Republicans: be careful what you wish for

Republicans seem hellbent on creating an autocracy. You’d have to be living in a cave somewhere not to be aware of just how brazenly they’ve been working on this project.

The usual tactics had been extreme gerrymandering and voter suppression. But now they’ve dialed it up to 11. Texas is making it hard to successfully register to vote and harder to cast absentee ballots. In Georgia, it will be illegal for someone to give voters a bottle of water to stay hydrated while they wait in line to cast their vote in one of the few polling stations in predominantly minority communities. Voter rolls are being aggressively purged and the procedures for getting your right to vote back are increasingly burdensome and often hard to discern. And, of course, they’re working to put partisan hacks in charge of their boards of elections so that if necessary Trump can find his 11,780 votes in Georgia. Those who control the voting machines ultimately call the vote.

But they are also hellbent on making life as miserable as possible for those who are not White Republicans. Certainly women are fair game, and our Supreme Court seems to be willing to look the other way while women are stripped of their rights because they are pregnant. Missouri is trying to make it illegal for anyone to help a women to go out of state to get an abortion and one legislator there has suggested the death penalty for doing so – now there’s a way to prove you are prolife. Utah won’t let transgender women play in school sports. Most red states don’t want students to be exposed to the reality that White people did a lot of bad things, like enslaved millions of people, because they might feel guilt and somehow that’s worse than their ignorance.

This will all culminate when they can tilt the Electoral College even more in their favor so that it becomes pretty much impossible not to have a Republican president. And so they hope it will go up and down our state and local governments so that they get to be in charge pretty much forever. It’s like The Outer Limits: “We are controlling transmission. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical.”

And yet recent world events should inform them that what they want to do is a very bad idea. Vladimir Putin is now a prime example of why an autocracy is a really bad idea. First of all, most of the rest of the world’s countries aren’t run by autocrats and when countries transcend major boundaries like invading sovereign republics, they cut them off. Second, autocrats or autocrat wannabees like Donald Trump think they know best, but they don’t. That’s because they aren’t living in the real world.

Putin has twenty two years as Russia’s de facto ruler and, like Trump, assumed he could do no wrong. In fact, it’s been twenty two years of people kissing his ass telling him what he wanted to hear. It’s been that many years of bribes and corruption and bleeding away state monies into the accounts of oligarchs. Putin had every expectation that his invasion of Ukraine would be a cakewalk because no one wanted to risk life and limb by telling him the truth. If you did, at best you were thrown in prison for ten years or so.

Rather than build great states, autocrats create fragile states. It’s not like this should be news. We’ve seen it repeated endlessly. Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution probably created two lost generations and, as is true of most of these endeavors, killed millions too. Hitler destroyed Germany not to mention much of Europe. Stalin killed uncounted millions as did the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

The shelf life of autocrats doesn’t tend to be very long and they tend to collapse when their great leader proves mortal like the rest of us. Also, the order and peace they try to bring proves to be an illusion, with state-sponsored oppression and terror generally happening instead.

If their autocratic dreams become real, it’s probably the worst thing that can happen to the Republican Party. It’s all based on an illusion that autocracy will make us safe and comfortable and somehow put us back on the right path.

The reality is the more we learn from the mistakes of our past, the likelier we are to build the checks and resilience to keep them from occurring. In their rush toward White Christian nationalism, they are explicitly choosing to unlearn the lessons of the American Revolution. Our founding fathers witnessed what happened in Europe when there was a state religion and wanted no part of the civil wars that ensued. They specifically disallowed the government from establishing a state religion. Slowly, over many decades, we made progress addressing many of the fundamental inequities in our system including the disenfranchisement of women and people of color, through democratic processes.

But now Republicans want to turn back the clock. Not allowing transgender women to participate in school sports is just the tip of the iceberg. Senator Mike Braun (R-IN) is fine with states disallowing mixed race marriages. Plenty of Republicans want to overturn the Supreme Court’s ruling allowing gay marriage too. Seven years ago, Republicans tried to end birthright citizenship because, you know, those illegals don’t deserve it and besides they’re not White. Their leading politicians would be happy to end food stamps, child tax credits, Section 8 housing vouchers, public schools, voting rights, and even the direct election of senators. The one tax they seem to be for is making blue states pay more in taxes by capping deductible property taxes.

Republicans probably think in their autocracy that we would all turn into sheep. Those with the money and talent will leave in droves to places where their freedoms are respected. Police are pretty good at busting heads but it’s unclear whether they would support an autocracy, particularly since police are subject to local control. The military are unlikely to do so, as about 40% are Black or Hispanic. It would likely unleash an insurrection, if not a civil war. I can see estates of wealthy people being burned down, for example. It won’t be panacea; it will make life worse for everyone but likely particularly for Republicans.

Democracies are hardly immune from becoming autocracies, but when properly organized they provide societal stability because vested interests are forced to work with each other. Unfortunately, the more we become an oligarchy (and we’re pretty much there now), the less our legislatures are filled with people that truly represent their interests.

If you want to see what America might look like as an autocracy, look at Russia today. We just need a higher level of corruption to hollow out our military too.

Daylight Savings Time is a big cheat

I’ve written about Daylight Savings Time before. Mainly, I think it consumes too much of a year already. And now I find that the U.S. Senate without debate unanimously passed a bill to make Daylight Savings Time (DST) year round.

Why is it that something with such major implications somehow doesn’t even get a filibuster challenge? It’s unclear if the House will vote on a similar bill, but year round Daylight Savings Time may be becoming a thing.

The U.S. Senate wants to save us from the chore of resetting our clocks twice a year. This is a lot less of a chore than it used to be because many of us have smart clocks, phones and computers that update automatically. Still, it’s not much of a bother. It takes me about two minutes twice a year.

Unfortunately my senator, Ed Markey, is a big proponent of this change. Who doesn’t like more light in the evening? I’ll tell you who shouldn’t: students, that’s who. Because we tried this before during the Arab Oil Embargo in the 1970s. I was a junior in high school at the time in Daytona Beach, Florida. The effect was for us to start classes in the dark.

The sun there rose a bit after 8 AM around the winter solstice. Our bus picked us up in the dark. Our classes started at 7:30 AM, which is unusual, but wasn’t unusual in Florida then. Lots of people were moving to Florida and not all were retirees. The schools couldn’t be made big enough fast enough (and Florida taxpayers are notorious skinflints), so Juniors and Seniors attended in the morning, and Sophomores in the afternoon. I was one of the few students in my early classes actually awake because I was generally asleep by 11 PM. Most of the students slept at their desks.

Unless school starting times are delayed to accommodate the late sunrises, this will happen again. But that largely won’t happen. School starting times depend mostly on when the bus drivers are available, so we can anticipate students will be sleeping at their desks again if this bill becomes law, if they aren’t already. Teenagers tend to need ten or more hours of sleep, and they don’t like going to bed at a reasonable hour. So yearlong DST is likely to just accelerate our national brain drain as students opt to sleep in early classes rather than learn.

In the early 1970s, the purpose of yearlong DST was to help weather the energy crisis. But it wasn’t just students that hated it. Americans in general hated it. In 1974 the law was repealed. This is likely to happen again.

The Washington Post did a study on the effects of this change. It will disproportionately affect those on the western edges of their time zones. It will be especially brutal in Indiana and Michigan when sunrises will happen between 9 and 9:30 AM around Christmas. All this to enjoy maybe a little bit of dusk around 6 PM.

DST actually makes things worse for your circadian rhythm. According to another Washington Post article, it’s like suffering from continuous jet lag.

This makes sense if you think about it. Ideally, at noon the sun would be equidistant between the eastern and the western horizons. That way the clock would align with your body’s natural circadian rhythm. You can get a sense of what this time is in your area by looking at a table of sunrises and sunsets. When I live, the sun rose today at 6:57 AM and will set at 7:02 PM. That means the sun is at its highest about 1 PM.

If we were on standard time, that would work out pretty well because the sun would be where it should be at 12 PM. But DST unnaturally pushed the clocks forward last weekend. Basically, standard time is natural at my longitude, so if I were on standard time all year round my biological clock should be happiest. But politicians won’t let me do this except for four months a year.

It’s understandable that some will be excited by longer evenings during the summer. There’s a solution to that: move north. Assuming you are on standard time, the further north, the better. Of course there’s the downside that in the winter the days will be a lot shorter. But there’s a solution to that too: move toward the equator. Live in Ecuador, say. Days are almost always about twelve hours long, so no long nights, but no long days either.

It doesn’t take much pondering to realize that the planet will keep spinning at a 23.5 degrees tilt toward the sun regardless, so you’ll never always get lots of long days. DST is essentially a cheat and an illusion.

But whether we are aware of it or not, its effects on your body are quite real. It’s probably why you drink many cups of coffee every morning. If you read the article in my last link, you’ll see that DST is associated not only with more accidents during the time change, but with adverse health effects like obesity.

Year round standard time is not a perfect solution either. Where I live, this would mean sunrises around 4:30 AM in June. We might be rising naturally around 5 AM. But if you were truly following your circadian rhythm, you probably wouldn’t be staying up late watching Stephen Colbert either. You would be retiring between 9 and 10 PM every night. And of course your evenings would be darker than you might like in the summer. Around here, it would be dark around 8 PM.

DST is a ruse to make you think you can change time, but you can’t. Instead, it stresses out your body, whether you are aware of it or not. Those into a healthy lifestyle should support yearlong standard time and wouldn’t freak out if they awake naturally around 5 AM in June. Your body will be following the sun, which is how nature intends it. You might just rid yourself of a host of maladies in doing so too.

Pondering the Ukraine war endgame

I guess it’s good news that so many Americans now hate Vladimir Putin and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In a way, I’m surprised because about 30% of voters tend to vote Republican and whatever Dear Leader (Trump) says goes. Trump has never hid is fascist inclinations. Indeed, he sensed them in the party and brought them to life. Trump’s initial praise of Putin’s invasion though was quickly tempered when he discovered it wasn’t working with his base.

Granted, the Republican Party in mostly Southern states has certainly not given up its fascist tendencies. They’re taking a mile instead of an inch. In Missouri, it’s likely that it will soon be a crime for a woman to go out of state for an abortion, a law which I suspect violates the interstate commerce clause of our U.S. constitution and will probably get invalidated. In Florida, you can’t say gay or LGBTQ and keep your job, at least if you are a public school teacher. This also seems to violate basic civil liberties and probably won’t stand up in a federal court either. Meanwhile, in Texas, which is all about ensuring parental rights by making sure students can’t get banned books in its schools, is perfectly fine with taking away parental rights to make decisions about helping their transgender kids get the hormones and surgeries they need to thrive. It’s an anti-freedom agenda masquerading as a freedom agenda. These sorts of policies would feel very much at home in fascist Russia.

But there is something about waging an unprovoked war on a neighboring country has them siding with Democrats, for unknown reasons. Or maybe it is sort of known. Ukraine is overwhelmingly White. When they get to see it up close on the news, it’s not hard to picture that happening here. They don’t want that. It might interfere with their church services and affect the value of their stock portfolios.

So on this issue pretty much exclusively they are aligning with the civilized world and even (ick!) Democrats. You know they are serious when they are for banning oil from Russia, even though it would push up oil prices at home. Their campaign ads will say otherwise, but they can’t hide their votes in Congress.

In the ten days since I wrote about Ukraine, not a whole lot has changed. Certainly a lot more people are dead, the carnage is increasing and likely people are beginning to starve, on both sides. A massive Ukrainian nuclear power plant had a close call and hospitals and residences have been blown up, but Russia hasn’t really gained any ground since March 3. It occupies at best about ten percent of the country, it has few troops in reserve, and logistical difficulties make some sort of partial retreat, or at least troop consolidation, likely.

But Russia still has nukes, and Vladimir Putin has ordered his nuclear force on high alert and has made vague statements like he might start a nuclear war unilaterally. If he is determined to win in Ukraine, nukes would probably do it. There likely wouldn’t be many Ukrainians left afterward. But he’s already reviled across the world, so it’s not implausible that he might use them.

Ukrainians are calling for a no fly zone over their country, enforced by NATO. If I lived there I’d want one too. But it’s a really bad idea if you consider nuclear war worse than horrendous bloodshed in Ukraine. I am grateful we have a president that knows this and won’t put our armed forced into play in or over Ukraine. Had Trump won reelection, he’d probably have encouraged Putin to do his worst to the country.

No one wants to see this continue but it’s hard to see an endgame. That’s not to say the future is hard to predict. This is becoming Putin’s quagmire. There is no face saving way to get out of it and declare a partial victory. It’s unclear if he even understands that he is losing. He’s surrounded by people who have survived by honing their skills as yes men. By controlling the Internet and the press, most Russians don’t understand what’s really going on and are cheering him on.

With time though it will be impossible for them not to figure out that their Dear Leader made a huge mistake. Their currency is becoming worthless and getting goods and services from outside the country is becoming impossible. With time, things will just stop working for lack of parts and people who can fix them. Putin can’t hide the closures of so many western businesses in the country, particularly the local McDonalds. Its military is already bogged down and supplying it will become increasingly problematic. As body bags keep returning regularly, it will become difficult to hide the scope of his misadventure. Moreover, most Russians are used to the Internet and richer Russians used to foreign vacations. They will resent what they have lost.

That’s not to say Putin won’t retain power. He has a powerful police state and saying anything not the party line can get you fifteen years in prison. But his focus will inevitably turn inward. His failures could tip him into the selective use of nuclear weapons. He doesn’t appear to be one of these people that can accept defeat or accept compromises.

So for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis there is a real possibility of the use of nuclear weapons. It may be the use of one tactical nuclear weapon, say a neutron bomb over Kyiv, or a bunch to quickly take control of major cities. Putin does not appear to be suicidal, which is what their use on the West would result in. But he’s a hard man to read other than he’s infinitely stubborn and unwilling to compromise, traits that unfortunately resemble the vast majority of Republicans in power too.

If we can keep Putin from using his nuclear weapons (a big if), it is likely that in a year or two this will resolve itself. Russia is likely to grind to a halt to be held together through intimidation and force of arms. While it may hold itself together, it will be a shell of its former self and increasingly unable to maintain even basic services. A new Russian revolution is certainly possible, but unlikely. Anarchy and large scale national dysfunction is the more likely result.

I don’t think socially-distanced Vladimir Putin will be alive in two years. I think it’s much more likely that someone close to him puts a bullet in his head first.

Digital currencies won’t save you from inflation

As Rod Serling might have put it: submitted for your consideration: the value of BitCoin and Ethereum (actually Ether), two prominent digital currencies, over time since 2016, compared to the U.S. dollar:

Bitcoin and Ethereum value in dollars since 2016
Bitcoin and Ethereum value in dollars since 2016

The dollar of course hasn’t increased in value since 2016: inflation has eroded its value. Since 2016 though both BitCoin and Ether have returned astronomical returns: over 11,000% for BitCoin and nearly 22,000% for Ethereum.

So congratulations to you savvy speculators who bought both of these currencies back in 2016. Hopefully you were smart enough to buy them in large quantities because you knew they would be the winners in this space. I imagine you are independently wealthy now. Perhaps it was your enormous private yacht I saw in Barbados in December, though I heard it belonged to a Russian oligarch.

I’m betting though that, like me, you didn’t own either of them back then. Until last year I owned neither. Had a client not paid me in BitCoin, I’d likely still not be in that market. Anyhow, I was paid $86.14 in BitCoin in early July 2021. To sell it, I set up an account on BlockFi, deposited $100 and bought $100 worth of Ether on November 1, 2021. So I invested $184.14 and at the moment it’s worth $176.69. So I’m losing money.

Chances are if you invested in crypto you’ve lost money too. I’ve lost a whopping $7.45 and that’s after a lot of interest credited to my account by BlockFi. Obviously, if I invested a lot more, my losses would be greater.

These so-called digital currencies were supposedly created to save us from the ravages of inflation. I sometimes think crypto currencies were invented by nerdy libertarians. To libertarians, Ronald Reagan and much of the Republican Party, government is the problem. While waiting for glorious freedom via anarchy, they can at least move their money into these new digital currencies and beat inflation, which they largely attribute to wasteful government spending.

Except, at least so far, crypto doesn’t seem to be living up to its promise. The value of crypto currencies seems to have tanked along with stock markets in general. You might want to attribute it to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but even before Russian troops amassed outside its borders, both Ether and BitCoin were down with the equities markets. This happened both recently and in 2018 when markets were down. So apparently crypto is subject to the laws of supply and demand just like everything else. Who would have thought?

The good news is that when markets rose, BitCoin and Ether rose too, disproportionately so. If there’s an upside to these currencies it is that so far at least it is likely to appreciate faster than markets. The downside is that so far it appears to depreciate faster than the markets too.

From this I can infer that these two “coins” are more volatile than the market in general, which doesn’t surprise me because there’s nothing behind them. If I buy a share of Amazon stock, I own a piece of the company. If I buy some BitCoin, its value is irrelevant until I go to sell it, then it’s whatever someone else is willing to pay for it. In some sense I own some part of the value of creating the coin in the first place, which you can assume was done with a lot of dirty energy. But it’s not tangible. I can go to a local Amazon warehouse and imagine my stock in Amazon is worth the value of one of its loading docks. Should Amazon go under, at some point I will at least get a check for my portion of its value. With BitCoin though, its value is entirely virtual.

The case for digital currencies seems to be that if you invest enough in an emerging currency that takes off, you can become extremely wealthy. Also, if it’s a reasonably popular currency, if you buy low and sell when markets are going up, you’ll probably do very well, assuming you are fortunate enough to time the market well.

So it’s definitely a risky form of investment of something with absolutely no intrinsic value, no matter how much the huskers want you to believe otherwise. Like the U.S. dollar, it’s a fiat form of currency because its true value is based on supply and demand. Unlike the U.S. dollar though there is no Federal Reserve entity to prop up its value.

I can see if these get used enough that central banks may decide to prop up these currencies so their economies are impacted less. So maybe rather than being an escape from the tyranny of governments, it will eventually be governments that keep these things going.

In any event, governments are onto you. President Biden is likely to sign an executive order shortly directing the federal government to look into regulating crypto. Lots of other governments are doing the same, recognizing that these currencies have national security implications as they gain wider adoption.

If you are hoping to escape capital gains and interest on your crypto, you are likely to be disappointed. Apparently, there is no free lunch when it comes to crypto, particularly since you are likely to pay a fee to those who process blockchain transactions when you buy, sell or exchange crypto.

Crypto is also useless if you can’t buy stuff with it. Russia is now largely disconnected from the world’s financial networks due to its invasion of Ukraine. This makes it a herculean endeavor for ordinary Russians to buy anything made elsewhere. They can try to buy stuff with rubles, whose value has plummeted about fifty percent since the invasion. Maybe some vendor will accept their Ether to buy some electronics not made in Russia. It’s unclear if they can get it shipped to them in Russia.

It turns out money is pretty meaningless if you can’t get a physical product or a service from trading it. It’s likely that Russia’s control of the internet is pretty severe, probably making trading crypto not an option for most Russians. China has already figured out digital currencies are a threat, and simply disallows them.

So crypto isn’t now and is unlikely to be your hedge in our new inflationary times or for your distaste for government. If at some point it becomes that hedge, it’s likely to be because governments facilitate its use.

Virtual plane spotting

Are you a plane spotter? I’ll never be enough of one to park myself just outside the fence of a local airport to watch them takeoff and land. But watching these metal behemoths landing and taking off with such regularity virtually is a bit mesmerizing, and enough to keep me watching various plane spotting channels on YouTube once or twice a day if time allows. I do it in my comfy chair in front of the TV, using the YouTube app, and often with a cat on my lap.

Joshua and Peter plane spotting at LAX (Google Street view)
Joshua and Peter plane spotting at LAX (Google Street view)

These live channels popped into my feed a month or so ago, part of a theme on YouTube to help insomniacs. I’m not an insomniac, but I am sixty plus. So at my age if time allows (and it usually does, since I’m retired), it’s not hard to take short naps. Live plane spotting channels, along with YouTube videos of hours of crackling fireplaces or stormy nights with rain falling, seem to be part of plan by YouTube to lull insomniacs to sleep.

I used to travel regularly for business. It got old pretty quickly. Navigating airports and dealing with plentiful flight delays and cancellations made business travel more of an annoyance than a pleasure. But I still find something briefly magical about flying, usually on takeoff as you are pressed into your seat and rapidly move into the stratosphere. I prefer window seats if I can get them, and usually find the view out the window more interesting than watching a movie or listening to a podcast. I find geography interesting. Landing can also be fun, although it’s usually not a big deal. Landing is definitely the riskiest part of the aviation experience which overall is incredibly safe.

So part of the appeal of virtual plane spotting may be that I can enjoy aviation’s upsides without its downsides. Mostly I watch LAX (Los Angeles International) and the LA Flights channel. With four runways there is rarely a dull moment at LAX, but it really cranks up around late afternoon. The channel focuses on runways 24-R and 24-L, the north (and shorter) runways. Maybe it should concentrate on the south runways because they tend to get the behemoth jets like the A380s and the 747s that need extra-long runways.

It appears though that the two brothers Peter (narrator) and Joshua (cameraman) who plane spot live at LAX four to 5 days a week get much better views of the runways when they are on the north side. Generally they are either on the top level of an economy parking garage at the end of the runway or next to an expressway with a great view of the tarmac. There they typically spend ten to 12 hours recording as much as they can and never stop, or even change positions. I figure they have bladders of steel because no one ever seems to take a potty break. The parking garage may have one, but there’s clearly only some bushes nearby when they spot on the north side. Maybe they can do their business discreetly there. In any event, Los Angeles is most often sunny and hot. I don’t know how they do it and I often wonder if they should be doing it. I hope they stay well hydrated and use plenty of sunscreen.

But it’s also a business of sorts. There are typically a couple of thousand viewers watching at any time and people make regular contributions to their channel, which get highlighted live when they occur. Peter and Joshua also have competition. Mainly they compete with the Airline Videos channel, which is usually at LAX, but sometimes goes to Phoenix or San Francisco.

There are plenty of other channels covering other airports out there. I generally find that LA Flights more than satisfies my plane spotting itch because LAX gets so many flights and such a variety of aircraft from both far flung international airports and domestic airports. Also the weather is almost always sunny and Peter and Joshua are more in it for the fun than the money. Their video feed is also high definition and has no lag, problems with other channels I’ve tried. The Airline Videos channel spends a lot of time on promotion which may be working as they seem the more successful channel. When I watch these channels, I don’t want advertising. I just want to see the planes.

These channels can be both mesmerizing and routine at the same time. You quickly discover that the Boeing 737 rules. It’s a modest aircraft but it’s the world’s work horse aircraft, mostly for paying passengers. You get an occasional turboprop, but mostly you get 737s and larger aircraft. At LAX the coming and going is just constant. It’s an amazing orchestration of aviation technology and process. Perhaps it’s just watching this all work somehow which I find to be the most interesting part of it all.

Still, I think you have to be a bit nuts to do this for a living. With so much competition and the grueling hours, it looks like a tough business to prosper in. But I’m grateful these channels exist as they fill a curiosity itch I didn’t know I had. And sometimes, if I see just one too many 737 taking off and landing, me and the cat will snooze instead. It’s ironic that the sounds of coming and going aircraft can often lull me to sleep.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine proves land wars are so 20th century and democracies are valuable

A week ago, when Russia invaded Ukraine, I remember going to bed feeling upset and morose. I didn’t sleep well. It was a strange reaction to events half a world away, but it’s good to know I was not alone. Lots of Americans are feeling the same way. The invasion of Ukraine has permeated American society the way few events do. It’s woken up pretty much all Americans and they don’t like what they are seeing.

So far Ukrainians have surprised the world by resisting the invasion extraordinarily well. Thankfully, the world is rallying to their side. Almost nobody is rooting for Vladimir Putin, with Donald Trump perhaps being the exception. A lot of Republicans are probably rooting in secret, but it quickly became toxic for Republicans not to support the Ukrainians.

I detected a bit of racism in Americans’ support. There was a lot less concern for the indiscriminate bombing by the Russians in Syria, likely because it’s not a predominantly White country. In Ukraine it’s a war of Whites against Whites.

Part of the reason I didn’t sleep well though was because I understood its magnitude. We thought we had won the Cold War in 1991 when the USSR fell, but this feels like it’s back on again. But the real reason for my disquiet was because this was the first major war in Europe since World War II. I literally was not alive during the last one. Like it or not, we’re in a whole new ballgame.

The world’s reaction to the invasion has been heartening. Russia is virtually alone because really there was no valid justification for it. The pretexts for the invasion were laughable: it was to go after Nazis in Ukraine. And Ukraine’s president is a Jew!

When even Switzerland is thinking of sanctioning Russia, you know just how upset most countries are at Putin’s action. It’s hard to see how Putin wins this. He may succeed in occupying the country for a while, but he can’t keep it. Ukrainians won’t allow it and the rest of the world will provide the resources to make sure they can keep at it. If their goal was to keep NATO in check, it’s much likelier now to expand it.

Moreover, the Russian Army has proven staggeringly inept. Their equipment is old, they can’t seem to maintain supply lines and the resources they need to keep it going are being cut off. Much of its army consists of conscripts and clearly many do not have even minimal training. The Russian Army has clearly degraded and is beginning to resemble a Potemkin village.

The invasion has also paradoxically breathed new life into flagging democracies. When they can see on their TV exactly what it means to be ruled by an autocrat, most people accept the systems of government they got. At least it’s familiar.

Until the invasion, Putin has projected the illusion of competence and tenacity. The invasion proves he is incompetent, as it was obviously a fool’s errand to invade in the first place. In the 21st century, it’s almost impossible to win a conflict through military means, and a win is almost always an illusion and temporary. It’s why we finally got out of Afghanistan last year and our war with Iraq proved such a debacle. You can’t win a conflict where you can’t win the vast majority of hearts and minds. The last conflict we won convincingly was World War II, in part because Japan was an autocracy, and the word of its emperor was enough to end the conflict. These conditions largely don’t exist anymore.

Democratic values are values increasingly not cherished here in the United States. But this horrible invasion may provide an opportunity for Americans to stay with democracy, despite its flaws. No system of government is more stable than one that represents the view of those who are governed. Through gerrymandering we’ve managed to turn our country into one that resembles Russia’s oligarchy. Unlike Russia though we have an opportunity to change course, if we are smart enough to learn from Putin’s unfolding debacle.

America’s Revolutionary War is still with us

I’ve finished reading two books on the Revolutionary War. To me the most revolutionary insight from reading them is that 250 years ago Americans were fighting the same stuff we are today. And no, I don’t mean the British. I mean us.

The first book, The War for American Independence by Samuel B. Griffith II, was something of a tome, but I really wanted a comprehensive history of the war, similar to Bruce Canton’s books on the Civil War. The second book, The Cause by Joseph J. Ellis covered much of the same material, but delved into the motivations for the war, particularly among Americans. While there were insights in both books, in general they overlapped pretty well. Neither is white-washed history and most of the major characters don’t come across well.

In The Cause though I learned that even before the Boston Tea Party, almost no one expected a United States would result from the war. It’s not that Americans expected to lose the war, but that the term United States (or sometimes United Colonies) was simply a marketing banner. Most of those who fought in it expected that after the war each state would be its own country. The colonies were united in getting rid of Great Britain, and that was about it. After the war, the states spent a lot of time trying to avoid becoming a real United States.

The Continental Army was barely a thing. A congress of the states in Philadelphia declared the United States in its Declaration of Independence, but the document was largely a product of Thomas Jefferson’s influence. The Continental Army, run of course by General George Washington, consisted largely of state militias. It had little cohesion because members of these militias were coming and going constantly, often at inconvenient times, like harvest season.

Washington had to practically threaten to resign to get the Continental Congress to provide a non-militia base to the army. It was needed just to give it some continuance and to ensure standards could be enforced. Even so, it would be generous to say that the Continental Congress was niggardly in appropriating money for the army.

Most states fundamentally disagreed with even the idea of a Continental Army. As a result it was constantly on the brink of breaking apart, chronically underfunded and most of its soldiers were literally shoeless and under-clothed, even in the winter. During the army’s wintering at Valley Forge, soldiers died of starvation and smallpox in droves because Congress was happy to see it starve. That it survived at all was not due to Congress’s largess, but due to the army’s foraging among the farms of Pennsylvania, which won them no favors.

One of the most amazing things about the Revolutionary War is that we managed to win it at all. This was in part because the British could never really win the war, as America was too vast and disjointed to hold by force of arms. Merely waiting the British out was the key to our eventual victory. Also, we got really lucky. Our victory in Yorktown was largely a French victory and a result of major mistakes by the British. The French provided most of the troops and its ships bollixed up the Brits inside the Chesapeake Bay. That our troops made it to Yorktown at all was not due to the Continental Congress appropriating money, but due to Robert Morris, the sort of Bill Gates of his time, and his fronting the costs to move the army down there.

Not many Americans come across as looking good in these books. One of the few was George Washington, a man of impeccable credentials. Today it’s kind of hard to appreciate Washington because we look at him using contemporary standards, and Washington owned a lot of slaves, as did many of our founding fathers. It’s clear though that Washington felt discomfort owning slaves. This came in part from a number of black soldiers that served in the Continental Army, including a major contingent from Rhode Island. Also, Washington had his personal servant and slave Billy Lee who faithfully attended to him throughout the war. Lee was freed on Washington’s death. All of Washington’s slaves were eventually freed through his will, but only after his wife Martha died. That’s more than you can say of Jefferson’s slaves.

Aside from that, Washington was a truly amazing man. These days Abraham Lincoln generally gets top billing as our best president. I haven’t read a history of Washington’s presidency yet but his time as the Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, persevering despite hellacious circumstances, and the integrity and respect he inspired was truly amazing, even if he often despaired in private. Unlike virtually all politicians, Washington was never drawn to power and was happy to relinquish it when the war was over. When King George III learned of Washington’s resignation he said if true “he will become the greatest man in the world.” It was simply unthinkable that someone with his gravitas would give up power when he could have kept it.

Washington wanted a robust and empowered national government. He wanted a real United States, not the loose confederation of states he actually got. He was in a distinct minority of Americans at the time, most who could not see much past their villages where most Americans lived their lives. He was a federalist. Those who wanted to minimize the scope of the federal government were anti-federalists. They wanted power to rest principally in the states, and stay there.

This fundamental conflict is still with us today. Two hundred fifty years later, the Democrats are the Federalists, and the Republicans are the Anti-Federalists. The Anti-Federalists distrusted national governments, fearing it would bring about the sort of repression and noble class the war was fought to avoid. The Federalists saw it as inevitable, especially since as a result of the War the United States acquired all land east of the Mississippi River. Letting the states literally fight it out for possession of these lands would have brought on a real civil war long before it arrived.

After the war, it was popular to lampoon the Continental Army. The prevailing opinion was that it was state militias that won the war, and the Continental Army was ancillary at best. Most agreed that Washington was a brilliant leader and tactician but most Americans did not know what the term “American” meant. They were Georgians, or New Yorkers, or Virginians. That was the scope of their worlds.

Of course slavery was as divisive an issue back then as it would be during the Civil War. But there simply wasn’t the will for our loose confederation of independent states to tackle the issue. No one could reconcile American’s intense desire for freedom and liberty when it wasn’t granted to slaves. It caused a lot of cognitive dissonance which was tacitly not talked about.

If you know about American history, you know that the original Articles of Confederation, which gave any state veto power over all the others when it came to national decisions, ultimately had to be abandoned. It turned out to be wholly unworkable and with the vast wealth in the west still to be acquired, there were pragmatic reasons to form a national government after all. It required a new constitution, which was quite brilliant in its time for setting up a system of checks and balances, which allayed a lot of the concerns of the Anti-federalists that a federal government would get out of control.

In 2022, it’s clear that our new Anti-Federalists, the Republican Party, no longer likes these checks and balances because demographics are turning against them. This time instead of accommodating the Federalists, they want to disempower them altogether, and permanently.

From reading these books on the Revolutionary War, it’s clear we are fighting the same arguments we fought back then. It’s not through a constitutional process this time, but through raw power. We need a new George Washington, but it’s hard to see any figure that can unite both sides.

The causes of inflation are probably not what you think they are

Sick of 7.5% inflation? Most of us are. Who likes paying higher grocery and gasoline prices? Who likes to see their rents go up twenty percent or more?

Well, some like it, but they tend to be corporations. One of the major causes of inflation is due to less competition in the marketplace. Before the pandemic there were a whole lot more retails stores out there than there used to be. Now they are harder to find and due to the pandemic we are buying more of our stuff online.

As a result e-tailers like Amazon are raising prices in general, but also on Amazon Prime. If you want to compare their prices with those at a local retailer, well, good luck because the local retailer is probably gone.

But some people like inflation. It gave me an excuse to raise my prices. I provide internet services from my home. It’s been four years since I changed my pricing. I don’t really need the money but my work is pretty steady and inflation makes it worth less every year. So I upped my prices about twenty percent in general. So far I haven’t seen customers go elsewhere, in part because there’s not a whole lot of people who can provide the unique services that I provide. Supply and demand, baby!

Two houses in my pretty upscale retirement village went on the market recently. Both were sold within days. The one I know for sure about had its owners accepting an offer $100,000 over their asking price. A lot of renters feel the pressure to own, particularly while mortgage rates are still relatively cheap. So they will jump into the bidding war, fearing even steeper rent increases.

Costs are up in part because there’s a whole lot more money floating around. We probably got close to $5000 in pandemic stimuli, money we didn’t need because no one saw fit to do any means testing. To companies, the Federal Reserve basically made money available at zero percent interest.

Add that to the problem of having a hard time getting stuff you need it because it’s in short supply, and it’s no wonder that inflation is at 7.5%. For most people, the real rate of inflation is a lot higher, because it’s the stuff you absolutely need that is the most demand, which further pushes up these prices.

Some of us pushed up prices by retiring, or effectively pricing ourselves out of the labor market. We saw that it literally wasn’t worth the costs to stay in the labor market, not when you factor in the dangers of the pandemic, our ages, our obesity and in some cases the bloated size of our 401K’s. This exacerbated a labor shortage which helped to push up wages which unsurprisingly also helped push up prices.

Anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers caused a lot of inflation they now decry. They caused our emergency rooms to overflow and for nearly a million people to die of covid-19, probably about 80% of them unnecessarily had we had done a good job of managing the pandemic. It certainly contributed to the smaller labor market, as in dead people can’t work.

And simple greed caused a lot of inflation. In Atlanta, 32.7% of homes in the last quarter were bought by investors who appear to want to rent them up to capture sky-high rental rates. Nationwide, more than 18% of homes in the last quarter were purchased by investors, making it harder to buy a house to own. With rents up 20% to 40% in general, there’s a lot of money to be made by squeezing tenants. This should be considered immoral and sinful, but in America we call it capitalism.

The Fed’s solution to all this will be to raise interest rates. This will have the effect of hurting those with the least ability to pay, which will certainly lower demand, but at the expense of a lot of misery, suffering and homelessness. The Fed’s monetary tricks eventually become counterproductive causing predictable side effects like inflation. Most of us could have predicted these high inflation rates, but the geniuses at the Fed could not.

Their actions also perturbed where a lot of new money went. It went disproportionately to businesses and the rich. Yes, stimulus helped, but that wasn’t an action by the Fed, but by Congress. While stimulus helped, it was a drop in the bucket compared to the money the Fed created and spent to prop up stock prices. Increased stock prices benefited those who owned stock, which is not most of us.

The result of all this money shifting and a pandemic was a lot of market chaos that was easily predictable. We bought short term relief at the cost of new long term issues, like inflation that will not easily be tamed.

Markets now expect the Fed to come to the rescue to bail them out for their inefficiencies. Government seems to reward those who need to least reward, like Amazon and millionaires, while the rest of us are caught in a whirlwind we didn’t want and left us shell shocked and battered.

What do these protest truckers really want?

I got to say I didn’t see this one coming, but really no one did. For three weekends truckers have tied up traffic in downtown Ottawa, Canada’s capital, protesting a requirement that only truckers vaccinated against covid-19 will be allowed to transport goods over its border and into the United States.

It’s something about freedom, of course. In the minds of these protestors, wearing masks is anti-freedom. For the rest of us, their freedom can affect our freedom to keep from acquiring covid-19, so, not to put too fine a point on it, screw ‘em, but politely, of course.

So far the Canadian government has admirably tried to deescalate the situation, hoping that if protestors get to vent their spleen they’ll go back to being generally law abiding folk. If police use too heavy a hand, it tends to be counterproductive. If I were in charge there, I’d probably be doing the same thing.

These truckers’ tactics have spread to other places in Canada and elsewhere. Most notably, trucks occupied the Ambassador Bridge that spans Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan, causing economic losses of about $300M a day. This form of protest seems to be catching on in places like New Zealand and Paris, France. It will likely happen soon here in the United States too. There are likely many “patriots” willing to hold our infrastructure hostage to get what they want.

In the case of the Canadian truck protestors, they want Prime Minister Trudeau to resign and new elections, just five months after voters gave the Liberal Party 155 seats in parliament to 119 for the conservative party and 32 for the Bloc Québécois Party in Quebec. The Liberal Party won a clear but bare majority of the seats (50.6%) to the Conservative Party’s 39%.

These protestors are aided by GoFundMe campaigns with money coming principally from the United States. Prominent politicians here in the USA support their actions including Donald Trump and Senator Rand Paul (KY). No doubt, like the Republican National Committee’s position on January 6, it’s legitimate political discourse for the truckers to do these things. It’s certainly more legitimate than January 6, in that at least so far no one has died.

If you are looking for a civil war, something like this is the next step. I’ve been wondering what it would be, but the left hook that it occurred in Canada surprised all of us. These actions though demonstrate that anti-vaxxers are hardly an America-only phenomenon. That’s not too surprising.

What was actually required to get the pandemic under control was much more than many people were emotionally capable of dealing with. Despite what some of these protestors think, no one likes wearing masks and everyone would prefer to inhabit the world before the pandemic compared to what we have now.

The anti-vax community has had a few things going for them so far. Principally, they could be loud and obnoxious and generally get away with it, because their protests fell under the umbrella of protected speech. Shutting down infrastructure and blockading bridges though moves the needle into the plainly unlawful arena.

One could argue it’s been done before, so what’s the big deal. Nonviolent protests were a hallmark of the 1960s, and they sometimes made it difficult or impossible for certain government functions to happen. Sometimes police acted benignly, but mostly they were all about bashing heads in the name of keeping order. That’s a little harder to do with anti-vaxxers and truckers, who we can assume are disproportionately locked and loaded.

Are these protests about changing opinions? I don’t think so. It’s harder to imagine more entrenched political positions than we already have. Numerous protests like this that damage the economy, shut down auto plants and cause unemployment are unlikely to aid protestors. I think it’s mostly about feeling impotent about changing things and wanting to get their way now.

Here in the United States, that’s a curious approach, as the demographics favor Republicans in the midterms. A damaged economy and large scale protests are more likely to have the opposite effect. Nixon ran for reelection on a “silent majority” strategy. Democrats already have about two-thirds of voters agreeing with them generally on pandemic policies. It would be easy to campaign on these protests, potentially leading to a disastrous election in November for Republicans.

One hope is that with the Omicron wave abating much of the problem becomes moot. Protestors seem to assume that liberals want to make people miserable for as long as possible. Covid-19 vaccinations not only save lives and reduces pandemic-related illnesses, but if we reach a critical mass of vaccinated and recovered people, the pandemic ends. Not getting vaccinated prolongs the pandemic. In any event, Dr. Anthony Fauci thinks it’s likely that we’re reaching an endemic stage of the disease, where it is common, but reasonably manageable. In this phase it is likely that masking will be reduced or go away, or be limited to regions where there are new flare ups. It’s already starting, perhaps prematurely, in many states.

It is likelier though that these protestors have deeper grievances that the pandemic allows them to express. Covid vaccinations become discussions on the boundaries of freedom, and they feel they don’t have enough of it. In general, they don’t appear to be amenable to the idea of majority rule when they are in the minority.

The pandemic though demonstrates the increasing encroachment of the needs of society. There are so many more of us humans than there used to be. It’s harder to share space if you don’t feel you have enough of it. It may be that they feel physically and psychologically closer to their neighbors than they would like, and that’s the underlying cause of their animus. The need for laws increases as a community’s density grows.

It’s likelier that these protestors are actually pining for a time that really never was when they weren’t anxious all the time. We can measure it by the extent of the chaos and unlawfulness they unleash.

When it comes to dying and coping with life, religion probably isn’t helping

I turned 65 recently. This makes me officially old, in that I’m now old enough for Medicare.

The good news is that for the first time in my life I’m on socialized medicine. The bad news is, well, I’m 65. My mother died at 85, my father at 89. That’s pretty long as lives go, but it also suggests about three quarters of my life is in my rear view mirror.

Both my parents were devout Catholics. This was one of the few things they had in common: they liked going to church and the ceaseless rituals their faith provided. For both of them, religion was mainly a way to cope with life, which can be pretty chaotic. It also offered a way to cope with death, as it provided assurances that you were loved by some higher power. Unless you led an egregiously bad life, the afterlife was promised to be much better: free of the pain that is rampant in real life plus external life to boot.

But when it came to actually helping my parents cope with death, the results were mixed. It worked better for my father who took comfort in Catholic rituals for the dying. My Dad also had an easier death, as he could exercise reasonable independence right until the end.

For my mother, dying was something of a horror show. Removal of a polyp in her colon resulted in loss of bowel control, and her Parkinson’s-like symptoms meant she could not move her eyes or focus on much. She confided in me just how terrified she was in dying. All that Catholic ritual didn’t work and seemed to offer no comfort.

She wanted family by her side 24/7, but that simply wasn’t possible as her children were living all over the United States. The best I could manage was a once a week visit. For much of her last year she languished in hospitals and a nursing home. Her fears were entirely rational. In a way, the church made dying much worse. She sensed the falsity of their teachings about an afterlife and took it as a betrayal of trust. She exited the world a scared woman with no sense of control over her life and unable to cope with the reality of death.

In a way, both of them were cheated out of a lot of what life could offer. While religion offered the illusion of certainty, it also imposed shackles on their thoughts and behaviors. Sundays were not for sleeping in, but for going to church. It imposed limits on free thought, introducing guilt or worse if they even considered transgressing those boundaries.

My father picked the wrong spouse. As a result, we got sort of Stepford parents who often seemed unreal or surreal. I hold their religion principally to blame, in that it imposed a set of rules and expectations on them often contrary to their nature but which they could not seem to escape.

It’s not surprising then that of their eight offspring, just one remains a Catholic. It just didn’t agree with us. Coming out as non-Catholics as adults simply added to my mother’s guilt. My father didn’t seem to be very much bothered, as his father was Catholic and his mother Protestant.

The good news is that many of us survivors are getting it. The “Nones” (unchurched) now amount to about thirty percent of the population, a figure that is likely to keep growing. The long term impacts of this trend are hard to know. It’s unclear whether by being unchurched these same people will be as loving and charitable as those who are churched.

As I read the tealeaves, I’d say the Nones are in general more so. Those in the churched community seem increasingly non-ecumenical, at ease only among people who think and behave a lot like them. In many ways their lives seem cloistered, and they seem unable to cope with those who don’t share their perspectives. I think this contributes to a lot of the racism and political instability that exists in our current society.

This results in large sets of “Christians” bearing no resemblance to Jesus Christ. I give Catholics points for at least being ecumenical. The word Catholic means universal, so it’s a faith meant to apply to everyone, regardless of race or creed. But even among Catholics, a lot of them no longer seem to have that ecumenical spirit. I count, for example, my brother-in-law (married to our Catholic sister) who voted twice for Donald Trump and does not want “those people” living anywhere close to him.

If religion is supposed to form your center of being and be the prism through which you experience and navigate through life, then it’s largely failing here in the United States. It’s likely to fail faster for the churched than for us unwashed heathens.

You can see it in the response to the pandemic. Minds trained by religions to be closed are minds that are conditioned to believing crazy things, like the pandemic is a Chinese conspiracy, vaccination is evil and wearing masks is an infringement on personal liberty. Over 900,000 Americans have died from covid-19. While many of these were in minority and marginalized communities, many were also people of closed minds simply untrained to cope with reality and the shared sacrifices modern living requires.

If this is what religion amounts to in the 21st century, the sooner it goes, the better.