Weekend Assorted Links

1. The Trump Presidency Is Over. Peter Werner, a former Republican, weaves and bobs through the first half of this essay, and then, midway through, unleashes a flurry of devastating hooks. If it it was an actual fight the refs would’ve stopped it well before the end. Technical knock out for all but the most irrational.

2. Mad About Elizabeth Warren. A friend implores me to “Just get over it.” But how can I with piercing analysis like this?

“Warren the Presidential candidate was that girl with perfect grades in the front row of the classroom, always sitting up straight and raising her hand. “She was too smart, too rigorous, and always right,” as my friend Katherine put it. “‘I have a plan for that’ became a kind of joke at her expense,” another friend added. ‘She was so knowledgeable and so prepared that her life as a brilliant student stood out.”

Even in our famously anti-intellectual country, it is possible for a wonk to win the White House. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama were intellectual superstars, and got elected anyway—indeed, Obama’s brain power was one of his major selling points. But, apparently, for a woman, being “brilliant,” “knowledgeable,” and “prepared” are suspicious qualities, suggestive of élitism and snootiness. On the other hand, if Warren had been obtuse, ignorant, and unready, that wouldn’t have worked, either. Being obviously unqualified to lead the free world only works for men.”

3. Merkel Gives Germans a Hard Truth About the Coronavirus.  Who knew she’s a trained physicist? Merkel and Warren are two peas in a pod, which begs the question, why are more German men okay with brainy women?

4. I have never really considered what Agnes Callard proposes, that The End is Coming.

“. . . so many of our practices—seeking a cure for cancer, building a new building, writing a poem or a philosophy paper, fighting for a political cause, giving our children moral lessons we hope will be handed down again and again—depend, in one way or another, on positing a world that will go on without us. The meaning of our lives, in the here and now, depends on future generations; without them we become narrowly self-interested, prone to cruelty, indifferent to suffering, apathetic.”

Only to add:

“Because here is something we know for sure: there will not always be future generations. This is a fact. If the virus doesn’t do us in, if we do not do one another in, if we manage to make everything as sustainable as possible, nevertheless, that big global warmer in the sky is coming for us. We can tell ourselves soothing stories, such as the one about escaping to another planet, but we are embodied creatures, which is to say, we are the sorts of things that, on a geological time scale, simply do not last. Death looms for the species just as surely as it looms for each and every one of us. How long have we got? At a recent public talk, the economist Tyler Cowen spitballed the number of remaining years at 700. But who knows? The important thing is that the answer is not: infinity years. Forever is a very long time, and humanity is not going to make it.”

Just because that’s a deeply depressing conclusion, it’s not wrong.

5. All The Ways I Failed to Spend My Massive Wealth. Of course, “he” could’ve just gone all in on the stock market a week ago.

 

 

Democracy Is Cool When You Vote Like Me

I’m not Bernie Sanders’ target audience. I’ve benefitted way too much from capitalism; I’m okay with my health insurance; and our recent weather aside, I’m not nearly angry enough. AND LISTENING TO HIM IS LIKE READING MILLENNIALS!!!

But I’m even less fond of the James Carville’s* of the world and other liberals who are constantly ripping Sanders youthful supporters. Instead of whining about them, try these alternatives.

Stop castigating them for their idealism; instead, affirm their engagement in the political process. For every committed “Bernie bro” there are ten apolitical apathetic people their same age. And hell, if they don’t start out idealistic, what chance do they have?

Set your Boomer pragmatism aside long enough to consider their perspective by substituting questions for the incessant, negative diatribes. Write these on an index card and put it in your shirt pocket. Why Medicare For All? Why a wealth tax? What’s it like having so much student debt? Why such an intense concern with climate change? Why dismantle capitalism? Then move on to their stories. If you’re not careful, you might learn WHY they vote differently than you.

The more respect they receive from mainstream Demos, the more likely they will be to eventually support another candidate in the case another candidate wins the nomination. Right now, given the knee-jerk invective they’re constantly subject to, I wouldn’t blame them if they simple say “A pox on both of your houses.” Which, of course, is the worst possible outcome.

*Pains me to write that, because during his Bill Clinton administration heyday, I really liked Carville. I found his smart, funny, direct, Southern, Creole riffs on all things political super engaging.

How to Do Nothing—Resisting the Attention Economy

By Jenny Odell. Even though I just finished it, I suspect Odell’s “How to Do Nothing” will be the most influential book I read in 2020 because it’s the most thought provoking book I’ve read since America the Anxious and Palaces of the People, books that also emphasize the importance of community, public places, and the common good. It is so unique, insightful, and challenging, I processed two-thirds of it at most; meaning, I need to reread it, which is a bit problematic since it’s due back at the library. I should probably make Eldest’s day, a true bibliophiliac, and just purchase it. Especially since it will take me a long time to even partially apply her numerous insights.

The front jacket lead, which I’ve amended, is a decent overview:

“A galvanizing critique of the forces vying for our attention—and our personal information—that redefines what we think of productivity, reconnects us with the environment, and reveals all that we’ve been (what we are) too distracted to see about ourselves and our world.”

If you are wary of individualism and seek more community, read Odell.

If you long for a more meaningful, less commercial existence, read Odell.

If you suspect your life might be enriched by less social media activity, read Odell.

If you want to think and care more deeply about your local ecology, climate change,  economic privilege, and alternative ways of thinking about progress, read Odell.

If you want to see Odell explain her book while reflecting on the challenges posed by its unexpected success, watch this November 2019 talk.

“How to Do Nothing” is especially important for anyone thinking, “No way am I spending 23 minutes I don’t have to watch the video.”

Worser and Worser Gridlock

The Future of Transportation by Henry Grabar of Slate.

“Even here (the U.S.), in a nation of unprecedented personal wealth and plentiful land, the car-centric system has pushed up against the limitations of space, proving expensive to maintain and impossible to scale. In the fast-growing cities of the developing world, the situation is more extreme, as commutes consume a greater and greater portion of the world’s energy, time, and cash.”

Graber’s answer? Busses, bikes, and elevators. A bus, quite possibly if “. . . given its own lane, its own route, its own authority over signals.” A bike, hell yes. Elevators?

On bicycles:

“. . . no technology holds as much promise as the humble bicycle—especially when we include its newfangled, electrified cousins—to solve the geometry problem that is getting people short distances around a big city. Even in the United States, where everything is fairly far apart by global standards, 48 percent of automobile trips in the biggest U.S. cities travel less than 3 miles—a distance that, with the right infrastructure, could be easily covered by a smaller vehicle.”

One problem. Most Americans are too soft to cycle even 5 miles to/from the grocery store, work, dentist office. “It’s not safe, poor weather makes it impractical especially in my work clothes, and I don’t have the time!” Never mind that bicycles are often as fast as cars in dense urban environments.

The more pressing hurdle writers like Grabar never seem to address is the intense individualism that curses through the U.S. Individual car ownership does not make financial sense, but it is so deeply ingrained in American life because cars provide unrivaled privacy and freedom. We aren’t rational, so we each buy our own cars that quickly depreciate. And the costs to insure, maintain, register, and keep them gassed up require us to work longer hours than we’d otherwise have to. And nearly every car owner chooses their car over busses 100 times out of 100. Even if driving fewer than 3 miles 48% of the time.

Note to the transpo engineers, city planners, and pragmatic social scientists thinking most deeply about the future of transporation. It’s not primarily an infrastructure problem, it’s a psychological one deeply rooted in U.S. history. How do we get self-regarding U.S. car drivers to even consider more other-regarding approaches to travel? To care even a little bit about the common good, including our health and the state of our natural environment?

I don’t know, but this I do know, slight our history and irrational individualism and watch gridlock grow worser and worser.

Sierra Killer Climbs 5-2012 148

Internal dialogue, “Maybe I shoulda taken the car. Yeah, I def shoulda taken the car.”

The Trump Administration’s Push For Dirtier, Less Efficient Vehicles

Ford, Volkswagen, BMW, Honda, and Mercedes Benz want to make cleaner cars. Which is pissing off the President. One can’t help but wonder, given his gutting of the EPA, the proposed undoing of the Endangered Species Act, and this attempted rollback of higher standards for fuel efficiency, whether little Donald had a really bad experience in nature. A series of horrendous experiences? For shits sake, is the endgame indoor golf?

From the Verge:

Trump is. . . saying that he is giving “politically correct Automobile Companies” the option of lowering the average price of a car by “more than $3000, while at the same time making the cars substantially safer” (though the EPA and the NHTSA’s proposal has nothing to do with making new cars safer) in exchange for “[v]ery little impact on the environment.” He called automotive executives “foolish”. . . .

Many experts disagree with the Trump administration’s calculations. Some argue any potential savings on the sticker price of new cars would likely be offset by the increased fuel cost over the life of those vehicles, even if gas prices stay low. With less fuel-efficient cars, the rollback could also introduce hundreds of millions of metric tons of CO2 into the air, and increase oil consumption by more than 1 billion barrels, according to the EPA’s own estimates.

‘The clean car standards are the most effective policy we have on the books to fight climate change, and the transportation sector is the country’s largest source of the carbon pollution that causes climate change,’ nonprofit advocacy group Sierra Club said in a statement Wednesday. ‘The Trump administration’s push for dirtier, less efficient vehicles would pump more carbon pollution into our air.’

What do “experts” and the Sierra Club know? And shame on the Obama administration for thinking so positively about entrepreneurial innovation and cleaner, more fuel efficient vehicles. The genius in Trump’s thinking is that the more we lower the bar the more likely we are to exceed it.

The New Language of Climate Change

Leading climate scientists and meteorologists are banking on a new strategy for talking about climate change: Take the politics out of it.

“. . . recognition is just Step One . . . once doubters see climate change as the dire threat it is, it will be easier for them to get on board with the only solutions believed to be able to rein it in: phasing out fossil fuels and scaling back our carbon footprint.”

How To Improve Your Finances

Preamble. In what follows I make assumptions that do not hold for many people. Among the most glaring is that my intended audience is gainfully employed and/or they have enough passive income each month to meet basic needs with some left over. Another assumption is that everyone can improve their finances. If I’m wrong about you, I bet you know someone, maybe a young adult child of yours for example, who could use some help building wealth. Consider forwarding this to them if you think it merits it. Thank you.

Official start. Ever wonder why don’t more moderate to high earner families have more long-term financial security to show for all their hard work? In part because financial analysts and advisors make things more complex than they have to so that people will hire them to manage their money.

As a result of needless complexity, and the associated pursuit of the perfect portfolio, people loose focus on what matters most when it comes to building wealth over time, that is, how much they make and spend month-to-month. If asked, how much do you spend on average each month, how precise would your answer be?

Not nearly as precise as it would be if you backward mapped your expenses. Backward mapping, in contrast to budgeting, entails spending regularly without much attention to detail, then totaling everything up after the fact, or more specifically, at the end of each month. Think of it as an x-ray of current spending.

My expense spreadsheet has 7 columns and 12 rows. The columns are for 1) our primary credit card; 2-3) secondary credit cards used less often; 4) cash/checks/wired payments; 5) one-time expenses divided by 12 which include property taxes, home/auto/umbrella insurance premiums, and professional tax preparation; and 6) medical and dental insurance premiums; and 7) a column where I write what the largest expense of the month was in order to see the most expensive outlays of the year in-a-glance. The 12 rows are for each month of the year.

How to build in one-time expenses like a car purchase or new roof? If I buy a $36k car and sell a $12k one, at the end of the year I’ll increase the average monthly total for that calendar year by $2k.* Or maybe I’ll increase it $1k for two consecutive years.

We’re super lucky that we don’t have to budget. With backward mapping though, which doesn’t require much time with credit card statements and most other financial records on-line, I can tell you within a couple percent what our annual burn rate or overhead is. That’s half the battle.

Then comes income. Probably the younger you are, the simpler it is to tabulate. In my advanced age, my income spreadsheet has several columns because in addition to my salary, my university contributes to my retirement fund each month, and then there’s monthly interest from cash and bond investments, and quarterly dividends from stock investments. The wider your income spreadsheet the better. I know, I know, I need a “side hustle” column. I feel younger just for having written that.

Same as with expenses, I keep a running total month-by-month. Here I can be even more accurate than with expenses, even to the dollar. As a result of these monthly calculations, in two weeks, it will take me about 15 minutes to solve for “C” knowing “A” is expenses and “B” is income. If my income exceeds my expenses, “C” will be a positive number. If my expenses exceed my income, like for the federal government, “C” will be negative. Whichever it is, I will carry the number forward and keep a running total from year-to-year.

Building wealth depends upon creating savings on a month-by-month basis much more than fretting about what the market is going to do tomorrow and trying to craft the world’s most perfect portfolio. By far the best way to increase your net worth by $1,200 a year is to make sure your income exceeds your expenses by $100 month-after-month. By far the best way to increase your net worth by $12,000 a year is to do everything in your power to make sure your income exceeds your expenses by $1,000 month-after-month. By far the best way to increase your net worth by $120,000 a year is to make sure your income exceeds your expenses by $10,000 month-after-month.

If that’s so obvious, why do people spend way more time studying stock market gyrations than figuring out how to limit their expenses and increase their income?

If you do well and end up with a surplus of $1,200, $12,000, or $120,000 at the end of the year, invest 50% of it in low cost bond index funds and 50% in low cost stock index funds (+/- 25% based upon your age and risk tolerance). And repeat.

Invest knowing that the most credible analysts in the financial sector seem to be in agreement that future returns will likely pale in comparison to historical ones. For example, here’s Vanguard on 2019 and beyond:

“U.S. fixed income returns are most likely to be in the 2.5%–4.5% range, driven by rising policy rates and higher yields across the maturity curve as policy normalizes. This results in a modestly higher outlook compared with last year’s outlook of 1.5%–3.5%—albeit still more muted than the historical precedent of 4.7%. Returns in global equity markets are likely to be about 4.5%–6.5% for U.S.-dollar-based investors. This remains significantly lower than the experience of previous decades and of the postcrisis years, when global equities have risen 12.6% a year since the trough of the market downturn.”

Subtract 2-2.5% for inflation and another percent for taxes and returns may be 1-3% above inflation. And that’s not factoring in people’s tendency to trade too much with the associated costs that brings. Good luck depending upon your investment smarts to grow wealth.

Building wealth depends upon maximizing income and minimizing expenses a little or a lot. Of course, that depends upon more than using my suggested spreadsheets. Most likely, among other things, it depends upon the degree to which you grew up with role models who lived below their means; how specialized your knowledge and skills are; whether you live in a modest neighborhood; and ultimately, your capacity to delay purchases.

Lastly, one thing your financial planner won’t tell you. Personal wealth won’t amount to much if we don’t revive the Common Good. For us to flourish we need a federal government that can pass budgets without threatening to shut down. We need political leadership that young people can aspire to. We need labor unions to protect workers’ interests. We need health care that doesn’t penalize people of limited means or those with preexisting conditions. We need to partner with other countries to reduce greenhouse gases and global poverty.

Absent commitment to those things, wealth will elude us.

*get a load of this story

Make Cars Great Again

By weakening fuel efficiency rules. Thank you Trump Administration for correcting the errors of the Obama Administration and helping keep cars affordable. And safer. All while continuing to protect the environment. And thank you for soliciting “all interested parties to weigh in with their views”. Very cool. Very democratic.

My view is totally sympatico with yours. Put me down for a “yes” vote on the weaker rules. Goals should be achievable, and you’re right, electric vehicles are for losers. In particular, this really resonated with me:

“Some data conclude that nearly half of consumers who purchase an electric car do not buy another because of challenges with range and recharge times.”

When it comes to things like your Environmental Protection Agency’s track record and your courageous questioning of climate change science, your administration has earned my trust so the phrase “some data” is good enough for me!

And I also agree that subsidies for electric vehicles are for losers best left to European and Chinese businesses who will never truly grasp capitalism’s allure. Please know my free-market invisible hands are clapping for your commitment to Big Oil having a more level economic playing field.

“. . . keeping in place the standards finalized in 2012 would add $2,340 to the cost of owning a new car and impose more than $500 billion in societal costs on the U.S. economy over the next 50 years.”

Again, thank you, $2,340, is not chump or even trump change. About $200 a year over 12 years of car ownership is a hell of a lot to ask for things as boring as markedly improved gas mileage and slowing climate change. Wouldn’t the typical electric car owner save more than $200 in gas costs? Sorry, strike that from the record. I’m sure there’s some more sophisticated math you have used that I probably would not understand. If you say it doesn’t “pencil out”, then it doesn’t pencil out. And “$500 billion in societal costs over the next 50 years?! No way can I do that math, but again I trust you that the “societal costs” are super scary things like more liberals feeling emboldened about spotted owls, more illegal immigrants invading our country, and more Democrats invading Congress.

“Due to these increased costs, Americans are holding on to their older, less-safe vehicles longer and buying older-model vehicles. The average vehicle on the road today is 12 years old, and data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows passengers are likelier to be killed in older vehicles than newer ones. In each of the past two years, more than 37,000 lives were lost on our roads. A key goal of this rulemaking is to reduce the barriers to enabling Americans to purchase newer, safer, cleaner cars.”

Initially, upon hearing that your Administration wanted to weaken fuel efficiency standards, I wondered why. I thought if America’s engineers were even a little great, the Obama goals were appropriately aspirational. I apologize that a part of me even wondered if you might be currying favor with Big Oil and Big Automakers, but upon just a little additional thought, that struck me as entirely too swampy a thing for your team.

I’m embarrassed that I pre-judged you. Of course, your first and foremost concern is our safety. All of your improvements to our infrastructure point to that. My cynicism got the best of me. I will do better going forward in my more affordable, safer, cleaner car.

Lastly, your editorial didn’t really touch on the “continuing to protect the environment” from the intro, but that’s okay. I understand word limits and trust you to be good for that. Again, to be clear, I am down with your downgrading of our fuel efficiency standards. And I look forward to your administration’s additional bar lowering pronouncements in the near future.

2118 Thinking

Easter service at Good Shepherd Lutheran brought a surfeit of babies. One particularly endearing one craned her neck to look up at the ceiling lights one minute and head butted her grandpa the next. The red-headed one, sadly, didn’t get quite as much attention as the blonde head butter.

Those babies may live until 2118, which prompted me to think how differently a President might govern, a Congress might legislate, and a Judiciary might rule if they focused their attention on the later years of Good Shepherd’s littlest Easter service congregants.

What if our news cycles were ten years long and all of us adopted 2118 thinking?

We’d reign in our federal debt, we’d conserve natural resources, and we’d focus on reducing global poverty. In contrast, the Associated Press reports, “The Trump administration is expected to announce that it will roll back automobile gas mileage and pollution standards that were a pillar in the Obama administration’s plans to combat climate change.”

Is that what he means by “Make America Great Again”?