It’s time for a jubilee

The Thinker by Rodin

Seems like our world is going to hell in a corona basket.

I remember at the end of 2019 all my friends were saying they were never so glad to see a year end. 2019 was a miserable year. Now, most of us would prefer to be back to 2019. A recession that looks like it will become a depression and COVID-19, which may kill a million or more of us, seems like the beginning of the Armageddon that so many so-called Christians are looking forward to. Perhaps that’s why many of them were cheering Trump’s suggestion that everything go back to normal on Easter Sunday.

On that last point, I was going to make a blog post just on that, but I can’t possibly restate any better what so many others have already said about Trump’s unbelievable narcissism. Trump wants us to die so he can get reelected. The smart ones though are going to take a pass and will keep sheltering in place and obsessively washing hands and surfaces. I know we are. Evolution is not called “survival of the fittest” for nothing. For those happy to place emotion or devotion to an insane leader over rational behavior, well, you’ll be one of hundreds of thousands of candidates for the 2020 Darwin Awards. Clearly you weren’t reading my blog, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So rather than restate what so many others have already said, let me talk about something that isn’t being much talked about: the way our economy works appears to be crumbling. What do I mean by that? I mean the way we have been running an economy where the rich continue to get richer, the poor more desperate and in debt, and our government more dysfunctional is ripe. It’s not only not working, it’s not working badly for us. We are ripe for revolutionary changes. This upcoming depression (which it looks likely to be) should make us anxious for another New Deal.

It won’t look quite the same as the New Deal and hopefully any depression will be short lived. But our economy is loaded to the maximum with debt. Pretty much everyone, except the rich, holds it. That’s individuals and corporations, made possible by low interest rates since the Great Recession. The Federal Reserve’s recovery plan is to cut interest rates to zero or even lower, trying to coax us to take on even more debt. That’s because they don’t have any other tools to use. Trying to grow out of a depression based on taking on more debt that we already couldn’t afford doesn’t sound very sound to me. It feels desperate, as if we are desperately trying to keep the rules of our old sinking economy alive. The so-called $2T recovery bill signed into law today is an attempt to keep this hamster wheel turning.

I don’t think this will work. First, look how long it took us to emerge from the Great Recession. When we did emerge, our growth rate was always anemic. You’d be hard-pressed to find any quarter where our GDP increased by more than three percent annually. Our economy was like an overloaded subcompact running on three cylinders trying to merge onto the Interstate. It took a long time to get up to highway speeds. And while we technically recovered, we never really felt we recovered because we never fundamentally solved the problems that got us into it in the first place. The half-hearted attempts by Democrats in 2009 and 2010 were not nearly enough.

In fact, we went back and made the same stupid mistakes all over again, such as getting rid of much of Dodd-Frank banking regulation that was supposed to prevent it from happening again. The fundamentals of our recovering economy were never sound, but were propped up by low interest rates which had the side effect of causing markets to rise. Companies used cheap credit to buy back their own stocks, inflating their stock prices to surreal levels. The bubble would have burst anyhow; the coronavirus thing just made the hole gaping instead of possibly manageable.

What would really make the economy roar back when this pandemic is contained is a big haircut to a lot of creditors. Because an economy can’t roar back if overleveraged people have no cash to buy stuff. What we really need is a jubilee. This is where we force creditors to wipe their debt slates clean.

Take, for example, student loans. Last I checked, there were about a trillion dollars in outstanding student loans, owed by people the least able to pay them back. Desperate for an education instead of flipping burgers for forty years, they didn’t have much choice but to pay usury interest rates for educations whose costs were vastly inflated. Let’s declare all that debt insolvent. The creditors will scream, but a lot of people will have money to spend again on things that matter like food and housing.

It could be done for lots of debts. Write off, say, 25% of mortgage debt on housing purchased for up to $500,000. Wipe out 50% of credit card debt. If you want to encourage thrift, revert the debt if more is incurred over the next five years.

And tax the rich. They’ve been bleeding the rest of us dry for too long, in the process allowing infrastructure and services to degrade. Institute Elizabeth Warren’s proposed 2% wealth tax. Raise rates just to where there were for rich households during the Reagan Administration. Tax dividends the same as ordinary income, or higher. Make work pay again.

Then do what we all know we need to do: make Medicare available to all. Much household debt and personal bankruptcies are due to medical costs that are out of control. Controlling medical costs frees up all sorts of money for more productive use. Institute living wages for everyone with annual increases that keep pace with inflation. Overturn right to work laws.

This is probably beyond a President Biden. But without it, I suspect a President Biden will discover what President Obama discovered: the system will work in counterproductive ways against the needs of the people instead.

Our election, if it can be held fairly, will likely put Democrats in control of government plus give them the margins needed to make real change happen. The question is whether Democrats have learned their lesson, and can institute the changes we need to make the economy work for everyone again.

If not, election 2022 will look a lot like Election 2010, and the crazy cycle will continue to repeat and move us into second world status.

Coping by moping

The Thinker by Rodin

In the week since I last wrote, life has been wholly upended for most Americans. But in many ways, life is unchanged for us. There’s just the two of us (four if you include two cats). Being retired, we are minimally impacted by COVID-19.

For us, the biggest financial impact is our stock portfolio. It’s down $180K at the moment, or about 19% from its peak on February 19. It will probably go lower, but the good news is that we don’t draw it down much, just $1900 a month and that comes from selling bond funds. So the stocks inside it wait for a more prosperous time when share prices recover.

Those with money that survive it will be the winners. On Monday we met virtually with our financial adviser. We actually bought some stocks on the theory that they are historically cheap and over time will recover. It amounted to 5% of the portfolio so it wasn’t that risky. Since no one can time the market (although I got lucky), those with money buy incrementally when values go down precipitously should eventually reap nice profits. I think that’s what our financial adviser is doing. Since he is paid as a percent of our portfolio, if he’s right, then he too will be enriched some years hence. Meanwhile, a steady pension and social security provide the bulk of our income. I can’t see those going away.

The government may give all Americans money to get through it. If so, we are unlikely to spend it. Since we don’t need it I hope there is some means testing. I’d rather it go to those who do need it, which is most of us.

In truth, being retired already, things haven’t changed that much for us. Mainly there is a lot more washing of hands and cleaning of surfaces than there used to be. We shop minimally and go through an informal protocol of bringing sanitary wipes with us when we shop to wipe surfaces like shopping cart handles. When we get home we wash hands and clean things we touched. So far it’s working. Eight days ago we got off a cruise ship and flew home, and there are no signs of COVID-19 here. Some items were in short supply at the store, or not available. But so far coping hasn’t been hard. Coping is accomplished mostly through moping. I do have some consulting work that generally keeps me busy. It hasn’t dried up at all, for which I should be grateful. Thankfully, it’s all work that can be done remotely.

We have plenty of incentive to be sanitary, because the one thing we can’t count on now is our health care system, at least if we come down with something serious. We might get some advice from doctors over the phone. But if we need hospitalization, as this thing gets worse it’s unlikely that we will get it.

I got my hair cut yesterday. It was our last opportunity as our hairdresser is going on hiatus starting Monday. It was all done carefully, but there was some risk. It’s likely that my hair will get quite long before it is cut again.

As this drags on, we will miss things like going out to dinner and travel. There is no place to go, and it certainly won’t be on a cruise ship. Unless we want to take in a mountain vista nearby, we might as well stay home. All this of course will just feed the recession sure to come, which looks like it could easily topple over into a depression.

This would be a good time to spend some money to stimulate the economy, but that too has risks. I wouldn’t mind a bathroom on our upper level, but not at the cost of having construction workers in my house for weeks on end bringing in who knows what with them. I bought a new car last year and we really don’t need to replace my wife’s car. The house is well furnished, so there is no need to replace anything.

The YMCA is closed indefinitely so exercising with weights won’t be happening for a while. What exercise equipment we have at home is cardiovascular. My principle form of exercise is walking, and that’s at least still okay. When I go walking I see plenty of neighbors, so at some level it’s like nothing is happening. Generally they are keeping their social distance, but I see couples not doing so. The park across the street from us is closed, but that hasn’t kept people from parking in the part that isn’t closed and walking around it. There were a few hundred people in the park yesterday. Occasionally I do see questionable behavior. A group of kids on bikes on the local path were probably breaking protocol. I just don’t think they care and figure they won’t get it.

What I do know is that this is just ramping up. Its economic consequences are already evident and will get much, much worse. A month from now the threat won’t be so much not being able to find toilet paper, but from having a supply chain under strain. As grocery clerks and pharmacists get sick, things will get much more dicey. I’m already seeing cops parking along the sides of the road in places they normally wouldn’t, I think mainly to signal to the community that big brother is nearby. I expect in time we will see them guarding grocery stores and pharmacies. We may think this is the new normal.

I do believe all this is temporary and things will rebound nicely when it is over. But it’s likely to last longer than thought. Complacency may set it, bringing a resurgence of the virus. Clearly, it’s going to have huge ripples. When it’s over, society is likely to be reorganized in pretty fundamental ways. We probably will see this time as a period of great change where things we took for granted, like an abundance of local retailers, largely come to an end.

No bottom for the Republican Party

The Thinker by Rodin

It looks like I have been giving Republicans too much credit. I assumed there was some core group of Republicans who could agree, “This time Trump has gone too far” and bring him down. Apparently, there is no bottom for the Republican Party.

That’s because I assumed that there were some sane Republicans out there. But it looks like when push comes to shove, sanity takes a back seat to subservience and fealty. Republicans apparently love to take orders. They love authoritarians. I’m guessing it gives them some feeling of comfort that somewhere a Big Daddy is taking care of things. Having decided to get on the Trump train, they can’t seem to find a reason to get off, no matter how surreal and ridiculous it gets.

Signs are pointing to a huge train wreck for Republicans in the 2020 election. Some years back I pointed out that Trump would kill the Republican Party. To severely maim the party, Republicans have to lose both the presidency and the Senate. Barring some massive election fraud, Trump is destined to be defeated in 2020. He’s never polled over 50% and most of the time his approval ratings have been mired in the low 40s or lower. Winning with these sorts of negatives is possible only with massive voter fraud or a third-party candidate that siphons off a lot of Democratic votes. Both the 2000 and the 2016 elections likely would have elected Democratic presidents had it not been for the third-party spoiler effect. It’s not Trump’s base that will win him reelection, but Democratic fragmentation.

Winning the Senate requires flipping three Republican seats, which is a bit of a long shot but not impossible in a wave election. Aside from his base, Trump has managed to piss pretty much everyone off. But even among his base, he is bleeding supporters. White men support him, but according to polling he’s recently lost white women without a college education. Trump is losing farmers from his trade wars, and truckers are seeing major layoffs plus the latest tax law raised their taxes by doing away with a lot of their deductions. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is deeply loathed in his home state, with only 33% approval. He can’t even be bothered to pump up a pension fund for coal miners. Yes, in deep red Kentucky, McConnell may lose reelection next year.

Rather than face criticism, Trump does the only thing he knows how to do: reshuffle the deck. This means changing the subject, generally by saying things or posting comments on his Twitter feed that are increasingly outrageous. This is effective but it doesn’t actually fix the issues that got him in trouble in the first place.

Moreover, his pattern never varies. When he decided not to put those 25% tariffs on Chinese goods so people could enjoy nice presents under their Christmas tree mostly made in China, then of course when China added new tariffs on U.S. products as they promised it all went out the window. New tariffs were back on and markets plunged about three percent yesterday. They were doing fine until his announcement.

But just when you thought Trump couldn’t possibly get any wackier, he doubles down on the stupid. Just this week Trump:

  • Said he was the Chosen One, implying he was the King of the Jews
  • Said any Jew voting for Democrats was disloyal and un-American because they should put Israel first … uh, what? And how is putting Israel before the United States showing you are an American patriot? Oh wait, because Trump says so. Gotcha.
  • Ordered U.S. companies to leave China, even though he can’t
  • Decided he could issue an executive order to end birth right citizenship, as if he could unilaterally override the 14th Amendment
  • Blamed the chairman of the Federal Reserve for his economic woes because he wouldn’t cut interest rates fast enough, while apparently absolving himself of the blame of nominating Jerome Powell in the first place
  • Said he wanted to buy Greenland and canceled a summit with Denmark, which manages the island, in a huff because they wouldn’t consider it. Actually, Denmark couldn’t even if it wanted to. Residents of Greenland would have to decide. Oh, and he called their female prime minister “nasty”, his word of choice when acting like the obvious misogynist that he is.

We have a president that is, quite frankly, totally nuts and bonkers. Just one of these by a Democratic candidate like Joe Biden would sink their candidacy. But Republicans so far show nothing but increased fealty to a president who by any objective standard is mentally ill and could not be trusted to even competently manage a child’s savings account.

Moreover, a recession is clearly on the way and every action Trump takes seems to be designed to make it worse. It was tariffs that brought us the Great Depression. Doubling down on tariffs simply increases the odds that a recession will turn into a depression. And if there is a recession, there’s not a single adviser to the president who has either the smarts or the wherewithal to help lead the US out of a recession. The closest we have is Jerome Powell, and only because the Fed is independent of the executive and he can’t be fired. When you surround yourself by incompetent sycophants, well, you get incompetent sycophants. Hell of a way to run a “government” … don’t bother to actually govern!

I was thinking yesterday that the tanking stock market might finally be the straw that broke the Republicans’ back. Moneyed capitalists ultimately hold up Republican power. Yesterday, three percent of their wealth vanished because Trump’s ego was hurt. Likely a lot more of it will vanish soon.

The obvious remedy is the 25th Amendment and twisting Vice President Pence’s arms to get a majority of the cabinet to declare our president is too mentally ill to serve. I’ve been waiting more than two years for this intervention, assuming cooler heads in the Republican Party could prevail. While I still hope for it, increasingly it looks like I misjudged the nerve and sobriety of the Republican leadership. They are wholly captured by their captain, and appear ready to go down with his ship.