a lot of people could also work from home to mitigate risk. Otherwise, it was an equal opportunity disease, but you have more “opportunities” if you lived in close contact with others. Unsurprisingly, it hit minority communities disproportionately hard.

Now, at least here in the United States, it’s not that way at all. Unless you are stupid or choose to be willfully ignorant, you are choosing to risk bad odds. The disease is likely to always be with us, so for the unvaccinated it’s just a matter of time before you will get it. It’s still unlikely to kill you, but the delta variant will give you a more severe case of the disease than at the start of the pandemic. The mortality rate is about 1.7 percent. There are some 600,000 dead Americans who, if they were still alive, could attest to the lethality of the disease.

Approximately 174 million people in the United States are not fully vaccinated. About 52 million of these are children not yet eligible for vaccination. There have been at least 33 million cases in the United States so far. So roughly one in ten Americans have gotten the disease.

Assuming that until recently cases and deaths are proportionate, with 150 million Americans unvaccinated, ninety percent of those haven’t acquired covid-19 yet. That’s 135 million people. If ten percent of them get it in the next year we can expect 13.5 million more infections and about 230,000 more deaths to stack on top of the 603,000 confirmed covid-19 death. So before the pandemic is over we can expect over 800,000 deaths from covid-19 in the United States. And probably 200,000 or so of these will be fully preventable if these people had simply taken the time to get the free vaccine.

About 88 percent of the population is age 18 or over. Assuming fifty percent of these people are registered to vote, and eighty percent of them vote Republican, this means there will be about 70,000 fewer Republican voters in the next election. This only counts those who haven’t died yet. Add in those that have and it’s likely there will be 150,000 or more fewer Republican voters in the next election.

Republicans of course are doing their best to pass restrictive voting laws to make it more difficult for principally non-white people to vote. Many of these people will have died from covid-19 too. But if Republicans lose elections in these states in spite of all this, it’s pretty clear why. It’s because they promoted baseless covid-19 vaccination conspiracy theories and untruths. In short, they did it to themselves.

I am reminded of Ebenezer Scrooge. He was speaking of poor people, but I’m not. Still, it’s true enough: “If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Given all the opportunities for these people to say yes to the vaccine, it’s hard to disagree.

Creating hell on earth

In Lytton, British Columbia the temperature reached 121F on Tuesday. Temperatures across the northwestern United States broke all sorts of records recently, not just by a little, but by a lot. The heat in British Columbia though really drove the nail in the coffin. Temperatures above 100F anywhere in Canada is exceptionally rare anytime in the summer, and summer has just begun. A massive heat bubble is to blame, but what’s really to blame in climate change, principally driven by humans largely dithering on mitigating its impact.

Excessive heat has become a standard feature of summer here in the northern hemisphere but also in the southern one during their summers. Accompanying it are large changes to precipitation patterns that that is making the west even drier and creating large-scale fires.

It’s getting hard to escape the heat. It used to be that we would travel in the summer, but lately the only places that hold any appeal this time of year are the cooler and more temperate northern latitudes. Except now you can’t even count on that. It was hotter in British Columbia on Tuesday than it was in Las Vegas, where the high was “only” 117F.

Where I live (Western Massachusetts) it’s pretty dang hot too, just not anywhere near these crazy temperatures out west. We’ve had highs in the mid to upper nineties since Sunday, which is horrible heat for this area. I make a point of going outside for a daily walk, but not these last few days. It’s too crazy hot for even me to venture outdoors for long. On Sunday I took an early morning walk, but even though I left before 9 AM and mostly stayed under the trees, the humidity was oppressive as the temperatures were in the mid 80s. I finished the walk drenched from head to toe. For a while, I am exercising indoors on the treadmill. I don’t even want to fetch the mail from the kiosk on days like this. Relief is expect to arrive late tonight.

Unfortunately, the United States is perhaps the largest contributor to greenhouse gasses. Our wealth also puts us in a good position to actually do something about it. While there’s lots to do, there are many quick wins that can be done rather inexpensively. It’s excessive methane emissions that are the worst pollutants these days. Fracking wells probably contribute most of this methane. We could require that these wells be fixed and not to flare excess natural gas, or to require them to be capped. Of course we don’t, although the Biden administration is starting to take steps in this area.

Like with covid-19 vaccine hesitation, so much of climate change could be mitigated, but there are obstinate political forces, almost exclusively controlled by the Republican Party, that make it excruciatingly difficult to do much about them. Congressional Republicans are all for infrastructure, as long as improving infrastructure is limited to roads, bridges and the like and, of course, doesn’t raise their taxes. Forget about caps on carbon pollution, investing in clean energy and reducing pollution by expanding broadband access. If these get through Congress, it will be through a reconciliation bill in the Senate where two Democratic senators (Manchin and Sinema) will control the bill and likely water down the serious provisions needed to address climate change.

The effect of all of this procrastination and obstinacy is obvious and all around us. Mother Nature could not be doing more to put climate change right in our faces, and yet we still dither and refuse to acknowledge reality. And as bad as things are now, it’s but a taste of what’s coming, which is much, much more of the same and for longer periods of time. All this will exacerbate human migration and sea level rise, which increases poverty, misery, strife, conflict and the likelihood of war. Climate change is obviously our number one national security threat. We should be working our tails off to lessen its impact here and working with other nations to reduce its impact elsewhere. No one can escape its effects.

As if to hammer in the point, there was the recent catastrophic collapse of the Champlain Towers South in Seaside, Florida, north of Miami. So far the official death toll is twelve, but 149 remain unaccounted for as rescue teams try rather fruitlessly to find survivors. There are two likely culprits to this collapse: rising sea levels and willful government ignorance.

The sea level around Miami is on average six inches higher today than it was when the building was constructed in 1980. This fact, tides and Florida’s plentiful rains caused mostly by salt water, wore away the footings of the building’s pool, garage and likely the tower itself. The problem has been known for at least three years. Local and state government weren’t on top of the issue, and the condominium’s owners seemed in no hurry to affect expensive repairs.

The whole Florida coast is being affected by sea level rise. The Champlain Towers example is a harbinger of much worse to come. These towering condos rest on limestone for the most part, not the most stable of foundations, and easily eroded by sea water which is now regularly encroaching on these properties. Sump pumps can keep water from eating away at the foundation, but like New Orleans it depends on extraordinary human engineering that is costly and ultimately just a delaying action.

Climate change is going to move us inland, whether we want it or not. The only question is how fast and at what cost. Given our dithering on the climate change issue, it’s not hard to figure out the answers: much more quickly than we expect, and at ruinous cost and a lot of pointless misery for millions of us. We are literally creating hell not just for us but for many generations to come. And much of it is wholly avoidable if we simply put the common good before our own selfishness.

Congratulations! Your blog’s been consumed by the commercial web

Five years ago I asked if blogging was dying. Five years later I think it’s safe to say that blogging is mostly dead.

I speak not just of this blog, which languishes in ever more obscure corners of the web, but pretty much any blog, at least blogs that are self-hosted. When this one started in 2002, blogging was a new thing. Now it’s beyond passe.

These days the biggest readers of my website appear to be robots. Probably eighty percent of the hits I track on StatCounter come from “Singapore” via the Huawei Cloud supposedly on Android devices all with 800×600 screens and no referrer links. They come in bursts about once an hour. They “read” obscure posts from a decade or more ago that I don’t even remember writing. So there’s obviously no human behind these hits and it’s unclear to me why these fake visitors are even hitting this blog at all. Most likely they are searching for security vulnerabilities.

Twenty years ago we had longer attention spans. Blogs, particularly blogs like mine, are meant for people who want more than snippets. They want detail, context and maybe some sound analysis. Since then there’s been this revolution called social media, and we’ve nearly all succumbed to it. Its purpose is to suck us into aggregator websites where our “friends” hangout, so we never leave it. These sites like Facebook and Instagram are all about short bursts of text and photos, and generally emoji too. By keeping you in their enclave they also keep your eyes and brain away from places outside of their sites, except of course to links recommended by their algorithms, all of which are designed to give you more reasons not to leave their sites. They want to keep you comfortable and in a friendly space.

So we have this amazing World Wide Web but most of us won’t venture much beyond our social comfort sites. It’s like going from the Internet back into a walled garden like Compuserve and AOL … anyone remember them?

Blogging gave everyone (including me) a place to exchange our thoughts with the world at virtually no cost except time. When it was new, there was the thrill of the discovery of independent and thoughtful blogs. It got lots of hits back then, but the lure of social media proved too powerful.

It’s nice to know that some blogs are still highly trafficked and going, but these are well established and almost branded at this point. Many of these blogs have found homes inside of other websites. Barack Obama blogs on Medium.com, which maybe makes it a trending blogging site, if you can put up with article limits and ads (assuming you don’t want to pay to read). There is also substack.com, where the emphasis seems to be on monetizing your “extra” content behind paywalls. So it helps to have a following already before posting on Substack.

There are of course many other blogging sites, some of which have been around a long time including wordpress.com and blogger.com. Posting there has no guarantee that your content will be read. In most cases you don’t have to pay to post on these sites, although they might serve ads to your readers. In short, they are likely to make someone rich, just not you. But hey, the hosting is free!

Having my own blog allows me complete freedom of content, design and setting the rules. I don’t have to worry it will be abruptly shut down if someone doesn’t like my content, as I pay for the hosting. But unless I want to spend lots of time and money to find readers and influence influencers, it’s likely to keep languishing.

So it’s probably going to get shut down at some point, not that anyone other than me is likely to notice. I’ll probably move the whole thing to wordpress.com and let it live there in perpetuity as an archive. If I blog again, I’ll do it elsewhere under a blog aggregator and under a new alias. I probably won’t even tell my friends where it is. At least I won’t have to pay for hosting.

Blogging has scratched an itch, but its moment was an aught decade thing. So expect the blog to disappear by December 13, 2022, if it makes it that long. At that time it will turn twenty but if it makes it than long it’s pretty clear I will be celebrating its longevity all alone.