The Atlanta shootings and why pornography may be a good thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buddy, can you spare some vaccine?

Basically, I’m waiting to be let out of home confinement.

Okay, I’m not actually confined. I can leave any time I want to, but do I want to? Yes I do, but practically I can’t. Going anywhere in the covid age entails risk, but a lot less risk if you are inoculated against the covid virus.

I’ve been in covid jail for about a year now. About once a week, sometimes more often, I hit a store. I generally go early to avoid crowds, and I’m not too proud to use senior hours if they are offered. And of course I wear a mask, which was not true a year ago when we didn’t understand that covid-19 is principally spread through respiratory droplets in the air. If weather permits though, I do make it a point to walk outside every day, and that helps a lot. I should keep the mask on all the time but the truth is I often take it off, and don it when I am within fifty feet of someone else. After all this time, I still don’t like breathing in my own warm air.

Like most Americans I’m sick of this, but unlike a lot of Americans I’m not stupid enough to ignore the perfectly sensible precautions like limiting my exposure to crowds, wearing a tight-fitting mask and not dining in restaurants. Naturally introverted, I tend to like my own company better than someone else’s. Online social networks generally let me feel connected. I still meet people, including neighbors, but it’s almost always in a Zoom call.

But I want out of jail. What’s making it frustrating is that a number of my siblings are getting or have been vaccinated. My daughter is in public safety (911 operator) and completed her Moderna shots in late January. She’s only 31. I’m more than twice her age but I am waiting and more than a little jealous when others seem to be able to get their shot somehow but I can’t.

I almost qualify as a senior citizen. I’d need to be 65 but I don’t hit that milestone until next year. Perhaps if I were unhealthier, I could get it. I’m sure I’m overweight, but hopefully not obese. Obesity is one of two factors that usually win you a shot. But you also need something else. My wife qualifies. I won’t name her two factors, but one of them is an underlying medical condition. So she’s been trying to get a shot, so far with no success.

Frankly, Massachusetts is making quite a mess out of vaccine deployment. Citizens of the commonwealth give our governor Charlie Baker decent marks for his handling of the vaccine’s rollout, but I don’t know why. I think he’s messing it up pretty badly. There’s a state website but no way to register for a shot on it, though they do provide links to some places that may offer the shot. You learn about shots mostly from friends and since you don’t meet them in person anymore, you learn about it from your online friends. By the time my wife tries, the few slots are gone. Out here in western Massachusetts, there are few mass vaccination places and you can’t count on any appointment you do snag on being fulfilled. The doses mysteriously stop coming from the federal government. CVS is starting to offer shots, but they open their system once a week and they fill up almost instantly.

This shouldn’t last much longer. There is a new Johnson & Johnson vaccine now available, and President Biden has talked another vaccine manufacturer into producing the J&J vaccine. He wants all Americans to be eligible by May 1. This sounds like a worthy goal, but as we’ve discovered so far being eligible doesn’t mean you can actually get a vaccine appointment.

I’m not picky. I’ll take any one that’s available. The J&J vaccine is getting a bad rap. It’s simpler, being once and done. It doesn’t require super cold refrigeration. It’s also newer, so likelier to work against the newer covid variants. You have a higher likelihood of getting the disease anyhow, but your symptoms will be milder. You won’t go to the hospital. No one has been killed from the vaccines.

While being generally introverted, I do miss occasional socializing. It’s true when walking I can nod or say a quick high to some stranger, but it’s not quite socialization, particularly when you are behind masks and generally all you can see of their features is their eyes. Aside from my wife, there is only one other person I can say I am socializing with: my hair stylist every six weeks. We both wear masks and she cleans up before and after. It’s not quite enough.

Pre-pandemic, the men on the hill where I live would go out for a monthly dinner. That ritual ended a year ago. I’m in a 55+ community but I’m one of the youngest people here. I’m guessing about half of us here on the hill have had at least one covid shot. But not me or the spouse. I may be the last one to get one as I don’t have the necessary preconditions and I’m too young. Yes, too young at age 64!

While we’ve remained alive and healthy, staying so has been a hassle, just less than it is for many. There are no kids whose online learning we need to micromanage. I consult and can meet with clients virtually, and I won’t pick up the covid from working upstairs.

But a lot of the things that I took joy in are gone. No going to see movies, not that there are a lot of new movies to see. No travel anywhere. We see our daughter generally at least once a year, although she is 400 miles away. She moved recently. She had to do this “adulting” (as she calls it) all by herself. We’d probably have otherwise been down there to help out.

So we’re all learning self-reliance, which should I think make Republicans happy, but instead it seems to drive them insane. Socializing in person with their kind seems to be critically important. Most seem impervious to the risks they are taking. About a quarter of Republicans won’t even bother to get a covid shot. If 530,000 deaths in our country haven’t convinced them of their vulnerability, nothing will.

Meanwhile, I wait and increasingly feel put out. Covid-19 will probably never go away completely, so it’s something I’m going to have to live with. But I can at least look forward to mask-less encounters with others who get their shots … if I can manage to get the shot.

Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have done something amazing

The American Rescue Plan, expected to be signed into law shortly is, as Joe Biden would say, “a BFD”.

President Joe is of course too polite to articulate what the acronym means. What it means to me is that government is working for the people again. Joe Biden and the Democrats in Congress are finally canceling Ronald Reagan (and, yes, even Bill Clinton) by declaring the government is not the problem. They are demonstrating the opposite: government in fact can be the solution. We literally haven’t seen this to this extent since before Ronald Reagan was president.


We’ve actually seen plenty of government working these last forty years, but it’s been working against the interests of the American people and for the companies that funded the campaigns of those in Congress. It’s no wonder then that Americans soured on government in general. The American Rescue Plan is amazing in that it gives literally nothing to the top one percent. It’s a bill focused on the people who have spent forty years trying to fend off poverty, with many failing at the task. It’s a huge step toward leveling the playing field between the haves and the have nots and boosting the income of working folk, through not only stimulus, but also through child tax credits, health care subsidies even to those making close to six figure income and covering the freight of Medicare for any states willing to allow it. Lose a job with health insurance? You won’t lose the latter and the government will pick up the COBRA premiums until you have a new one.

It’s true that it doesn’t increase the federal minimum wage, but it’s essentially 95% of what Biden proposed and was somehow pushed through a deeply partisan Congress by the slimmest of majorities. While it attracted the support of zero Republicans in Congress, it is supported by nearly sixty percent of Republicans polled. The plan is what the long suffering American people need. It explains why Joe Biden’s approval rating is 59% while Trump struggled to get out of the low forties.

Oh, and it does a lot of obvious covid-19 relief. Testing, contract tracing and vaccine deployment are all covered. There’s money to allow schools to reopen, to allow restaurants and businesses to avoid bankruptcy, and to assist state and local governments whose tax revenues plunged during the recession, making helping people difficult. It keeps a lot of people from being evicted from their homes. It does some actual racial justice, with money going to black farmers. It provides substantial credits to families with children, and delivers these payments monthly, instead of through once-a-year tax credits, credits that will be hard not to make permanent once parents get used to them. It puts a lot more money into people’s pockets, most of who will turn around and quickly spend it. So it’s going to juice the economy like a rocket.

For a change, me and the missus will be spending our stimulus money. There was nothing to spend it on a year ago, but it’s safer to let people into the house now and they know to wear masks. We have a huge unfinished basement and the stimulus should cover painting the floors, ceilings and posts.

Ideally this would not happen with borrowed money, but interest charges on government debt right now are minuscule, making it a great time for the government to run up debt at minimal cost. Ideally while providing the relief that most of us needed for decades, we’d also be tapping the overstuffed kettles of the rich. We could start by repealing the trillion dollar tax cuts passed during the last administration.

But Joe Biden is quite pragmatic and tactical. I can see these ideas are on his mind too, but he’s smart enough to know “not yet.” Making government function again feels novel. In fact, it is novel for most of us because only us oldsters remember a time when government functioned in their interest.

With nearly five decades in public service, Biden knows how to make things happen. It’s true he’s gotten some lucky breaks. Picking up two Georgia Senate seats made this bill possible – thank you Georgia voters! The Trump administration did not deserve to be called an administration. Calling it an administration assumed it was competent. It never was. You can’t say that about Biden’s administration. What he’s doing is tactically smart. Moreover, Biden is focused and tenacious. Just about every day I see something important and tangible getting done. Today, it was getting 100 million new doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine ordered. The current vaccine scarcity is soon not going to be a problem. Biden is systematically and carefully putting the pandemic behind us. He’s making government work.

This should rebound for the Democrats, but you never know. Biden is building a case for pragmatism over partisanship. It may turn into a majority and an enduring coalition. There are many forces though pushing against regular order. So far though Biden and his team seem to be one step ahead of them. He succeeds through intelligence, pragmatism, not getting on soap boxes and mostly by staying focused. It’s quite clear he wakes up every day thinking about what is most important to get done and spends his day on it. He adroitly greases the gears of government. It’s quite amazing to watch.

Quite frankly, Joe Biden has surprised me. He’s proving far more effective than Barack Obama, but a lot of this is due to a more favorable set of political cards. But it’s also because Biden plays a deft game of musical chairs and it seems forces allied against him just can’t keep up. He may be an old dog, but he’s got lots of tricks. He’s quite impressive. I keep expecting the other shoe to fall, but so far it hasn’t.

Joe Biden hasn’t forgotten his working class origins. His public school education, including his public university degree, are proving to be of much more use than any Ivy League degree. Joe is a man of practical action and much slicker than Bill Clinton ever was. You just don’t notice it behind his generous, every day man smile.

Keep me smiling, Joe. You’re surprising the heck out of me.

Republicans are inadvertently voting themselves off the island

Last I heard, today was revolution day, take two. The insurrection of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 failed but at the cost of a half dozen deaths.

Today is the day Trump is finally supposed to become president again somehow, or maybe it’s king. This appear to be the latest conspiracy theory going around the QAnon channels. This may be a crazy threat, but it was enough for the House of Representatives to decide to cancel its session today. Last I heard, the Senate hadn’t succumbed to fear.

Why March 4th? That’s because it was the date originally set for presidential inaugurations. Set at a time when it could take weeks or months to get across the nation, it made sense. The 20th Amendment though changed the date to January 20th. But I guess that’s not constitutional enough for some of these QAnon-ers. So today must be the day a “real” president would take office and that can’t be Joe Biden because Trump said the election was stolen from him. Case closed, or rather these minds closed.

I don’t expect Congress to be overrun today, unlike on January 6th when I did expect this. In fact, I blogged about it before the event. Unlike on January 6th, this time we now have a Congress that realizes these QAnon-ers may be crazy, but they at least now have a track record. Also, we have a new president. The last one helped foment the insurrection itself.

The Capitol is now something of a fortress. Anyhow it’s hard to get into and out of with all the temporary fencing and razor wire. In addition, there is still a National Guard presence at the Capitol; they never quite left. So there’s no ready soft target anymore. There are rumors that date has been moved to March 6th, presumably because it’s two months to the day since the insurrection. But that’s on a Saturday, so it doesn’t bode well for hanging Mike Pence or Nancy Pelosi.

So I’m not losing sleep over what may happen today. But l am pretty disturbed (but not surprised) about how the post-Trump age is turning out. While insurrection may be out for the moment, it’s time for Republicans to dial it up to eleven on gerrymandering and voter suppression. Over three hundred bills have been introduced in state legislatures to make it harder for people, particularly people of color, to vote. There is good evidence that voter suppression tactics are counterproductive to Republican’s aims. For while it may make it harder for people of color to vote, it also makes it harder for rural Republicans to vote too. Many of them will prefer to sit out the next election, especially those less vested in the cult of Donald Trump. Also, many Republicans are leaving the party because of January 6th.

These Republican moves have a feeling of desperation about them. While covid-19 killed a lot of people of color, it also killed a lot of the Republican voting base: older white people, particularly the obese and non-mask wearing types. The party has become a party of White grievance, which is not a great platform for attracting others necessary to keep the party viable. In addition, the party is taking unpopular stances. Not a single House Republican voted for the latest covid-19 bill, even though a majority of Republicans polled support it.

Still, these efforts are enough to worry that our democracy is slipping away. Recent Supreme Court arguments on a case attacking the 1965 Civil Rights Act suggest a majority of the court is priming to make what’s left of the law unconstitutional.

So there is plenty of onus to enact the For the People Act through Congress. This bill would require congressional districts be drawn impartially, set national voting standards and require universal mail in voting. The Act has passed the House and has now moved to the Senate. Currently it would be subject to filibuster, which has many Democrats arguing it’s time to get rid of the filibuster altogether.

It’s a compelling argument, especially now, because if Democrats don’t then these new voting laws and redistricting would tilt the playing field even more toward the advantage of Republicans. It’s hard to understand the hesitancy of some wavering Democratic senators. The filibuster has been chipped away at for more than twenty years. Republicans have shown no hesitancy to chip away at it when they wielded power. Nor has it proven a method for brokering bipartisan compromise. Rather, it’s done just the opposite. It needs to die.

I often wish there were a way to keep people from believing insane stuff. Americans seem to love conspiracy theories but Donald Trump elevated them and made them mainstream. There doesn’t seem to be a way to put this genie back in its bottle. Because Trump supporters are not reality based, real life is bound to disproportionately impact them, as demonstrated by the many covid-19 victims among staunch Trump supporters. There are plenty of Herman Cains out there to serve as examples, but it doesn’t seem to move them back toward sanity.

We learned during CPAC that Donald Trump got covid-19 shots in January while still president. You would think that might wake up some of them to get the vaccine or at least put on a mask. Instead, we get Texas Governor Greg Abbott ending all masking requirements in the state, a stunningly premature act guaranteed to kill off more of his staunchest supporters. This was done probably to draw attention away from his gross mismanagement of Texas’s electricity infrastructure, which resulted in widespread power and water outages during a recent cold snap.

It increasingly looks to me the best case is actually the worst case: Republicans have voted themselves off the island by becoming victims of their own foolishness. We can only hope that those of us who remain are sensible. I know I am. I don’t want to die. But if I die from covid-19 and it’s because of one of these foolhardy people then I will die deservedly a bitter and angry man.

Two practical suggestions to meaningfully address racism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t mess with Texas. They’re perfectly capable of messing things up for themselves.

I’ve noticed that Republicans, who seem to live primarily in southern latitudes, are happy to dish out criticism of us “libtards”, you know, those of us in blue states. They don’t get much bluer than where I live in Massachusetts. Yes, here the property taxes are high. Our $559,000 house was recently reassessed and our property taxes will soon be close to $10,000 a year. But unlike in Texas, you can’t buy a house in this state where the plumbing lines go along the outer, uninsulated side of the house. We have something called a “building code” around here.

Oh, I’m sure Texas has building codes too, it’s just that they aren’t very particular. It’s not a high bar to build a house to code in Texas, and it keeps the house prices low. It does have some downsides, such as in the recent arctic blast to hit the state. Pipes are freezing statewide, even down along the Mexican border. Electricity supply can’t keep up with demand on the Texas grid, leading to widespread blackouts and deathly cold. Texas’s electricity grid is cut off from the other states. This is very much in the spirit of “Don’t mess with Texas”.

The mayor of Colorado City, Texas told his constituents that no one owes them anything and they are just looking for handouts. He has since resigned. We may be paying nearly $10,000 a year in property taxes but I’m confident the gas heat and electricity will stay on around here. We have public service commissions that perform oversight to make sure these things don’t occur. There aren’t a huge number of windmills in the state, but unlike those in Texas, those we do have are winterized so they keep turning as long as there is wind. The natural gas pipelines are insulated too.

Of course we get real winter around here, so this wasn’t rocket science. The gas company never considered doing otherwise. In Texas though they opted to hope for the best and to ride out temporary inconveniences, like the dozens of people dead, from this unexpected cold snap.

In fact, they keep upping the building codes around here. In 2015 when our house was built they were already very high. We’ve even got insulation between our interior walls. Now the codes require basements to be insulated as well, no doubt adding a cost to the house. I don’t have to worry much about our pipes freezing. They are easy enough to see running along the walls and ceilings of our basement. The main waterline is at least three feet below the ground where the ground is unlikely to ever freeze. And because we are a newer development, power outages are rare; the power lines run underground.

Unlike in Texas, we don’t see government as the source of evil. We don’t subscribe to the idea that less government means better government. Power is pretty decentralized in this state: cities and towns generally control more than the state. But the state has certain standards. Most of our taxes goes to the City of Northampton, mostly in property taxes. State income taxes actually aren’t too bad. But if you live in Texas where there are no state income taxes, well, you doubtless save a lot of money.

But what do you give up? Apparently you have to worry about shoddy schools, shoddy houses and because you don’t believe in much regulation, a free-for-all energy market very good at maximizing corporate profits but not so good at ensuring service when they are needed the most. We here in the blue states notice that you do demand a bailout from Uncle Sam when a hurricane comes through and repeatedly floods homes constructed in flood zones, while whining about how mismanaged the federal government is. Yes, looking at you Ted Cruz.

Obviously, not all Texans subscribe to the government-is-evil mantra that a majority of voters in the state support (at least those who are not voter suppressed). Like Georgia, Texas is bluing up, just a bit more slowly. This latest real-life lesson in the costs of minimal government might persuade Texans that government is not evil. In fact, it’s necessary. If keeping society functioning with heat, water and electricity is not the job of government, then what you really are left with is anarchy that will sometimes catch up with you.

So while I’m sorry for all the Texans in cold, pain and who will be dealing with burst pipes when the temperatures warm up, I’m not that sorry. Your mindless adherence to the idea that government is the problem … well, that’s your problem. You should expect more from government and like us here in Massachusetts you shouldn’t be that upset when you have to pay for it. It will be just as cold here during this arctic blast, but the lights and heat will stay on.

Mindlessly profiting from a pandemic

You’ve probably heard that the pandemic has made the wealthy wealthier and the poor poorer, at least here in the United States. The U.S. gross domestic product actually fell in 2020, but according to Quicken our net worth shot up 17% in what seemed like the worst year of our lifetimes.

Just four years ago we went through the expense of getting estate plans done. Here in Massachusetts, if you die with over $2M in assets, you are subject to estate taxes, unless you create estate plans that effectively shield a lot of money from estate taxes. Since the state does not index the amount for inflation, it seemed a sensible thing to do. I remember telling the missus, “It looks like our net worth is likely to be over two million dollars before we die.” Four years later, we’re nearly there.

Should I be thanking the coronavirus? Maybe I should be thanking the Fed (Federal Reserve). When the coronavirus hit and markets tanked they went to work pumping up the economy with lots of newly created money. Fortunately, it used the money to buy assets, so it’s not like they threw the money down the drain.

Crazily, it worked, at least for keeping the stock market overvalued, where we had plenty of investments. Nationally our economy otherwise collapsed. The stimulus intermittently doled out by our government helped some, but it’s clear that all this wasn’t enough for most people who live paycheck to paycheck. In many cases, there was no paycheck. Unemployment benefits sweetened by Uncle Sam helped. For most working folk at best it kept them from collapsing into debt and homelessness. The latter is largely a result of federal legislation that makes it hard for landlords to kick out many tenants.

Then there’s the undeserving: me and those of us who weren’t hurting to begin with. We got stimulus too: $2400 in the first tranche, $1200 in the most recent one and possibly more with the new bill going through Congress. Having nowhere to spend it we did what most of the rest of the reasonably well moneyed did: saved it or bought more stocks with it. Being retired with no mortgage or any debts, and with the pensions coming in monthly plus selling some of our retirement portfolio, and being unable to spend most of what was coming in, we were effectively saving 25% of our income.

And although neither of us has to work, I still do some consulting. And crazily 2020 was a banner year too, netting me nearly twice the income from it than it did in 2019, thanks mostly to one new client. There is no chance of contracting covid-19 from this work. It’s done in my upstairs office over the Internet. We went to the store maybe once a week at off hours, heavily masked but that was as much risk of catching covid-19 as we bore. In reality, covid-19 was never really a threat to us. No one came to visit. We had nowhere to go. One of the few things we spent more money on was services like Netflix. There was a lot of time to kill. Stuff we needed mostly got delivered.

All this while the effects of the pandemic were quite obvious. There’s a public middle school next to us. You would see a handful of cars in the lot, but no children noisily screaming or school buses going in and out. Those who weren’t masked more often looked like they were hit by a bus. All this plus Donald Trump was making everything exponentially worse; hospitals and ERs were overflowing and people were dying, about 450,000 of us last I checked.

I’d like to credit all this to my brilliant financial talents. But really I did nothing out of the ordinary. I just stayed home, deposited those pensions checks regularly and spent a whole lot less. The only pangs of regret I felt is that we couldn’t get on a cruise ship or take an exotic vacation. All that was in our budget. (We actually did take a cruise in early March 2020, came back okay, but it was scary. It had been paid for in a pre-pandemic world, and it was nonrefundable.)

Through my career I felt like I had earned my salary and then some, so there was no reason to feel guilty living a cushy retirement. But I often do anyhow. I didn’t realize until fairly recently just how big an advantage it was to be male and white, which I was. At the time I didn’t feel like it meant much, but now I see friends who are people of color generally dealing with an entirely different reality.

So as much as I’d like to think I rose on my own talents, in reality I was lofted at least in part on an unseen rising tide of white privilege. Not all my white male peers were so lucky, of course. Some really got the short end of the stick. Heck, my wife got downsized in the early 2000s and never recovered her previous salary, despite doing similar work. But she could ride on my income and prosperity.

In retirement I am finding the ways to squeeze a nickel even harder without trying very hard. The tactics have changed since the days of my parents, who lived through a Great Depression. Rather than darning socks, I find new income in the darnedest places, like a 2% cash back no annual fee credit card. I went on a savings hunt and found, at least for a while, that I could lock in a 2.5% APR CD at an online bank. We also get income from our solar panels, about $2000 a year, paid by companies that use our green offset to pollute. And really, we save money because we are taxed too little. We could and should be paying more in income taxes, but Republicans have decided we shouldn’t have to. The only tax that increased this year was our real estate taxes, now nearly $10K a year. A city assessor came through the neighborhood. On the plus side, he reassessed the value of our house upward by $76,000. Add that to our net worth.

And we’re trying new things. We let go our old financial planner and found one closer to home, with an interesting model. They find out portfolios that match our risk tolerance and add their fees to that. When I mentioned I could no longer get a 2.5% APR CD, they suggested a bond fund that would likely beat that. No, it’s not FDIC insured, but it’s very low risk, and we should be able to net at least that for our cash assets.

We probably won’t be buying a second home or time shares, but I’m wondering if this is how someone like Mitt Romney spends his free time. Income just seems to keep compounding. I used to struggle to put aside a little money with each paycheck, now I don’t know quite to do with it all. It seems surreal and wrong somehow, particularly when so many are suffering.

Yes, we have given more to charity, quite a bit more this year, and helped bail out a few friends who were seriously struggling. Even four years ago when we were putting together our wills, we decided that we were unduly fortunate. When we depart this world, about half of our estate redirects money to charitable causes.

Half of my side of the estate is currently earmarked for scholarships for people of color, to be handled by the estate manager. At least in death I can partially rectify my white privilege and help elevate those who were denied it.

Just our Joe

Joe Biden’s presidency so far is such a contrast from Trump’s. While it should be no surprise, what is a surprise is just how well Joe Biden is filling the role of president. I am starting to see him as the president I always wanted but never quite got. He may well turn out to be a better president than the one he served: Barack Obama.

Biden’s effectiveness may be due to some good fortune. Democrats control Congress, albeit narrowly. We picked up both Georgia Senate seats — quite a surprise for a state that is just turning purple — plus Georgia voters elected both a Black man and a Jew! Barack Obama theoretically had a super majority in the Senate when he took office in 2009. It takes 60 votes to overturn a filibuster. But Al Franken didn’t take office until the summer, as his race was tied up in endless lawsuits. Also, Joe Liebermann was technically an independent as was as likely to vote as a Republican than a Democrat.

Back then there were lots of Blue Dog Democrats in the Senate that made sensible things like Medicare for All impossible despite a supermajority. Today, with a 50-50 senate and Vice President Harris breaking ties, arguably the Senate is more left than it was then, and it’s easier to get things passed. The Democrat’s most conservative member, Joe Manchin (WV) is arguably more to the left than any of the Blue Dog Democrats in 2009. Also, the filibuster has been gravely injured since 2009. There doesn’t appear to be a Democrat in the Senate willing to vote against a covid-19 bill at the price President Biden is asking for: $1.9T or unwilling to use the reconciliation process to do so, which allows spending bills to pass with a simple majority. In the House, Democrats are similarly united, at least so far.

Biden also remembered lessons from 2009 when he was tasked on a rescue bill. Then they went small mostly because they had to, though it muted the recovery and led to a Tea Party upset in the 2010 elections. This time they are going big because they can and because Biden remembered what happened to the party when they didn’t. Polling shows the American people are solidly behind him, with about seventy percent approving of his covid-19 bill. One poll has Joe Biden’s approval rating at 61%, a number that should make Obama jealous. The bill contains just the stuff we really need: stimulus, rent relief, unemployment compensation and money to get inoculations and testing going quickly.

Government is beginning to work again. This is because Biden is not doing stupid stuff, but instead is executing a well thought out plan. He’s got his ducks in a row before taking office and he’s moving forward with all deliberate speed. Unlike Trump, he feels no need to grandstand. He’s happy to delegate work and let others share the credit. We haven’t had a president since Jimmy Carter with his natural sense of modesty. It remains to be seen if Biden can avoid Carter’s mistakes.

Biden promised a cabinet that would look like America, and he more than succeeded. Aside from a Black/Asian vice president, he’s got four women in his official cabinet, one Native American (as Secretary of the Interior!) and three Blacks, including a Black defense secretary. And that doesn’t include the unofficial (non-departmental) appointments which even includes a transgender person. His administration is far more diverse than Obama’s, who seemed more comfortable with largely white males running things. He is systematically empowering women and minorities to key positions across his administration. By golly, his administration does reflect a changing America, and these people will be able to exercise the levers of power, as well as serve a president who doesn’t require that they continually grovel to him.

Biden sees clearly what our real problems are and is moving forward quickly to address them, including climate change. He’s doing his darndest to make government work for people instead of the elite. And he’s back to running a sane foreign policy, which won’t include needlessly stoking conflict with Iran.

Moreover, Biden is a decent guy. He’s more relatable as someone to have a beer with than Barack Obama. He’s a man of true faith, a genuine Christian who usually attends mass weekly, prays daily and keeps a set of rosary beads in his pocket. He doesn’t denigrate anyone and is enthusiastically inclusive toward everyone. Even his barbs against Republicans are relatively few and mild.

How can you hate such a person? You have to gin up fake animosity in order to do so.

Biden reminds me a lot of my father, who died five years ago. My father never was interested in running for public office but like Biden he was one of the few people who called themselves Christian that I felt warranted the label. My father never spoke ill of anyone that I can recall, and was genuinely nice and sincere with everyone. Both he and Biden were just fundamentally nice and decent people. Both are/were grandfathers, and both have/had a natural ability to relate to children as human beings. Biden brings fifty years of public service to his presidency, and unlike many politicians he paid attentions to his mistakes so he could learn from them.

So, while I wanted Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren to be president, I’m not sure they would be as effective at the job as Joe Biden. Biden is a wonderful role model, and an entirely decent man and human being and showing himself to be an unusually competent president.

We’ll see how it goes. Grandfatherly Joe Biden may surprise us and end up as one of our most effective, decent and wholly admirable presidents. So far, it’s looking like he’ll be the best of those I’ve lived through. If so, he is the right person at the right time.

The dangers of the shorted short sell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running down the QAnon rabbit holes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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