Greed is a terrible sickness

The Thinker by Rodin

In the 1987 movie Wall Street, the corporate raider Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) informed us that greed is good. His character fit in well with the Reagan years, because this was essentially the mantra of Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party. If anything since then the Republican Party has become even more extreme on the issue. Not only is greed good, but also by implication being poor is bad and a personal failure. Poor people are just not trying hard enough, which they view as something of a crime.

According to Merriam-Webster, greed is “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (such as money) than is needed”. “Than is needed” is of course somewhat relative. However, if you have or take more in the way of resources than you need almost by definition someone else gets less than they might otherwise have. Since Reagan was elected, the only constant is that more of our wealth has gone to the richest while the income for the rest of us has at best stayed the same but has generally declined.

It’s clear to me that greed is a terrible sickness, and not something that should be celebrated. It sure appears that those who are truly greedy are never satisfied. They always want more. Since they believe greed is good, they look on greediness as a kind of religion. Witness our president and most of his cabinet of very wealthy people and who seem to have no scruples. Government is for pillaging, which is why last year they gave themselves a tax cut and threw a few scraps out to the rest of us. Their reputed rationale was that tax cuts would pay for themselves, something that has never proven true. I don’t for a minute believe that they believe it. What they do believe is that if you have power then you should use it to enrich yourself, so they did, worsening income inequality and greatly adding to our national debt to line their pockets now.

Greed is bad and should be treated as a mental illness. A truly greedy person should be seeing psychologists to figure out what is the matter with them. There is something very wrong with our president, who clearly subscribes to the religion of greed. To see how greed perturbs someone, look at our EPA secretary Scott Pruitt. The “greed is good” mantra has him so captivated that he has no problem turning the EPA into the Environmental Destruction Agency. Entitlement is assumed. He has a round-the-clock staff of thirty to protect him, flies first class everywhere and built a soundproof booth in his office.

Being wealthy does not necessarily mean that you are greedy. Berkshire Hathaway head Warren Buffet seems to be one of these types: a billionaire many times over who otherwise lives modestly. To be greedy you need to flaunt it and be consumed by the need to become ever richer, and not always through entirely fair means. At its core, greed denies reality. It suggests for example that you will never die because it’s hard to actually spend and enjoy all the money you accumulate. I suspect Warren Buffet enjoys investing because he finds it personally interesting.

Then there are people like the Koch Brothers who are consumed by greed, so much so that they have no problem if their industries create their profits by foisting their pollution costs on the rest of us. That’s how much greed has perturbed their thinking. It’s not like there is another planet nearby that eight billion of us can go and populate. They either can’t see this reality or more likely simply don’t care. These people are very sick people indeed.

For much of my life, I pursued wealth. I wasn’t a fanatic about it but I wanted to be comfortable, particularly in retirement. It was a long and arduous struggle that I eventually achieved. To me, it meant feeling confident that I could maintain my standard of living until I died, that I would never go hungry or be impoverished again and that I no longer had to work to survive. It’s true that much of my wealth is dependent upon a well-earned federal pension, and I still don’t entirely trust that the oligarchy won’t take it away at some point to feed their insatiable greed. But I feel confident enough about it that I don’t worry about it anymore. In any event, I have a comfortable portfolio and plenty of cash assets set aside to handle future expenses. We have no mortgage payment nipping at our heels every month anymore, no college expenses to juggle and little in the way of electricity bills with the solar panels on our roof.

It’s reached the point where our relative wealth feels sort of surreal. What I don’t feel at all is the need to obsessively acquire more wealth. I feel no particular pull to buy a fancy car, for example. I take no particular pleasure in driving and see it as a chore. In January we took a 19-day vacation, 16 days of it on a cruise ship. It was nice but I don’t particularly feel the need for a more lavish vacation or more days dining on gourmet food in Holland America’s dining room. My needs and wants are pretty much satisfied. My financial anxieties are calmed. At my stage of life, people like me should simply enjoy life.

Today the things that give me the most satisfaction are the most prosaic: daily “constitutionals” around my community, doing the crossword puzzle in the paper, having a cat nearby that I can reach out and pet and having a spouse who I love and who loves me. And yet despite the ups and downs in the stock market, our portfolio keeps increasing. To the extent I still work through teaching and consulting (both very part time) it’s for enjoyment and to spread my knowledge to those who might benefit from it. This income is mostly saved, but occasionally it buys some nice stuff. We are planning a New York City trip next and hope to see some popular Broadway shows.

All these rich people could simply enjoy their wealth if they wanted to, rather than suffer from the psychosis that they must ruthlessly acquire more of it through pretty much any means available. A lot of our spare income now is given away to charitable causes. I feel not just a need but also a natural desire to share our wealth. I try to put it toward causes that I believe are productive uses. It goes to places like the Nature Conservancy, so it can buy up natural space for future generations. It goes to Planned Parenthood, so women in particular can make choices over their own bodies and get health care services at affordable prices. It goes to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, so fewer of the people I see holding cardboard signs at intersections have to go hungry. It goes to a local spouse abuse shelter, so mostly women can have a softer landing after from suffering domestic abuse. And increasingly a lot of it goes to arguably non-charitable causes: campaigns of people who seem to be sincere progressives who will work to reduce misery and straighten out the major problems with our politics most of which were caused by the greed is good falsehood.

For the truly greedy, to quote Mr. T., “I pity the fools”. They might want to read some Charles Dickens, particularly A Christmas Carol. Whether overtly or innocently, what they are doing to our planet and the rest of us is intensively evil.

The coming blue wave

The Thinker by Rodin

To my surprise, Roy Moore lost his bid to be Alabama’s next senator last Tuesday to Democrat Doug Jones. Jones won, but not decisively, by a 1.5% margin over Moore. One of the more curious aspects of the election was that 1.7% of the votes were cast as write-ins. It’s reasonable to assume that virtually all of these were from people who would normally vote Republican, but couldn’t stomach Moore but could not vote for a Democrat.

This is the first example I’ve seen of a “reverse Green Party effect”. It’s usually Democrats that shoot themselves in the foot. We do this by being so principled that we get the exact opposite result instead. In Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, three states that swung for Trump last year, had Jill Stein’s (Green Party) votes gone for Hillary Clinton instead then Hillary Clinton would now be president of the United States.

What’s appalling in Alabama is that apparently almost all Republicans voted for the pedophile Moore anyhow. Those who voted for a write-in plus those who stayed home apparently gave Jones the edge. Huge kudos goes to blacks and women in Alabama that showed up to vote, which was the edge Jones needed. I can see why both would have incentive to vote. After all, Moore said he’d like to get rid of constitutional amendments after the 10th amendment. This would make slavery legal again and take away women’s right to vote.

When a Democrat can win a statewide office in Alabama again, that’s pretty much all you need to know about which way the political winds in this country are blowing. Granted that Jones’s victory pretty much is a fluke. There was literally no one worse in the whole state of Alabama that Republicans could have nominated. As one Republican wag put it, Republicans could have picked any other name out of the phone book and have won the election by at least 10%.

Unfortunately for Republicans, Steve Bannon seems serious about fielding a Trump Republican in every Republican primary next year. Moreover, Trump plans to aggressively campaign for Republican candidates. Given Trump’s track record recently promoting Ed Gillespie in Virginia, Luther Strange in Alabama and then Roy Moore, all who lost, it’s clear his endorsement is toxic. These tactics enflame Democrats, which is likely to have them coming out to vote in droves. A Trump endorsement also keeps establishment Republicans lukewarm about voting for any Trump Republican that survives the primaries and caucuses.

In short the 2018 elections are likely to be a blowout, ending eight years of Republican control of Congress. The House should flip. One scenario suggests that when the dust settles Democrats could take the chamber 255 seats to 177 Republican seats. Retaking the Senate no longer seems improbable, particularly if Trump Republicans run against Democrats. Democrats should not take this for granted. It depends on maintaining their enthusiasm, a skill at which Trump will predictably excel.

Moreover there are so many issues beyond Trump that will encourage not just Democrats to come out, but to lean independents toward Democratic candidates and even pull away many Republicans. Last week’s vote to end net neutrality is one example. Support for net neutrality is overwhelmingly bipartisan but changing it clearly won’t happen with Republicans in charge. Republicans’ tax bill that looks likely to pass is another animus as it clearly shifts yet more income toward the rich. Rank and file Republicans don’t like it either. On so many issues voting Republicans tend to side with Democrats but even where they don’t, independents do. Some of these include addressing climate change, shrinking our national monuments and the rank incompetence in the people that Trump is nominating. This included a recent judicial nominee who had never tried a case. Even Congressional Republicans seem to be blanching at this.

It’s unknown where the Mueller investigation will be come November. Rumors abound that Trump is about to fire Mueller, although he cannot without firing a whole lot of other people and putting in place sycophants to do the deed. In any event, when Richard Nixon tried this approach it was hugely counterproductive and led to his eventual resignation. It certainly would inflame voters even more and make Washington even more chaotic than it currently is.

So it’s not hard at all to predict that the political heat will continue to rise in our nation’s pressure cooker. Next November the pent up frustration should be overwhelming. So I for one hope that Trump keeps endorsing Republican candidates, as he is now toxic. Please proceed.

Trump’s Paris Climate Agreement decision is unlikely to stand

The Thinker by Rodin

Yep, President Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement was reckless, stupid and deeply counterproductive, both to our country and to the planet. Bear in mind that until yesterday the only countries that hadn’t signed the accord were Syria and Nicaragua, and Nicaragua refused to sign because it didn’t go far enough. Syria is in a state of constant civil war, so it’s not too surprising they didn’t make it a priority. So essentially the whole world was in agreement until Trump decided to pull the United States out.

It’s hard to see any good news in this, but in a way there is some good news here. It’s not because what Trump is doing is right. It’s because it quite unlikely to actually happen. Like with Great Britain and Brexit, this is not an easy agreement to walk away from. It will take 3-4 years by which time it will become part of the brouhaha of the next presidential election.

Like many, I was infamous in predicting Hillary Clinton would win last year, so perhaps it’s dangerous to predict that Trump won’t win reelection in 2020. This assumes he does not resign or is removed from office before then, either of which is more likely. In any event when your approval rating is at best 40% just four months into your term in office and then you take climate actions that are opposed widely by most Americans, including a majority of Republicans, you are effectively digging your own political grave faster. This means that you are reaching the point where you can’t climb out of it on your own sooner rather than later too.

Trump hasn’t learned one of the fundamental lessons of leadership, and this decision is more evidence that suggests he never will. Trump has confused taking decisive and unpopular actions with demonstrating leadership. When such actions are necessary for a leader, it’s up to the leader to make a broad and convincing case for his actions to the public based on tangible evidence.

Here Trump failed again yesterday. His rationale in fact argued for just the opposite. Getting out of the climate agreement does not create jobs; it increases the likelihood that we will lose jobs by putting us at a competitive disadvantage with the rest of the world. Our capitalist economy is built on creative destruction: less efficient ways of doing things give way to more efficient ways of doing things, ways that hopefully are led by American ingenuity, such as Edison’s invention of the light bulb. Generating electricity from coal is now inefficient. If you have to generate electricity from burning a fuel, it’s much cheaper to use natural gas, and it is cleaner as well.

No power company in the United States will build a coal-fired power plant again, unless for some reason the fundamentals of the energy market change substantially. And since both wind power and solar power are at least as cheap as generating power from natural gas, power companies are going to continue to increase their investment in clean power generation. Not only does it make business sense, it makes for good public relations.

Moreover, as solar panels become cheaper, homeowners will have more incentive to put them up on their roofs too. Who doesn’t like free energy? I have solar panels on my house, and just today got a notification from National Grid that my power bill for last month is $0. We actually put energy into the grid last month, producing more clean energy than we could consume.

Certainly there are other actions the Trump Administration can do and is doing to weaken environmental laws. The EPA is hard at work destroying our environment, but even here there is a process requiring public comment that makes it hard to change regulations quickly. Power companies that take advantages of these changes to pollute more are likely to get protests as well as bad press. It’s likely that the impact of these changes will be minimal and they will be checked by legislation when Democrats regain control of houses of Congress. Also Trump’s actions are spurring many states to become more aggressive in combating climate change.

So the main impact of this decision will be to increase opposition to these changes. With every unpopular decision at best Trump maintains his floor of committed voters but empowers the opposition to become more politically engaged. My wife and I will be part of multitudes participating in a local March for Truth tomorrow. That and the fact that his hardcore supporters are literally dying off (because they tend to be senior citizens) strongly suggest that his actions to halt progress will be fleeting and ultimately unsuccessful.

I don’t take anything for granted, however, which is why I will be marching tomorrow regardless. This will be my second march in two months, with my last previous march back in 2003 shortly before the Iraq War. I am hardly alone. Trump is almost single handedly creating the whirlwind that should ultimately end the Republican Party, or at least its most recent ultra-conservative manifestation.

So while the United States will go through a process to get out of the Paris Climate Agreement, in the end it probably won’t happen. And if it does it is likely we will rejoin them when the White House is again in Democratic hands. Democrats running for office now have an easy way to get votes. They simply have to say, “If you elect me, I will work to have the United States rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. And I will work to make the United States a leader in environmental change again.” Given that a majority of Republicans agree, it’s a compelling reason for them to break ranks.