Why Bill And Melinda Are Calling It Quits

Melinda can’t take it anymore.

Instead of making his own lattes, Bill drives through Starbucks every damn day. Instead of walking public golf courses, he rents carts at private country clubs. Instead of parking his own car at those clubs, he uses valets. Instead of buying pre-owned cars that use regular gas, he buys new ones that require premium. Instead of investing in low cost index funds, he invests in expensive, actively managed mutual funds. Instead of making dinner at home, he frequents a diverse rotation of restaurants. Instead of having his bond funds in tax-free accounts, he has them in taxable ones. Instead of buying groceries in bulk at Costco, he makes repeated trips to Whole Foods. Instead of lifting and running with the boys, he uses a personal trainer. Instead of checking books out from the library, he buys hardbacks. Instead of mowing the lawn, he uses a “landscape service”.

It’s enough to drive any woman crazy.

Please Help Me Understand

President Biden has proposed increasing the rate at which capital gains are taxed on anyone earning more than $1m a year. That’s .3% of people or 3 in 1,000.

Why are so many of the 99.7% of people for whom the tax increase is completely irrelevant so upset at the proposal?

What’s the principle at work? Millionaires are an aggrieved group who deserve a break from people of ordinary means?

Just Because You Can Afford To, Doesn’t Mean You Should

A picture of a neighbor’s property from this morning’s walk. 

“Hey Ron, what’s the backstory of the University of Washington-painted tennis court/full basketball court with state-of-the-art plexiglass break-away rims?”

I’m glad you asked.

The owner, a friend of a friend who I have never met, bought this large wooded property a couple of years ago. And then proceeded to clear cut it. And then added a bunch of out-buildings and the primo lighted sport court for his children.

Granted I’m not omniscient, but I’ve never seen or heard the children using either of the courts. Which is why the lighting is a humorous touch, as if there’s not enough daylight to get in all the basketball and tennis the children want to play.

Meditating on that court this morning made me think of Venus and Serena growing up on Compton, California’s public tennis courts. Or any elite basketball player who routinely left their hood to find competitive games that helped them hone their skills.

But forget elite sports—whether college or pro—consider the opportunity costs, besides the obvious environmental ones of the clear cutting, of not having to play in public settings with a diverse assortment of other people. Some exceedingly difficult to get along with. Even though my parents could have afforded to, I’m glad they chose not to join a country club. I benefitted immensely from growing up on public golf courses, swimming in public pools, and playing on public tennis courts.

Like in public schools, places where I learned to mix it up with other kids. Which has proved extremely valuable throughout my life.

Keep It Simple

When my dad’s business career took off, I was studying history with mostly Marxist professors; consequently, I didn’t fully appreciate his world. Fast forward four decades. As a member of the bourgeoisie (externally at least), I often think of him when I’m running or cycling and listening to an interview with an interesting businessperson. Now I wish I could talk business with him.

A lot of the podcasts I listen to alternate between business topics and trends and how to invest in light of those trends.

Tons of attention is being paid to new investment vehicles like NFTs (non fungible tokens) and blockchain-based cryptocurrencies (BitCoin, Ethereum, etc.). And let’s not forget trading stocks on commission-free apps like Robinhood. For home run hitters, fast changing personal finance-related technologies are alluring, but for singles hitters like me they are a distraction from what matters most when trying to build wealth slowly and steadily.

What does matter most? How much you are able to save and invest, if anything, at the end of a typical month. Until it’s consistently a positive figure, any energy expended thinking about all the shiny new investments that everyone is (seemingly) getting rich from is a complete waste of time. 

Most importantly, remember, good mental and physical health is the best kind of wealth.  

 

Threading The ‘Time Needle’

In one sub-section of my first year writing course we read about contrasting parenting philosophies and some students write about how they were raised and whether they intend to parent similarly or differently.

When listening to them reflect on their childhoods, I’m always struck by the chasm between their family lives. About half describe their families as loving, supportive, and close. Another half describe some sordid version of explicit, unhealthy dysfunction. It seems there’s no middle ground.

Often I think the same thing about people and time. Half of people, having or choosing to work super long hours, don’t have nearly enough time. To be introspective. To think about the meaning of life. To live intentionally.

And unless they have compelling hobbies, another half or so who are unable to find work or choose not to for whatever reasons, may have too much time for optimal mental health. Because one of the most common mental health challenges today is dealing with anxiety about things like the ‘rona and the vaccine. More specifically, there’s a tendency to overthink whether one might get the ‘rona or whether one might suffer serious side effects as a result of the vaccine.

I am not a mental health professional so correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that having to work, or more generally, to have some sort of responsibilities for others’ well-being is a salve for overthinking things. If I’m listening to others, caring for them, helping them somehow, I am less susceptible to the anxiety-inducing thoughts that endlessly loop in my head when I don’t have any responsibilities for other living things, whether people, animals or plants.

With shorter work weeks, I suspect European countries are threading the ‘time needle’ in ways that are healthier, mentally and otherwise, than we are in the (dis)United States. Cue related discussions about the federal minimum wage and universal health care.

Nomadland Reconsidered

This Joshua Keating critique of Nomadland is excellent. He starts off praising it.

“The film Nomadland, which cemented its status as the front-runner for Best Picture with six Oscar nominations this week, includes unforgettable characters and images. It heralds the arrival of a major directing talent in Chloé Zhao, nominated for Best Director, and features yet another masterful turn from Frances McDormand, nominated for Best Actress. But for anyone who has read its source material, Jessica Bruder’s 2017 nonfiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, the film feels oddly incomplete. The filmmakers chose to jettison the book’s muckraking journalistic spirit and economic critique, ending up with a film that’s supposedly an examination of contemporary society, but feels politically inert.”

Lucid, critical, respectful, the phrases “oddly incomplete” and “politically inert” strike the perfect chord.

His main critique:

“These are people who are adamant that they are not victims, have chosen the lifestyle they lead of their own free will, and are grateful for the opportunities they get. This is admirable in some sense, but in the case of modern nomadism, it’s part of the problem. As Bruder’s reporting shows, one of the reasons companies like Amazon like to hire retirement-age “workampers” for physically demanding jobs that seem better suited for young bodies is that they “demand little in the way of benefits or protections. … Most expressed appreciation for whatever semblance of stability their short-term jobs offered.” The scrappy, no-complaints stoicism that makes these people appealing movie characters also makes them extremely exploitable.”

Keating convinces me that a very good film could’ve been even better.

How Not To Care

If you look even a little bit, the growing population of homeless men, women, and children in Olympia, Washington are easily visible; mostly you’ll find them close to the social service agencies they depend upon, like the Salvation Army and the Thurston County Food Bank. An enormous tent and tarp community stretches all along the western edge of Capital Lake on Deschutes Parkway SW. It looks like a refugee camp you might find in Northeast Africa, but worse because there’s no UNHCR to create some semblance of order. More accurately, picture Miami post Hurricane Katrina. Many more live in tents and tarps among the trees that line the Woodland Trail and the I-5 freeway.  

The classic argument between the Individual Responsibility folks, “they have to take responsibility for their bad decisions” versus the Systemic Forces folks, “the growing numbers of homeless who succumb to combinations of poverty, addiction, and poor mental health are entirely predictable given our ‘winner-takes-all’ economic system coupled with our anemic social safety net” shows no signs of abating. Nearly all of the Individual Responsibility folks respond to  homeless men, women, and children with a mix of resentment and anger. At the same time, a gradually increasing percentage of the Systemic Forces folks are exasperated as some natural areas are lost and downtown grows less clean and safe.

So why, as the population of homeless men, women, and children rises; does it seem like our collective empathy decreases? Even among a lot of decent people who have demonstrated empathy in their past for others less fortunate than them?

Mired in resentment and anger, we leapfrog caring about our fellow citizens’ pain and suffering because we don’t know any homeless person’s story. We don’t know where they’re from, what their childhood was like, what hardships they’ve had to endure. Not knowing any of those things makes it much easier to assume they’ve made a series of bad decisions. And that until they start making good ones, they get what they deserve. 

Local papers don’t have the resources to tell their stories anymore. And even if alternative papers tried, would we read them when we don’t even really look at our homeless neighbors? As if they have leprosy, the best we can do, it seems, is a quick glance.

The secret to not caring about the homeless is not knowing anything about any one homeless person. Not learning their names and not looking at them helps too, but mostly, it’s avoiding learning how and why and where things went off the rails. 

Irrespective of one’s religious views or politics, it seems increasingly common to castigate “the homeless”. Because they remain an abstraction. 

This proven strategy works equally well in other contexts too. For example, the same approach to not caring works for the growing number of Central American immigrants gathering at our southern border. Many Fox News hosts are absolutely giddy over what the gathering numbers of desperate immigrants mean for Biden’s approval ratings and the midterm elections because they don’t know any of their stories. There are laws to be enforced and political gain to be made, nevermind their pain and suffering, their humanity.

Yesterday, I screwed up. And mistakenly read this story in the New York Times.

A Violent End to a Desperate Dream Leaves a Guatemalan Town Grieving

In doing so, I was introduced to Santa Cristina García Pérez, a 20 year old, one of twelve Comitecos who were massacred by Mexican police near the U.S. border. I learned Christina was one of 11 siblings who hoped to make enough money in the U.S. to. . . 

“. . . cover the cost of an operation for her one-year-old sister, Angela Idalia, who was born with a cleft lip. . . . 

She wanted to save Ángela Idalia from what she thought would be a life of ridicule, relatives said.”

I doubled down on my mistake by taking my time to truly see all of the Comitecos mourning their friends and family. Powerful images of profound loss, one after another. Including one of Ricardo García Pérez, Cristina’s dad, placing a bottle of water next to her casket. . .

“. . . so that Ms. García’s spirit did not suffer from thirst on its journey to the next life.”

I wasn’t the only one learning about the Comitecos. The Times explains:

“The killings have stunned the community, spurred a wave of international media attention on Comitancillo and an outpouring of financial support for the victim’s families. Among other acts of largess, donations from nearby communities in the region and from the Guatemalan diaspora have paid for Ángela Idalia’s first surgery to repair her cleft lip and have enabled the García family to build a new house.”

That’s one more vivid example that when most people see someone suffering, look into their eyes, learn their name, and something about their life journey; they can’t help but care. And help.

In contrast, the homeless in my community remain an abstraction. An abstraction most of us are determined to keep at a comfortable distance. Given our mounting resentment and anger at this abstraction, we keep asking, “When is someone going to do something?” 

 

Longish Tax Sentence To Ponder

It’s well known that in the (dis)United States, many business owners do not report all of their income. It is also well known that the Internal Revenue Service is unable to catch and penalize them.

From the New York Times editorial team:

Mr. Rossotti, together with the Harvard economist Lawrence Summers and the University of Pennsylvania law professor Natasha Sarin, argued in an analysis published in November that investing $100 billion in the I.R.S. over the next decade, for technology and personnel, in combination with better data on business income, would allow the agency to collect up to $1.4 trillion in lawful tax revenue that otherwise would go uncollected.

What percentage of tax evading business owners routinely bitch about the “criminal element” in society?

Mo’ Money, Less Effort

People who think money is the only true motivator in the workplace have a lot of explaining to do when it comes to professional basketball player Blake Griffin.

Until yesterday, Griffin, 31, played for the Detroit Pistons on a 2 year/$75,553,024 contract for an annual average salary of $37,776,512.

What did the lowly Pistons get for that? 12 points and 5 rebounds a game. Griffin’s anemic productivity is partly the result of a previous injury that cost him some athleticism, but mostly, NBA analysts say, because he wasn’t motivated given the Pistons’ futility.

Imagine being the Pistons owner and having to deal with the fact that $37,776,512 wasn’t enough for Griffin to play hard. All the king’s ransom bought was consistent mediocrity.

No wonder the Pistons let him go to the Eastern Conference leading Brooklyn Nets. Now apparently, he’s motivated, and is going to try to be some sort of facsimile of his former All-Star self.

Sometimes, Often, when it comes to exorbitant compensation in professional sports and other fields, there’s a definite point of diminishing returns.

Think FDR Not Obama

Biden’s COVID Bill Is His First Step Toward an FDR-Style Presidency.

Strong opening paragraph:

“President Joe Biden and Democratic legislative leaders were extremely clear about how they hoped to govern when they won full control of Washington for the first time in more than a decade. Their mantra? Be more like Franklin Roosevelt and the Congress of 1933, and less like Barack Obama and the Congress of 2009.”

Interesting insight:

“Democrats may be able to pass a transformative agenda despite having just a bare legislative majority. . . . It depends on whether Republicans ever stop talking about Dr. Seuss long enough to fight back against the next big Democratic bill.” 

It also depends on whether the Republicans’ media allies ever stop obsessing about Biden’s mental acuity long enough to fight back against the next big Democratic bill. Whenever you hear Republican politicians and media rip the President as “out of it” ask yourself what they did to reduce childhood poverty. Two months versus four years and it’s not even close.

Inexplicably left out of the Slate piece was any mention of the significant expansion of the Affordable Care Act which was written into the Covid relief legislation.

Hot damn, all of a sudden we have the makings of a real-life safety net.