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.

My last post of the Trump presidency … thank goodness!

Donald Trump was probably in our stars and in our national destiny. If we had to have a malignant narcissist for our president, we actually could have done a lot worse. He turned out to be as dumb as dirt, with a great ability to play to a crowd but a complete inability to get anything done.

Granted, he spent four years causing a lot of evil and testing our institutions in a way they have never been tested before. We learned our national ship of state contains some pretty shoddy bulkheads, such as our Justice Department. But under his assault it probably held up better it would have under a more adept dictator wannabee. Still, our ship of state has taken on a lot of water during Trump’s four years, more so than when Barack Obama had to take over after George W. Bush’s presidency.

By almost any standard, the Trump presidency was a disaster. Doing a post mortem of Bush’s two terms, I could only point to one accomplishment of his of any positive note: he did a lot to get anti-viral AIDS drugs where it was needed most: Africa, saving likely millions of lives. Trump’s presidency though doesn’t have any positive accomplishments.

Trump will probably claim his Operation Warp Speed was a success, given the quick development of a number of effective vaccines. But the truth is the government didn’t do much to help besides promising to buy up a lot of the vaccine, making it less risky to develop. It was mainly scientists working around Donald Trump that got it done, many of them outside the United States.

In the meantime, Trump made covid-19 infinitely worse by disdaining masks and sensible strategies to contain the pandemic. Now 400,000 Americans are dead of it and we have the dubious distinction of having the most deaths and highest infection rates of any country on the planet.

Just today Mike Pence tweeted that the Trump Administration was the only modern administration not to get us into a war. That’s debatable, but it depends on what you consider a war. Still, its non-management of the pandemic likely killed 300,000 of us that likely would be alive had Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election. We lost more citizens to covid-19 than we lost soldiers in all of World War II.

The Trump Administration just got worse as it went on. For the first year or so Trump’s worst impulses were restrained by staff, until he fired all of them. It was a government run by tweet, but really it was a government largely in name only. The ship of state was basically in a tempest the last three years. Every time someone left or was fired, their replacement was worse, resulting in some stunningly bad choices, like Bill Barr as Trump’s last Attorney General. Laws and often the courts were generally ignored within the administration. Grifting was in, the Hatch Act was out.

The 2020 presidential election went pretty much the way I predicted. The ensuing chaos reached a crescendo on January 6th with the storming of the Capitol. That was certainly the low mark of the administration and encapsulated everything wrong with Trump and his administration.

Amidst the daily horror though there was often dark humor to be found. In takes a bottom-of-the-barrel administration to give us a press conference at Four Seasons Lawn and Landscape instead of a Four Seasons Hotel. And who will forget a sweating Rudy Giuliani with his hair dye dripping down his sideburns at the RNC press conference?

Most Americans are now ecstatic and relived to put the horrible Trump era behind us. Only, what’s left of America looks little like what preceded this administration. It proved that the United States was a shoddy façade of a democracy that in the end sort of held together mostly due to institutional inertia and amazing incompetence by Trump and his cronies.

My wife spent the last four years mostly depressed and in a shock that won’t go away. I can name her condition: sustained emotional abuse, not inflicted by me, but by Donald Trump and his ilk. Obama got handed a terrible hand in 2009. Biden inherits a much worse country. We’ve been raped, and our abusers were Donald Trump and all but a handful of Republicans.

I do hope the door hits them in the ass as the exit.

K-ing our way to a recovery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Supreme Court puts freedom of religion above freedom from dying

So this is what a conservative majority of the Supreme Court looks like, eh? With her recent confirmation, we have a 6-3 conservative majority with the addition of now Justice Amy Coney Barrett. In one of Justice Barrett’s early decisions, she quickly showed the conservative majority’s power and proved Chief Justice John Roberts the newest “moderate” on the court. In a recent  5-4 decision, the Supreme Court nixed New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to temporarily ban worship at houses of worship in the state’s hot covid-19 zones.

Places packed with people of course are natural zones for spreading this coronavirus. Infections there get passed on, not just to congregants in these houses of worship, but to people outside them, some of whom will also pass it on. It all spreads the disease but, hey, your right to worship in the First Amendment is apparently is more important than your desire to not catch this often-deadly disease. Maybe this is because there is no amendment is in the Constitution saying you have the right to a functioning public health system that can take obvious measures in the name of public health.

“Even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” the opinion said. “The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty.”

Thanks for clarifying that, justices. It’s not like Governor Cuomo issued an edict closing houses of worship permanently. He did it until the disease was under control in these hot zones. This allowed worshippers, but also those who don’t worship there or practice religion at all, to avoid infection and potential death. Until now, this was a perfectly reasonable standard. Now, the Supreme Court is okay with you being dead of covid-19 if it temporarily infringes on someone else’s religious liberty.

I’d like to say this is something new, but the conservative majority has been around since the George W. Bush era. It now just has another member and an expanded majority. Sometimes these decisions expanding liberty are good, such as in the case of allowing universal gay marriage, even though marriage is not a right actually spelled out in our federal constitution. But at other times, it’s been bad. The Supremes decided you have the right to own a gun no matter what, and since that time lots of people have died who would not have had they upheld common sense gun control laws where it was obviously needed.

The premise of liberty seems to be that risk is inherent in the exercise of liberty. It’s just that until fairly recently, this risk was born on those wanting to exercise their liberty instead of everyone else. While about a third of gun-related murders are suicide, the rest are homicides, most likely inflicted against family members, neighbors or other intimates. This decision is just more of the same, except had Justice Ginsberg not died and had not Justice Barrett so quickly replaced her, it would likely have been 5-4 the other way. In other words, sanity would have likely prevailed.

The Supreme Court’s decision here essentially is a death warrant for at least thousands of Americans, and will sicken tens or hundreds of thousands more. Most likely, if you could poll these people (it’s hard to poll dead people) they would disagree with this decision, but apparently, they don’t matter. Preventable death is an unfortunate consequence of having so much liberty.

This is what happens when you put ideologically strict constructionists in our courts. Real life is not allowed to have any impact on their decisions. Instead, these decisions are based not on what our founding fathers really thought about these liberties, but on what they think they might have thought about them, had these founding fathers never interacted in the real world at all.

It’s likely that this court will find new and similar ways to expand liberty, like by denying women the liberty to have an abortion because the liberty to fetal life is somewhere in the U.S. constitution, in their minds. Fetuses without brains even capable of cogitating will be endowed with future freedoms thanks to our enlightened Supreme Court, I’m betting. I’m betting this court will find ways to reduce social benefits because laws like social security weren’t explicitly in the Constitution either. And we’ll all feel freer if we stand on our own two feet, and pay-as-you-go for life, they will figure. Freedom through bad circumstance and a rigged economic system make living better!

I just hope we survive all this liberty. Chances are many of us won’t. And we’ll enjoy a new unarticulated freedom inherent in the Constitution: the right to a premature and miserable death so that others can exercise their freedoms stupidly and/or with malicious intent.

What progress!

Pay no attention to that man (Trump) behind the curtain!

Most of you will understand the reference, but if you don’t, watch the classic 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. In the pivotal scene the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz was revealed as just a man behind a curtain good at pulling levers that blew a lot of fire and smoke. That wizard, like Donald Trump, knew how to put on an impressive show.

To those of us with a brain, Trump was that always that man behind the curtain. It was obvious from the beginning. He was only something special to those who chose to believe otherwise. For many on the right, Trump is their last hope. He’s their hopelessly skewed knight in shining armor with a nontraditional way about him that somehow was going to make everything right again. “Right” in this case meant an end to the creeping anxiety they feel about a world changing too quickly. Change drives them nuts.

It’s not just a lot of Americans who have this anxiety; it’s people all across the world. Wannabee dictators are a dime a dozen and you don’t have to look far to find them. Two of the more prominent ones are Jair Bolsonaro, President of Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines. Both promise through control that they will make things right again and ease the crushing anxieties of their populaces to a world changing too quickly.

Americans who picked Donald Trump were voting their anxieties too. Trump was to bring back Leave it to Beaver America, a time when America was triumphant, whites ran pretty much everything, and life was great. Actually, the 1950s kind of sucked. A lot of our success back then was our sky-high income tax rates, which ensured tons of money went to build up our infrastructure. Naturally, this aspect of the 1950s his supporters are particularly unwilling to bring back.

Trump was never this person and in fact modeled the opposite. The breadcrumbs were all around: the many failed businesses, failed marriages, infidelities and his wacky and crazy pants ideas. Trump sold us on a vision he could not possibly deliver. The real Donald Trump doesn’t spend all his time working for you. He uses government to enrich himself, which we now understand because he’s paid little in the way of income taxes for years and he’s massively in debt. Governing bores him. What he really likes to do is tweet, hold rallies and bask in the adulation of his die-hard fans.

And now we also learn that he’s not the Great and Powerful Trump, but just another guy with covid-19. He’s 74 and obese. Statistically, he has an 11% chance of dying from the disease now that he has it. Now at Walter Reed Naval Hospital, he has a team of doctors trying to get him well.

His doctors say he may be released tomorrow, but even if he goes back to the White House it says little. The disease seems to be worst on days 8-12. It’s very likely that his actual condition is much worse than the limited facts we are learning from his doctors. He apparently traveled to a fundraiser knowing he had tested positive and while he was already declining. It appears he’s been on supplemental oxygen but doctors won’t confirm it. Meanwhile, he’s taking a crazy array of drugs not normally given to those with covid-19 and often given to only the sickest of the sick, like dexamethasone. That alone suggests he’s getting oxygen, since it’s not given to those not needing supplemental oxygen because of the possibility of harm.

He likely carried the disease during last Tuesday’s “debate” with Joe Biden. Let’s hope the social distancing keeps Biden free of the disease, but Trump’s children and in-laws showed their support by taking off their masks, a clear violation of the rules the campaign had agreed to. But, of course, Trump is all about breaking the rules as he did almost constantly during the debate itself.

Prominent Republicans all over the places are coming down with the disease or are testing positive. You can watch many of them slapping each other’s backs at the ceremony in the Rose Garden where Trump introduced his pick for the Supreme Court. No masks. No social distancing. People shaking hands and hugging. Chairs were laid next to each other.

It’s getting so bad that three Republican senators have tested positive, so it’s unclear if Trump’s supreme court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett can get a quick hearing. It’s not clear if due to the absence of these senators if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has to votes to even advance the nomination. All this is because Republicans swallowed the Trump Kool-Aid. They were too spineless to wear masks and social distance because they worried Trump would be mad at them.

Some are wondering if karma is at work. Trump has dodged it all his life. I like the idea of karma, but I’m skeptical it’s a thing. It suggests there are some higher and unseen forces at work.

Trump could die from covid-19. It’s true I would not shed any tears if he did, except possibly of joy. It would certainly feel just. But it would not actually be just. His death would simply be another way he avoided accountability for his actions; it would be anti-karmic. He deserves to get well enough to lose massively at the polls, so there is no ambiguity that voters rejected not just Trump, but Trumpism. Today’s NBC News/WSJ poll shows Biden with a 14% lead nationally. Trump is now polling under 40%, which is Herbert Hoover territory.

Much like the unpopular Jimmy Carter, Hoover went on to have a very successful ex-presidency. Assuming we can stave off civil war and put Joe Biden successfully in office, this is unlikely to be Trump’s fate. So, here’s hoping Trump survives this disease so the law can finally catch up to him. But I fear he will cheat his way out of it. Dying of covid-19 may be his only way out.

Just living

The covid-19 crisis has certainly upended things. Our old world went away around the time we got back from a March cruise, one of the last to go out and come back infection free. Since then, pandemic avoidance went from being weird to rote. I don’t know how to leave the house anymore without putting on a mask. It seems unnatural not to.

Of course, a lot of people are still getting covid-19 with 200,000 of us dead from it and rising steadily. This is mostly due to the fact that they can’t avoid exposure easily, but also because a lot of people are morons, refuse to wear masks and attend events like a massive South Dakota bikers rally which is estimated to cause 250,000 new covid-19 cases. With a 3% fatality rate, that’s 7500 people right there, mostly people who didn’t go to the rally but caught it from someone who attended the rally. Our idiot president of course continues to cheer on these morons.

I thought my 55+ community would be especially vulnerable to getting the disease, but I was wrong. First, we’re almost all white. Second, we are probably disproportionately rich-ish. Some of us have second homes and RVs. In any event, our kids are gone and social isolation is not that big a deal. Community parties are out but we can chat in the street or at the mail kiosk from a safe social distance. The older the resident is though, the less I see them outside, and their masks look especially high quality and taut. So, no fatalities here, thank goodness.

In general, we’ve been lucky. Massachusetts was one of the worst hit states when the pandemic began. Now we are one of the best states to avoid getting covid-19. It hit hard but our governor and mayors quickly did sensible stuff. Our county still gets dozens of new covid-19 infections every week, but fatalities are now rare. Some of the college students have returned to Smith, U Mass Amherst and the rest, but most are tele-educating from afar.

I still see a lot of unmasked people on my daily walks, despite the prominent signs even on the trails saying masks are required. About a third aren’t wearing masks but no one seems to be getting cited by the police. The rest of us either keep them on, or like me (I sheepily confess) don them when I’m in fifty feet or so of someone walking toward me. Being retired, to the extent I work, I work from home. I can understand why people working in the public would not want to wear one. I am glad for any opportunity to doff my mask.

So, I see the likelihood of me getting covid-19 to be miniscule. We’re used to not doing anything in public. If it is, it’s outdoors. There’s a grill run from a trailer along the side of the road a few miles from here. You can eat outdoors on their metal tables, properly socially distanced, and we have twice so far. It’s hardly fine dining, but it’s going to a restaurant, sort of, and beggars can’t be choosing.

At home, no one gets in or out of our house without masks on, except us. This has one downside though: no one comes to visit us. And really there’s nowhere for us to go either. Life is safe but more than a little bit boring.

And while millions are struggling to get by, or simply aren’t getting by, we are swimming in money. This is in part because we have fewer places to spend it. Also, my work from home business is going very well. I’ve had a couple of long term, commercial rate paying contracts. The work is generally engaging and really unnecessary, as we don’t need the money. It does however stave off boredom. It’s nice to be paid well to move bits around the Internet. Meanwhile the pension keeps getting deposited monthly. With no mortgage or debt of any kind, we could live much more expansively if we had some place to spend the money.

And that’s a problem. I actually want to spend money but can’t find anything to spend it on. This has resulted in us donating more to charity, but it’s monetary donations. Volunteering has stopped, although it may restart soon. Our house is just five years old so it doesn’t need much. I did find one thing to spend money on: having someone come in and put in a duct to the outside for our stove. We might put a bathroom in upstairs, but as that would be a project spanning weeks, it’s too dangerous right now with contractors.

Vacations are theoretically possible but virtually impossible. Our daughter hopes to drive up and visit us in November, but it may not be legal for her to do so. She’d have to quarantine before or after coming, and since she works as a 911 operator, she can’t do that from home. The alternative is to get a negative covid-19 test shortly before coming up. Legally she would need to report her arrival to the State of Massachusetts. Violations cost up to $500/day. She’s a hermit by nature but even so we’d be a little leery to have her simply because if she did pass covid-19 onto us, we would be particularly at risk.

So, there’s a lot of killing time around here. Innumerable days seems to pass by. We can’t tell weekdays from weekends except by looking at the date on the newspaper. We’re both introverted, but we also know we need more social interaction than we are getting. Maybe that’s why I’m walking in the afternoon. It’s sort of social to say hello passing strangers on a trail or sidewalk.

Of course, we all want what we can’t have. For many Republicans who swallowed the Trump Kool-Aid, they don’t seem to care enough to remain socially isolated and wear masks when not. Maybe for an extreme extrovert, the risks of infection are worth it.

I want what I can’t have: another cruise, or a fancy trip to Europe and normally we would just go ahead and do it, particularly with all this money we have amassed from cooling our heels for six months. It’s gotten such that with rising markets I’m thinking when we do travel again, maybe we’ll just fly business class. But right now, international travel is almost impossible, and visiting most states requires a host of protocols and conditions that make it more hassle than it is worth. So, you take comfort where you can.

Like going to the Best Buy. I went to the one in Holyoke a few weeks ago. The salesmen wore masks and kept a physical distance. In the past they would have been all over me, but the Best Buy looked sad and they happily let me fend for myself. Their shelves were half empty. I found what I was looking for, but the activity still cheered me up. It was a small, diminished example of something I used to take for granted, but is now so rare it feels like a treat.

Meanwhile, time to keep hunkering down and pass another day.

Time to buy a pitchfork

So my wife is in a funk. Her dying friend finally died yesterday. Otherwise she is obsessing over the possibility that somehow Donald Trump will win reelection. She doesn’t want to live in a world with another four years of Donald Trump in it. In the event he does win, I hope I can keep her from jumping off a cliff.

While anything is possible, I still believe that Trump is destined to lose, barring some sort of turnaround that is hard to imagine and would probably require Trump getting a brain transplant. Ideally, Trump would lose gracefully but that definitely would require a brain transplant.

Much more likely is that Trump will claim he has won and will send out armies of lawyers to various swing states trying to invalidate mail in ballots and such. It’s also possible that Republicans will ratchet voter disenfranchisement up to 11, and somehow keep ten times as many people of color from voting as they have in the past. Maybe that would do it.

But Republicans don’t necessarily control all swing states, and not all Republican governors are as crazy as Georgia’s governor Brian Kemp. The Supreme Court unwisely inserted itself into the 2000 election, famously flipping Florida’s electoral votes. It’s possible they might do the same and meddle in lots of states. If they do that not only do we need to fear another four more years of Trump, but also we can effectively kiss our republic goodbye.

The party conventions have demonstrated the electorate has not moved. It’s as polarized as electorate as it’s been for many months. We can expect a so-called miracle vaccine in October that Trump will hope to ride to reelection. But voters already seem to expect this scam and at least the educated ones know a vaccine can’t be trusted until it undergoes a much larger clinical trial than can happen before the election. Also, a vaccine won’t be a cure. At best it might offer something like eighty percent immunity, and it’s likely that the coronavirus will keep mutating, requiring new vaccines and boosters over time. Things won’t go back to the way they were before but we will get better at dealing with it and its impact will lessen over time.

So other dirty tricks will likely be tried: doctored photos of Biden and some call girl, perhaps. Basically, Trump has to persuade voters that he can do a better job in the next four years than Biden. Given his track record, it’s no wonder opinions about Trump are largely set in stone by the electorate now.

Moreover, things will just get worse. They already are getting worse. Our president believes the 17-year-old gunman that killed two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin was defending himself somehow, although there is plenty of video evidence that is laughable. It’s a new level of crazy, even for Donald Trump and you know he’s only going to get crazier. Soon he will be openly supporting white vigilante groups. This does nothing to broaden his coalition and might even help fracture it. His supporters have an unusually high tolerance for disbelief, but some small minority of them must retain enough sanity to say “Enough!”

covid-19 deaths will continue to worsen as a second wave begins, with the first wave never really ending. The flu season will add to the mounting casualties and of course there won’t be anything resembling a plan to fix it. He won’t suggest that parents do something pragmatic, like keep their kids from going to school. He’s all for the Silence of the Lambs. Most parents though will keep them home, at least if their school system is stupid enough to demand they keep coming to school anyhow.

So realistically, the best and most likely case for Trump is that he will say the election was rigged and he tried all he could do to unrig it, but the Deep State had it all fixed. So he will, with much bellicose and bluster, eventually accept his defeat. He likes an audience though so most likely he will keep us guessing until the end, while groups of vigilantes supporting him raise occasional violent ruckuses and his Justice Department turns a blind eye to it all. The true impact of his defeat though will be measured in how many Republican casualties go down with Trump’s ship. The size of an expanded House Democratic majority, and a new Senate majority will indicate the real size of the Republican disaster.

So I understand where my wife is coming from. We are mostly fear-based creatures and Trump will pull all the strings, even when it gets comical. I get similar nightmares, but then when I awake I realize the fundamentals of the election haven’t changed and almost certainly won’t change. It will be hard to call the election on Election Night because of all the absentee and vote-by-mail ballots. Since Democrats will disproportionately cast them, it may appear briefly that Trump is ahead somehow. Florida will be the key. It has mail in ballots down to a science. They’ll all be counted by Election night, except perhaps for some overseas military ballots. If he loses Florida, he’s toast. If he somehow keeps Florida, he is most likely toast unless a whole lot of states suddenly flip in unexpected ways contrary to late polls.

As I’ve noted, it’s the time between Election Day and the inauguration that really has me worried. It remains to be seen if the white power structure can peacefully cede power, and Trump will find it his interest to fan the flames. A run to the local hardware store may be in order: I may need a pitchfork.

The coming Democratic blowout

How much does Donald Trump want to win reelection? So much that there is literally nothing he won’t try to win it. The only weird part is that the harder he tries, the more he screws himself.

He’s going for broke, which is sort of the way he’s run the Trump Organization, given its many bankruptcies over the years. He’s only increasing the odds that he will have to deal with many criminal charges and civil lawsuits after leaving office. In addition to his actions being counterproductive to him, they are going to devastate Republican candidates across the board, including in state legislature races.

Literally no other president would even consider doing something so patently illegal as maiming the Post Office. The Post Office has the overwhelming approval of people in all parties. It’s one of the few functions of government specifically written into the U.S. Constitution. Our founders saw a mail service as so essential that it is explicitly chartered as an allowed government service. Since its first postmaster Benjamin Franklin set it up, it’s been largely untouchable.

But to Donald Trump, it’s just something to manipulate to help ensure his reelection. His toady of a new postmaster general has prohibited overtime and removed mail sorting machines from hundreds of mail processing facilities, as well as removed dozens of people from his senior staff with deep institutional knowledge. It’s true that mail volume has decreased and some of this is necessary, but not when Americans are filling the mail system with ballots. Mail is backlogging in postal facilities nationwide and in many cases it now must be sorted tediously by hand by postal clerks who are prohibited from accruing overtime. People, particularly rural people who vote disproportionately Republican, depend on it for critical things like getting prescription drugs and social security checks. How do you think this way play politically for Trump?

But that’s all appears to be expendable to Donald Trump because he’s convinced if ballots can’t be counted because they don’t arrive, he’ll win. It will throw a huge amount of chaos into the election, but it’s unlikely to change any results in his favor. People concerned about their vote counting will probably drive by city hall instead and insert their ballots into the ballot box instead. That’s likely what we are going to do.

Similarly, there are his executive orders. Four were recently issued, but actually only one (the other three were memorandum with little teeth) qualifies. All this is because he and Democrats in Congress can’t agree on a pandemic funding bill. Democrats offered $3 trillion; he offered $1 trillion. Democrats suggested meeting in the middle at $2 trillion and he said $1 trillion and we’re not going any higher. When Democrats wouldn’t take the bait, he issued these “orders” instead, cutting the previous benefits from $600 to $400, of which states had to chip in $100 for unemployed to get any of this money. These states are already running in the red because the economy is down so virtually no states can afford this “system”. Oh, and the money would come from disaster relief funds … no chance of needing some of that money considering we’re having a very active hurricane season, right?

Then there’s his unilateral payroll tax “cut”, but it’s really a tax deferral. The taxes are still owed; it’s just that some employers may stop collecting them. This is very dubious legally, but of course it expands the budget deficit and worse, strikes at the heart of the solvency of the Social Security system. This is something else Trump doesn’t like and this looks like an end around to wound it, but his most staunch voters depend on its solvency.

Most likely Trump will eventually realize he has to strike a deal more to Democrats’ liking. He can hope of course that some of voters’ ire will also be directed at Democrats that can’t come to a deal, but the Democrat’s position looks much more politically tenable than Trump’s. In addition, it’s not like Democrats have been sitting on the sidelines. The Democratic House passed a generous bill back in May, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell refused to take it up. McConnell couldn’t even create a consensus bill among his own party and effectively washed his hands of the issue.

About half of his conference is opposed to all the deficit spending although not one of them will call for the repeal of their tax cuts for the rich to address the issue. That’s why Trump is left to negotiate with Democrats who are at least reasonably reunited. Naturally he can’t negotiate with Nancy Pelosi or Chuck Schumer directly. He’s got a tiff with Pelosi going, so it will have to be through his chief of staff and Treasury secretary. In the meantime, the unemployed don’t have much if anything in the way of income and most can’t pay their rent and many are likely to be evicted.

Then there is his continued bungling on the pandemic, which is now hitting mostly red states the most severely. He keeps pushing for deeply stupid things that make the crisis worse, which will get much worse when schools start to seriously reopen. Students will transmit the virus home to parents, and pass it on to their teachers and school staff. This will push infection rates even higher into the fall.

It’s a strategy not just for losing, but also for a Democratic blowout. And it’s not hard to figure out why. It’s because neither Trump nor the Republican Party have a clue on how to govern.

No shortcuts to controlling covid-19

Early in the Trump Administration, presidential adviser Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts”. The term that could have come out of George Orwell’s book 1984. By definition a fact is not disputable, but Ms. Conway made them so. Apparently, if actual facts won’t provide the answer you need, you invent another fact instead.

Since then the Trump Administration has been inventing all sorts of alternative facts, otherwise known as lies. And with the exception of a small group of die-hard Never Trumpers, Republicans have embraced Trump’s truthiness. It does solve a lot of messy problems, like having to admit reality is, well, real. Decide on your new reality and move forward. Problem solved!

But their world of alternative facts is crumbling. You can deny reality if you want, but at some point it cannot be denied. In canceling the Republican convention, Trump was acknowledging reality that getting covid-19 is in fact a lot worse than getting the sniffles; in fact it can kill you. Rather than tell Trump he was full of crap, Republicans simply decided they weren’t going to his convention. So to avoid humiliation not to mention all the covid-19 cases that would invariably result, Trump had to cave.

Obviously, most Republicans are perfectly fine with those other people getting covid-19, but not them in particular. After all they can stay in their gated communities and buy their kids private tutoring if needed. That’s true of most Republicans who control the party, but obviously not all of them. Many of them aren’t quite so moneyed.

Here’s a prediction that’s pretty easy to make: virtually no school district in the country will open for in-person classes this fall. All it takes is one kid in a school district to test positive to close the schools. In the unlikely event a school superintendent won’t; parents will make the choice for them. They won’t put their children in jeopardy and will keep them home.

So far, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is continuing to buck the trend, insisting that all Florida schools will reopen on time in a few weeks. But he will buckle like Trump did because actual facts will force him to do so. He looked so popular when the state’s infection rate was relatively low but obviously that has changed. He’s already more unpopular than Trump is in the state. Assuming he wants to win reelection in a couple of years, he’s got to pivot. He will, but it’s unclear whether voters will forgive his insistence that their kids were fair game in Trump’s world of alternative facts.

Like the Wicked Witch of the West, the Republican Party is melting. Reality is catching up with the party. Donald Trump is melting too, and bringing down much of the party with him. In many ways, this is a perfect political storm. As much as Republicans hoped to escape reality by inventing their own facts, reality won’t bend. The coronavirus will keep doing what it is doing and will kill people regardless.

False hopes like herd immunity and throwing caution to the wind won’t do much beside leaving many more of us dead or victims of the disease. Restarting the economy hasn’t saved us. In fact, it’s made things much worse, prolonging the disease, greatly enlarging its impact and slowing our recovery, putting us at a competitive disadvantage to other more enlightened countries.

It’s actually a lot worse than that. Effectively, no Americans can travel internationally until we contain the virus. Even traveling state-to-state is chancy. If you wanted to visit me in Massachusetts, after August 1 in most cases you would have to self quarantine for up to two weeks before or after coming or get a covid-19 test showing no exposure within 72 hours of arrival. If you don’t quarantine before coming, you must also produce a negative exposure test to get out of quarantine. There’s even a form you have to fill out. Violations can cost up to $500 a day.

It appears that the coronavirus won’t listen to all the truthiness out there. Let’s hope one result of all this mess is the end of truthiness and alternative facts, along with the Republican Party.

Trumping Trump

It should be obvious that Donald Trump is pulling out all stops to ensure his reelection. We can’t expect him to leave office quietly, regardless of how much he is trounced in the election. He’s been laying a lot of the groundwork already, claiming with of course no evidence that millions of mailed in ballots will somehow be rigged. He claimed that millions of “illegals” voted in the 2016 election with of course no evidence too. In his post-truth world where any evidence that doesn’t agree with his point of view is “fake news”, he can’t be expected to see things objectively. As with his malignant narcissism, we can’t expect him too. He’s no more capable of discerning truth than his false claim that his inauguration had the largest crowds ever on the national mall.

He’s also a president that has no respect for norms and is busy pushing the envelope to the maximum extent. A wannabee dictator, he is running on “law and order” and if that means sending unmarked federal agents to Portland, Oregon to throw protestors into the back of unmarked vans, well, where’s the problem? His buddy Philippine president/dictator Rodrigo Duterte had no problems telling his forces to shoot suspected criminals, screw the legal process. Trump seems compelled to see what he can get away with, and many people are taking notes. We must not allow it.

Portland is just the first city to experience this unwanted policing. It appears these are agents from Custom and Border Protection. They don’t appear to be trying to round up “illegals” but to prohibit citizens from exercising their constitutional rights to protest. It is likely that these agents are not legally allowed to do what they are doing, but like Duterte it doesn’t bother Trump. He is haphazard about obeying courts that strike down his many actions. In short, Trump plays a game of dare me and sees if he will suffer any consequences. For the most part, he won’t. By not removing him in January, Republicans in the Senate effectively put him above the law, at least until he is out office.

We are clearly in uncharted constitutional waters and it’s likely to get worse before and after the election. Trump expects that he won’t be held accountable, so why not push all envelopes? While he’s president anyhow he’s immune from most criminal charges and lawsuits, so he has plenty of incentive to remain. And if you don’t have any scruples, all’s game.

How do we deal with all of this? The answers are largely unknown. It will probably require a lot of intelligent tactics by his opponents. One thing that may help is not to inflame things, which is what Trump wants. Putting unmarked “police” in Portland has already had the obvious consequence of enlarging protests. This gives Trump an excuse to add more police and to keep upping the ante. There is some logical limit as the number of these police is limited. Too much civil unrest though could give Trump the excuse to deploy active duty troops to “keep the peace”, which is not legal but again that’s wouldn’t stop him.

So protesters can help by reducing tensions. This is not forever. We are closing in on three months until the election. Some of their tactics so far are at least innovative: a “wall of moms” and a Naked Athena confronting police. The optics of his forces tear-gassing moms is very bad. Trump feeds on conflict, so the less of it that presents itself; the likelier he is to find other things to distract him. Trump needs plenty of distractions because without them it’s easier for us to focus on the 140,000 or so who have died due to his bungling of the coronavirus outbreak, or the double-digit unemployment.

Trump is destined to lose massively in November, and bring down much of the Republican Party with him. So the real question is whether he can still retain power somehow. Legally, it’s moot. At noon on January 20 unless he wins reelection he is no longer president. Whether President Biden is sworn in our not, Biden would be president. If Biden died unexpectedly, his chosen VP would be president. It would then fall to Nancy Pelosi, assuming she retains her title of Speaker of the House. So the only issue is whether Trump could pull off some sort of coup.

Thankfully, the answer is likely no. Anyone who acted for him will be in violation of the law, as their terms expires when his does. It is true that our military in general leans more to the right than the left, but a true occupation of government would require the military’s active consent. Given how huge the country is, it’s hard to see how it could be carried out. Occupy all fifty state capitals too? There is no reason to think the military would do anything other than what they’ve always done: follow the orders of the Commander in Chief.

But as I have noted before, we can assume it will get very ugly and Trump will pull out all stops. It’s possible a massive vote against him will force him to accept reality, but given his condition it’s unlikely. So it will amount to his followers abandoning him. His cabinet won’t want to serve an illegal administration and risk criminal charges. Republicans in Congress are likely to abandon him too. No one really likes Trump, so he will be abandoned.

That won’t mean he won’t press his hardcore supporters. White guys with guns are likely to make shows of force here and there and they likely can’t be brought down until Trump is out of office. It might take the armed forces to find and kill these insurrectionists, leaving Biden with the worst possible mess to try to clean up. The period between Election and Inauguration Days are likely to be the most politically fraught and dangerous in anyone’s living memory.

The country should survive it somehow, with lots of trauma. Hopefully enough of the rule of law will remain to hold accountable all those who encouraged and ordered these events. Unlike President Ford, President Biden should not use his pardon powers to clean things up. Instead, the fundamental weaknesses in our constitutional system need to be addressed through appropriate legislation that hopefully a Democratic congress will provide.