Winter Did Come

Snow in woods

Whose woods are these? They’re mine, you know. And they are really filling up with snow.

apologies to Robert Frost.

Poem paraphrase courtesy of my wife Carrie.

When you are retired, the concept of a Monday doesn’t resonate quite as badly as during a work week. But last week, we truly had a Monday. It started in the cold morning as the temperature was down to low single digits, after having been below freezing almost continually for 2 weeks. This was the longest sub-freezing cold streak I can remember since moving here in 1986. It finally got above freezing on Sunday, and the temperature in our unheated garage rose enough to allow water to flow through the copper tubing and find the hole which had burst during the extended freeze.

My wife was getting ready to go to the Rec Center to do her water exercises, but she heard water running. Never a good sign when you have no reason for water to be running. Turns out we now had an improvised car wash that was knocking the salt off of our car inside the garage. I stumbled downstairs in response to her call out to me, and was able to turn off the flow of water by closing the two valves leading out to our garage. Now the takeoff for this water line is upstream of the main house shutoff, so later this year, we will be plumbing this whole thing up right, including relocating the takeoff to downstream of the shutoff valve, and providing heat tape for the section of the line in the garage. Fortunately for us, we caught the leak shortly after it started, so no water damage, and we won’t be using the outside hose for a while.

Later on Monday we had cabinetry installed, so the kitchen was full of workers. Then we had a backup in our weirdly configured plumbing down in our laundry room, where the combined effluent from the kitchen dishwasher and the washing machine was backing up out of the floor drain and flowing across our basement floor. Discovered this just before I had to leave for a previously scheduled dental appointment. So I had to leave the mess to Carrie. An hour later, the workers from Roto-Rooter were in the driveway along with the cabinetry folks. I parked on the street but they had gotten the plug loosened (was related to the cold weather but wasn’t a frozen line). So add it all together, and I figure we’ve had enough Monday mishaps to last us for months.

Winter has settled in on our house, after having left us virtually untouched the last few years. Still not much snow – the 4″ we got this week was the biggest snowfall we’ve had, and it was so fluffy I could push it and not have to lift it. So the snow blower has yet to receive its first workout of the year.

The local birds and squirrels are pleased with the buffet laid out for them on our porch. Actually haven’t seen too many squirrels, but the morning doves come in droves. When I open the porch in the morning, the whirring of their wings as they take flight echoes from the feeder, the porch rail, the floor. We must have 6-8 of them who are focused on our feeder at times. The suet feeder is attracting many different birds, including a misplaced mockingbird I saw the other day. I always thought they migrated away, but I saw one last week at the suet.

morning doves

Its seed catalog time. This is the time when the marketing team for the Burpees and Gurneys and other seed vendors arrive unbidden, and they bring the hope and dreams of spring and summer. I have a new raised bed to install, replacing a 4″ x 4′ x 4′ with a 15″ deep x 3′ x 4′ version. When I made my garden 3 years ago, I crowded the beds too much, leaving inadequate space between beds. Plus my knees are much worse than they were, so having a 15″ high bed will be very nice. As the other frames deteriorate, I’ll likely change them as well. One thing I’ll say is that you will never receive a positive cash return if you are using raised beds for gardening. They are expensive and their yield is less than you’d need to make money from them. But if you just love to have the fresh vegetables, and enjoy the work to make things grow, the return is more than positive. The dreams of spring grow apace in winter.

The daffodils of spring are starting to poke their heads up. As the snow melts on the banks, you can see the green shoots start to emerge. They are smart enough to not grow excessively for a while, at least until the temperature really warms for multiple days. But for us, the earliest harbingers of spring will be the crocuses that pop up all over the lawn. I’ve never known how these corns moved all over the lawn, but they have naturalized everywhere. There will be some of them that will emerge on the first 70 degree day, but not yet. The snow must leave and the robins must come back before they make their appearance.

A Sad Case of Stockholm Syndrome

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The grizzled detective pondered the crime scene laid out before his eyes. He pushed back the brim of his hat, bent down, and reached out to touch the cooling body of one of the victims. He rolled the body over, and it was apparent that the victim had fallen upon his own sword. Same posture as all of the others who spread drying blood into the exquisite carpets of the cabinet room. The detective looked over to his assistant, who held a notebook and pen, awaiting the wisdom about to come from the veteran crime solver.

“It appears to be a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome,” said the detective. “Notice how all of these Cabinet Secretaries, Senators, and Congressmen, all managed to off themselves with what was available to them.” The detective pointed over to one of the victims, who obviously had a difficult time in offing himself. All he had was a letter opener, and it was clear that he had fallen repeatedly upon the less than sharp point until it pierced his heart.

The detective turned away from the scene in front of him in disgust. “We’d best go and take a look at the scene as it played out.” Fortunately for posterity’s sake, all of the meetings in the cabinet room were now televised live. The cameras ran unattended, which kept the lying media from having a presence in the room. The cabinet room’s new nickname was Soundstage 3, befitting the experience of the resident of the house. For the resident understood a good show, and slowly his administration became the highest profile reality TV show ever scripted. You can assume a regal posture if you only have to be on your best while the cameras are rolling.

The scene was cued up for the detective to peruse. At first, nothing was different from many of the previous meetings in this room where both cabinet members, and Republican members of the House and Senate gathered. They each took turns heaping unadulterated mounds of fetid praise upon the personage of the resident of the house. One after another, each speaker offered their undying gratitude towards the resident, the whole session an attempt at one-upmanship, where the trick was to employ the most cloying and excessive adjectives and lay them at the feet of the resident. The resident sat in his chair in the center of the gathering with his arms folded against his expansive torso, and occasionally favored a particularly exceptional offering with a bit of a nod and a slight upward twist of his mouth.

Finally, the last person offered up his praise. As befitted the established tradition, that was the Vice President, who set a new record for the number of times he compared the resident of the house with the greatest humans who had ever set foot upon the planet. He extended his own record for the number of times he declared his undying gratitude at having the opportunity to serve the resident. With that, the resident of the house uncrossed his arms, and began to enunciate the reason for the meeting.

“I was just in a meeting, they were telling me, it was impossible to get to 270, but we did it, a massive things even though there was no collusion, no collusion with the Russians, though the Democrats did have collusion, they got that dossier, they used it to spy on me, no way that we had collusion with the Russians, but those Democrats, they took Hillary’s e-mails and sent them to the server which they bleached. I mean, can you believe they poured bleach all over the server?” As he spoke, he picked up several ball bearings that were arranged in front of the resident, and began to turn them over and over in his hands.

He began to speak with more urgency. “Now, the Democrats want us to open our borders, want us to stop spending money for defense, they want us to surrender. SURRENDER!” He slammed his hand down on the table and the ball bearings scattered all over the table. Several people hurriedly chased after the rolling bearings, and gathered them and placed them back in front of the resident.”And there’s good people on both side, both sides, nothing wrong with being in favor of your race, those blacks have their own organizations.” He looked up and down the table, watching the exaggerated nodding of the heads of the meeting participants. He really had them in the palm of his hand. He looked down where his hand had found the ball bearings and was twisting them around, again and again.

“We don’t need those rapists, those criminals they are sending from their shitholes. No way they’ll ever want to go back to their mud huts, we need more Norwegians here. And we can make it happen. Now my people have told me of something that happened a long time ago – long ago. They wanted the people sent back over to Africa, to Liberia. That’s what we can do, get all of them sent back to Liberia or some other country over there. They won’t be taking a knee while our anthem is playing if they’re back home in Africa. We can do it!”

There was a stunned silence in the room. But slowly, a murmur began to emerge from the throats of the meeting participants. It swelled and was amplified as everyone joined the chant that became a coherent call. “We! Can! Do! It!” The chant echoed off of the walls, and soon even the staid Republicans were dancing around their chairs, arms linked as they circled around each other. The crowd was psyched. They were enraptured. They were prisoners of the resident, sharing in his delusions, unaware that what they had just committed their own political suicide. They had just been shown on live TV agreeing to a new proposal to forcibly re-segregate the country by expelling their fellow citizens.

There was one participant in the room who had thought this through. His voice called out to the resident. “Do you think maybe folks will think this is racist?”

The change that came over the resident’s face was startling. A flush of red colored his visage, and his mouth extended forward as spittle flew from his lips as he shouted. “How dare you! How dare you question my plan! My plan is the greatest plan ever made. I am the greatest! And who are you to question me? You all can kill yourselves for all I care. Come along, Mike.” The Vice President sprang to his feet and quickly followed the resident, who was storming out of the room. Soon afterwards, the cameras captured the images of the Cabinet secretaries, Senators, and members of the House all began to fall over themselves, searching for the tools to effect their own demise, which played on and on until there was no movement left in the room save for the slow spread of blood across the table and the rugs.

The detective turned off the replay of the scene, and turned towards his assistant. “I can remember when the resident started. There were Republicans who would stand up to him. They told him when his conduct was unacceptable. They claimed they’d never work with him. Then he won. And they slowly, slowly fell under his spell. You could see it with Graham. He’d been quoted as saying that he was a kook, was unqualified. But recently, he said the problem with the press was that they were calling him an unqualified kook. He’d been captured. It happened to all of them. They realized this was there one, best chance to implement their goals of cutting taxes, pleasing their donors. They never understood they were selling their souls in the exchange.” The detective stood up, and got ready to leave the room. “No point in investigating further. It was obvious that these prisoners grew to believe whole heartedly in his mission, so much so that they were willing to follow his off-hand suggestion to its logical conclusion.”

He left the room and the medical teams came in and started to remove the bodies inside of the cabinet room.

 

The Party of Pragmatism

fractured flag

Clauses and adjectives fly back and forth in attempts to spear opponents. Verbs are parried and thrust, aiming for the weak spot in the logical armor of the arguments of the opposite opinion. Nowhere is there an attempt to gain understanding across the chasm of ideologies. And thus we continue this bifurcation of the political spectrum, with the extremes of the right and left pulling apart the middle who does not have a voice in the cacophony of political discourse.

The silent majority of the US does not identify either as a progressive socialist liberal nor as a libertarian follower of Ayn Rand. In early 2016, before the craziness of the latest election cycle played out, fully 42% of the US voting age population identified as independent. Only 29% were self-identified Democrats, and 26% were Republicans. Obviously, the ideologies of both parties are being rejected by a plurality of the population. Neither party appeals to a broad swatch of the voting-age citizens of the US. Yet it is the ideologies of the extremes that are driving the legislative agenda of government. And it is the fear of being primaried by a fanatic of one’s own party who paints an incumbent as being insufficiently ideologically pure that keeps pushing the parties further and further towards the extremes.

This skewing of the discourse towards the extremes is what is poisoning the well of civic dialogue. Of course you cannot ever dare to forge a compromise with the evil bastards of the opposition. If you do, you will be pilloried as a RINO or a cuck or some other derogatory term. We must maintain ideological purity at all costs! Who cares if the country falls down all around us, at least we kept ourselves pure.

Thus we get legislation that doesn’t address real problems, but is enacted through parliamentary tricks simply because it can be done. The mental gymnastics that were used in unsuccessful attempts to repeal health care, and the similar gymnastics that were used to ram a Trojan horse tax bill through using reconciliation in the Senate laid bare the legislative charade for all to see. This time it was the Republicans who used the tools to pass legislation that is deeply unpopular with the voters of this nation. A few years ago it was the Democrats who were unsuccessful in getting Republican participation in creating the Affordable Care Act, thus forever relegating that legislation to become a perennial target for repeal. It really doesn’t matter what the actual legislation is. The fact is that it has become impossible to work in a bipartisan fashion, because the power structure in both political parties has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

As this trend towards political extremism lurches forward, the side effects are becoming more and more toxic. The Republican party entered this year with majorities in both houses of Congress, and a (nominally) Republican President. Yet due to the constant pull towards the right, they were unsuccessful in passing any sort of repeal of the Affordable Care Act. What passed the House with its fermented tea influence was too extreme for the Senate to take up. What came out of the Senate still found enough disfavor with the shriveled moderate wing of the party, and the result was a series of embarrassing failures. All because the power in the Republican party did not accept the possibility of developing a truly bipartisan piece of legislation by working with Democrats.

The only success that Republicans had legislatively in 2017 came when they finally acknowledged the necessity to kiss the ring of their potentate, and accept a tax reform proposal whose only reform was to cut corporate rates, and sprinkle a little paycheck dust on the working class, while bestowing outsized largesse upon the donor class who keep greasing the gears of politics. The display of toadying that accompanied the celebration at the White House after passage was outside of my experience. The sound of sucking up heard on the White House steps rivaled only the sound of jobs being sucked down to Mexico after the NAFTA treaty (according to Ross Perot).

So what is it that the middle of the nation would like to see? What is it that those of us who are not party activists want from our elected officials going into the future? I can only speak for myself, but I can enumerate several items that I think would truly move this country forward again, instead of subjecting ourselves to bashing our heads repeatedly into concrete blocks like we’re doing now.

I’d like to see a real effort made to put the Social Security system on sound actuarial footing. A part of that would come from raising the earnings subjected to Social Security. A part might come from a small increase in the tax withholdings (say from 6.2% to 6.5%, increased by no more than 0.05% per year.) A part should come from examining the Social Security Disability system, since it has become a de facto welfare system that is rife with corruption ( See eastern Kentucky), and is the epitome of a debilitating system for those whose ambition in life is to draw a check. But I’d also like to see a new option added to Social Security, one where a fraction of a person’s withholdings would go toward purchasing an equity-based product, with the aim that eventually when a person retired, they would have an equity share in the nation’s economy that could either be converted into an annuity (Social Security Plus) or turned over to the control of the retiree. What would be better than to have equity ownership and the virtues of capitalism shared across the entire nation, instead of just the investor class. By the way, such a combination plan (partial privatization coupled with tax increases) just might find bipartisan favor, if someone had the guts to propose this.

I’d like to see a real effort made to increase the portion of the gross domestic product that is applied to maintain and improve our infrastructure. I’d like it to be set up for at least a 5 year period so that the private companies who will be doing the work will gain the confidence to invest in equipment and labor and training to ensure that we don’t get in a boom and bust cycle, which is a very inefficient way to spend money. The money for this infrastructure work should be local, state and Federally based, but the majority should be Federal funds. Perhaps an imaginative program could be made where local and state governments borrow excess Social Security funds and pay back at a lower rate than the bond market, but pay Social Security more than Treasury rates. And the money would be put to work, instead of sitting in a lockbox doing nothing (we should have done this 15 years ago).

I’d like a real attempt made to control medical costs. If someone were to design the most inefficient medical system possible, you may not top the one we’ve cobbled together. We apply costs to the companies providing benefits, hobbling their competitiveness, while begrudgingly providing one step up from charity care with Medicaid. Meanwhile, a relatively efficient Medicare system goes on but doesn’t ever become a model for expansion. I’d like to see medical coverage decoupled from employer provision, and a basic medical provision be made through the government. Insurance providers should serve as they do in Medicare, by providing supplemental coverage. They seem to do right well at that, given the volume of ads aimed at convincing seniors of their benefits. If you freed companies from paying and administering medical benefits, you really could unleash the competitiveness of the private sector. And someone needs to really look at the pharmaceutical industry since their costs keep growing exponentially in our current system.

I’d like to see a real effort made to reform the safety net. Not with the goal of eliminating it willy-nilly, but in making it more efficient with less administrative overhead, and making it family-friendly instead of placing barriers in the way of encouraging families and marriage. You want people to be encouraged to work, instead of causing them to avoid working to avoid losing some of their benefits. What we have now does not work well.

I’d like to see public school education valued instead of becoming the punching bag for every dissatisfied interest group in the nation. I’d like to see academic achievement placed on an equal standing with athletic achievement, and I’d like to see the culture shift towards making it cool to be smart. Something to yearn for instead of being the target of bullying.

I’d like to see a real review of our military and its mission and its financial needs. Some of the revisions sought by the President may be valuable and worthwhile, but his methods of bullying our allies while supporting the strongmen of the world is the wrong way to go. But do we really need military bases in so many places, supporting who knows what missions? The first time years ago I heard that we had an Africa Command I wondered who authorized this, and what is it doing? And while we’re at it, I believe diplomacy is more valuable than military might, so I’d like this evisceration of the diplomatic function to cease immediately.

Now, I know that this list (and it’s only a partial list) will be assailed as being agin’ the Constitution. So be it. My interpretation of the Constitution under the general welfare clause allows for functions to be undertaken without being specifically enumerated within a clause of the document. The world is a far different place than it was 230 years ago when the Constitution was written. If we are going to exist with our neighbors and our adversaries without going to armed conflict, then we need to adapt to the realities of the world today. We cannot afford to be ideological purists like we could when we were building this nation in the 1800’s. And besides, it seems like ideological purity caused our greatest internal conflict back about 1861. No, instead of a Tea Party reverting to original principles that won’t work in today’s world, we need a Pragmatic Party, working to deal with real problems in a way that allows for them to be solved while still allowing for regional and state differences in approaches. Who’s with me?

Draining the Swamp

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“Pssst – Do you think they’ve given up?” The slime monster arose from the fetid waters of the Potomac swamp, trailing tendrils of foul-smelling algae from its scaly skin. “Do you think they’ve stopped trying to drain this wonderful environment?” the creature asked me, as I was sitting alongside the tidal basin on a fall afternoon.

“That’s difficult to say,” I replied, only slightly startled to be addressed by a creature that should have been typecast to come out of Tokyo Bay instead of DC. “It looks like their plan is proceeding very well, and succeeding beyond their wildest dreams. By using a master of distraction to rivet the nation’s attention, no one seems to be paying heed to all of the shenanigans happening behind the curtains.”

“That’s good to hear,” said Slimey (or so I named him, though he had not referred to him (or her)self as having a name). “Mind if I sit beside you? It gets a little cold down there in the water this time of year, and it’s good to warm my bones.”

“Help yourself,” I said, though I did scoot down a bit towards the end of the bench, as much to get away from the drips streaming from Slimey’s arms and torso instead of out of concern for Slimey’s clawed limbs. I said, “You know, we don’t often get to see your kind around here. What brings you out of the depths?”

Slimey stretched, wrapped his tail over the side railing of the bench, and sat silently for a bit, as if pondering the question. Then, he shrugged and said, “Last year we heard they wanted to drain the swamp in DC. Kept hearing it again and again. When he won, we figured that we needed to move somewhere else where we would be appreciated, like maybe lower Manhattan. But then, we heard about the people he brought in, and we kept going, that fellow isn’t going to drain the swamp. He’s going to expand it. We just didn’t get it.”

I nodded, understanding the confusion. I told Slimey, “We were surprised as well. He kept talking about how the nation was being taken over by Goldman Sachs during the campaign. Berating Ted Cruz for his and his wife’s ties to Goldman. Complaining about Hillary being beholden to Goldman since she gave a speech to them. Then, POW, onto the Trump team comes Cohn, and Mnuchin, and Bannon, and other underlings, all from Goldman Sachs. The art of deception. Say one thing, then quietly implement the opposite.”

Slimey sighed. “Then there’s all that talk about how bad the banks were during the campaign, how they were getting away with murder after the financial crisis, and he was going to break them up. Do something good for the little people. But once he took office, all we hear about is breaking up the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, and freeing up the banks from Dodd-Frank. ” Slimey held up a front limb to shield his eyes from the sun. “Don’t the “little people” see that he’s helping their enemies, and destroying their friends?”

I turned my head for a moment, looking back over the monuments of our nation’s history. I realized that never had our founders anticipated such a bizarre disruption of our national character when the avenues of this town were laid out. Then, realizing that Slimey was looking at me in anticipation of my answer, I said “Those “little people” don’t see it. They are used to only listening to their leaders on TV and the radio, and following what they say. They’ve lost their ability to analyze what they are hearing and seeing, they only believe what comes their way on Facebook. How else can they keep believing their ears when their eyes see the opposite?”

Slimey nodded, his crest flapping loosely atop his head. He turned to me and said, “There’s one thing I’m glad to see, though. That Pruitt guy at EPA, he seems like he’s our best friend.”

“How so?”, I asked.

“Well, he just seems to be turning the clock back on all of the environmental regulation of the past. We figure it’s just a matter of time before he rescinds the regulations on pollution in the Chesapeake watershed, and when he does, we’ll get all that luscious nitrogen and phosphorus coming back downstream. You wouldn’t believe how good that is for all of the green glop we love.” Slimey licked his chops as he thought of the bonanza he expects to come sliding on downstream in a year or two.

I pondered what this basin would look like festooned in green and blue growths of algae in the turgid waters. The odor it would create would match the mood in the city. Suddenly I grew tired of the conversation, and straightened my body against the bench. Slimey sensed my mood.

“Friend, I’m going to go on back to my kind” he said. “But before I go, there’s one thing I wish you’d help me to understand. Why was it that all of those evangelicals, who oppose the sins of the flesh, supported someone who cheated on his ex-wives, who curses in public, who oozes greed and lust? Someone who waxes wrath on twitter any time he’s criticized. I’ve never seen someone who epitomizes all seven of the deadly sins at once. And he’s the one with the control over the most massive military force the world has ever seen? Can you explain that to me?”

I nodded, finally having an answer that I know would satisfy this creature. “He wasn’t Hillary,”

Slimey stood up, bowed stiffly to me, and said. “Of course. That explains everything.” Then he stepped off into the tidal basin, disappearing into the dark waters, never to be seen again by me.

 

Both Sides?

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My apologies to Judy Collins. The words about both sides being equally guilty of fomenting hatred and violence caused my inner earworm to focus on her song, and my brain worked to find new words.

Rows and flows of orange hair

And ice cream two scoops in my chair

And tweet storms flowing everywhere

I’ve looked at hate that way

 

But now it only hides my truth

The media says I’m uncouth

So many things done in my youth

But hate got in my way

 

I’ve looked at hate from both sides now

Antifa and the alt-right, wow

It’s hate’s delusions I recall

I really don’t know hate at all

 

Crowd so loud, how good I feel

They love me, now I feel their zeal

That protestor, he is a heel

I’ve looked at me that way

 

But now, I cannot make them go,

They vote their way, they just say no,

Repeal, replace – they are so slow

I’ve seen Congress that way

 

I’ve looked at politics right now

No give, all take yet still somehow

No politics for me this fall

Politics – I will not play ball

 

Leers and jeers and feeling wowed,

To see them fail, that I have vowed

They have their schemes, I have my crowds

My enemies I slay

 

But now they say I’m acting strange

I laugh at them, I’ll never change

Well let them wail, I’m still orange,

I hate them every day

 

I’m President for both sides now

I won they lost and still somehow

I keep the Russians in my thrall

I really don’t know life at all

Flo and ebb on the coast

For those who live in towns designated as ports of call on the ocean coasts, there are two totally different tides that rule their lives. The timeless ebb and flow of the waters, first flooding the marshlands of the coast, then pulling away, running backwards out to sea. Life has been nourished through this endless rhythmic cycle.

Then there is the human tide, unleashed when a cruise ship opens its umbilical cord to the welcoming greeting of the coastal town’s inhabitants. These residents are dependent upon the flow of money emanating from the cruise ship passengers, waiting for their share of the fertilizer that will be left behind in their wake.

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For some towns, the arrive of a ship’s passengers is scarcely noticed. Large enough to absorb the swell of the human tide, they offer many options for the passengers who only have a few hours to partake of the culture of the port. But for a small port, the flood of passengers can become a tsunami, overwhelming the limited facilities available. The crowds cause delays, impatience grows, and both the passengers and residents resent each other. Still, the residents are dependent upon the monetary opium left behind by the passengers.

The tide recedes, the passengers pass back through the ship’s umbilical cord, and wthe ship sails away with a blast from it’s horn. The residents of the port of call can settle back into their natural rhythm of the tides, awaiting the next time when a human tide is unleashed upon their shore.

Note to readers. My wife and I just finished a wonderful cruise from Boston to Montreal, and stopped at multiple ports of call on our way. It was the first ocean cruise either of us had ever taken and thus we had no basis for comparison. We loved the attention we received from the mainly Indonesian crew, but more than anything else, we loved the serendipity from our dinner companions. If you wished to dine in the dining room, it was necessary to make reservations, and we chose to agree to share dinner with strangers. The last night of our cruise, we shared a table with two other couples. We are from South Charleston WV for reference. The first couple was from Bluefield WV, at the far southern end of the state, where he was a EN&T surgeon, and his wife was a nurse in his practice. The other couple we ate with was from Boca Raton Florida. Their connection to West Virginia was that the wife was related to a very prominent dental family in the Charleston area who are continually advertised on the television.

We did not find exceptional coincidences on the trip. I grew up in Lincoln Nebraska, which is about ready to experience the totality of eclipse. We saw a gentleman wearing a University of Nebraska shirt and when we enquired, found out he and his wife are from Beatrice. That is at the height of totality, near where Bill Nye the Science Guy will be hanging out on August 21. But we did not find anyone that we knew on the trip (I did try to figure out the mathematical odds of meeting someone I knew on the cruise, and swiftly gave up due to the complexity of the computation). But we did find more like-minded individuals who were opposed to the current US administration than we found who supported it.

As this was my first ocean cruise ever, I will wish to share some observations later. But for now, may you have a bon voyage as we had on our Holland America cruise from Boston to Montreal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Subtle Snares and Nanny States

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Why is it whenever I try to explain a log-normal distribution to folks, eyes start to glaze over? You’d think that such a useful concept would be intuitively understood by everyone, right? Well, the correct response is that very few people have the background in mathematics, and particularly statistics, to understand how a log-normal distribution works, and why it is important.

Log-normal distributions are one thing. Understanding compound interest is something else altogether. That is a consumer survival skill in this day and age where it can work both for you and against you. It works for you if you use it early in your lifetime to start saving for retirement. It works against you if you depend upon borrowing in order to make it through your life. And what is amazing is the “legitimate” financial growth industry that has developed out of what the mafia used to call loan sharking. Payroll advance services, legal in many states, charge an annualized rate of interest of up to 780% (don’t use one of these services in Louisiana). But the people who use these lenders of last resort are the poor who are just trying to stave off eviction or keep the lights on, or fix a failing vehicle. They are indeed the ones who have the least math literacy, and our free enterprise business system takes advantage of their illiteracy by trapping them in a cycle of loans and renewals of loans. Then there’s the car title businesses – I don’t even want to know the details of their business model.

Now, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) issued proposed regulations in 2016 that would cut down the maximum annualized interest rate, including fees for lending, all the way down to 390%. It also is requiring that lenders be prohibited from issuing new loans (with additional fees) for borrowers to pay off their old loans, and also that they verify a payer’s ability to repay a loan. Those regulations were put out for comment back in June 2016, and comments were supposed to close in October. Then November 2016 happened, and now the CFPB is engaged in an existential struggle with the Trump administration. The CFPB has been flagged as a flagrant excessive regulation generator. So as of today, no proposed final regulations have been issued.

Very few issues highlight the ideological divide between Republicans and Democrats like the issue of the CFPB. Republicans invoke the ideology of the free market, and view any interference with its exercise as a violation of their unwritten social contract to allow any predation upon society as a whole, as long as it is deemed legal. Look at sites like Forbes as exemplars of the capitalist ideal in order to receive indoctrination that the CFPB only desires to reduce the choices that poor consumers with no credit options have to meet daily needs. The CFPB is epitomizing the nanny regulatory state that is holding back economic growth.

Democrats on the other hand view the efforts of the CFPB as biblically based social justice, where the poor are protected from being preyed upon by the powerful and moneyed interests of the nation. Yes, there is an element of “We know what’s good for you” in this, in the perspective of the Democrats. Does this version of a nanny state mentality outweigh the monetary crack offered by the payday loan businesses that has resulted in the virtual slavery to the customers of the payday loan complex?

It is obvious in a capitalistic society, keeping score matters. The ultimate score keeping in this instance is the share price of the publically traded companies involved with payday loan operations. Since the CFPB announced potential regulation in June 2016, one would assume that the share price of these companies would have gone down since then had they taken the possibility of these regulations coming into effect seriously. But for two of the largest publically traded companies, their share price does not reflect much of a fear premium. In the past year, two of the largest companies have seen their share price go up by 51% and 14% apiece. In the realm of Trump, it is obvious that for the free market, anything goes.

It is doubtful that the administration of President Donald Trump will allow an agency to issue final regulations that are so opposed to the core interests of the moneyed aristocracy occupying the cabinet. So we will remain with a patchwork of state regulations – in some states, strict prohibitions against this parasitic industry are in effect, and maximum loan interest is capped at 30%. In many others, it is a wild west of freedom, and libertarians can celebrate their freedom to choose to pay annualized interest rates of 600-800% for the honor of accepting a payday loan.

What neither party recognizes is that the demand that built the payday loan industry into a $50 billion annual business is real, and we need to acknowledge that and work to provide real world business solutions. Republicans insist that the exorbitant prices charged by the payday loan providers is necessary to serve the market, since there is a high risk of default. Democrats insist that the providers of the service not be abusers of their customers, profiting exorbitantly on the backs of those who can least afford it.

I ask why do people find it necessary to resort to these lenders of next to last resort? What are the societal issues that keeps people needing to rely upon exorbitant interest and fee rate lenders, and how can we mitigate this need? It galls me to see a huge industry develop over the past few decades where it is touted as an investment opportunity, but it builds its profitability upon the backs of our poor. In our Episcopal hymnal there is a hymn which resonates with me whenever I hear it. It says,

For sins of heedless word and deed, for pride ambitions to succeed, for crafty trade and subtle snare to catch the simple unaware, for lives bereft of purpose high, forgive, forgive, O Lord, we cry

Far too often the rules in our society are stacked against the poor, and those with less education. And then we in our arrogance, blame these victims while we reap the riches they provide to the companies that profit from the subtle snares.

Ghosting, or Sloth? You Decide

Targets

We are in the midst of a target-rich environment. There are so many manifestations of incompetence and evil in the current administration that it is difficult to single out one as representative of the whole. So let’s bore in on a single area that most reasonable people feel is important. Let’s look at the number of roles in the Department of Defense that require Senate confirmation, where a nominee has been confirmed and is serving. The Department of Defense has 55 such roles. As of April 24 (last date I could find easily through search engine), guess how many people had been confirmed.

Give up? Exactly 1, Secretary of Defense General Jim Mattis.

How many of the 55 roles have had people nominated? Again, as of April 24, exactly 4, and two of those failed confirmation. How many more have been announced, but the nomination has not been transmitted to the Senate? Exactly 7, and one of those nominations for Secretary of the Army (replacing one of the failed nominations) has been withdrawn since April 24.

How many positions remain to be announced, nominated and confirmed? Forty-three positions are in Trump-limbo, awaiting any action to be taken. Now, this is the Department of Defense. Few people would argue that this is one of the governmental functions that should be staffed expeditiously in order to ensure that the department is able to perform its prime directive of keeping the nation safe. And yet here we are, 3 1/2 months after the inauguration and nearly 80% of the roles needing Senate confirmation have not even had an announcement of a candidate for the role.

It appears that one of the guiding principles of this administration is that they consider governmental agencies to be grossly overstaffed, and therefore substantial savings can be made by refusing to fill roles within the government. But to this outside observer, failure to staff essential roles will soon lead to paralysis within governmental agencies, leaving them unable to fulfill their duties. Many small-government champions may view this as a victory in the case of departments like Labor, or Education, or other similar agencies viewed as hotbeds of excess regulatory activity. But the Department of Defense?

If the act of leaving roles requiring Senate confirmation vacant is a deliberate decision being made as part of a strategic process to force administrative shrinkage, then let that be announced and we can debate the merits of the strategy. But if what we have is the Trump administration simply ghosting the agency positions, deliberately ignoring the need to fill them so as to hope that they go away, then we have yet another glaring example of the incompetence of the Trump administration.

There is one other possibility that comes to mind. What if there have been attempts to identify candidates for these roles, but either those candidates refused to be considered, or they were considered and then failed their background and security clearance process? Given the nature of this administration to be an information black hole, we may never know the full story.

So this is one simple example of how this administration has hit the ground and immediately assumed the prone position. An administration led by a caricature of a leader, who only knew how to drive his businesses into bankruptcy. An administration which found an eager legislative partner, looking for ways to implement Randian philosophy and effect a total reversal in government direction. This is where the discussion of evil comes into play. There are undoubtedly sincere conservatives who still believe that the country ran off the rails of Constitutional intent when the New Deal was adopted. That is a valid perspective, and it could be debated through the electoral process.

But this election offered a bait and switch. Campaign promises to drain the swamp of undue influence by banks like Goldman Sachs, only to reverse that pledge and fill the swamp with hordes of Goldman Sachs employees and alumni. Campaign promises to get this great new improved health care system that will cost less and provide better services. These promises were co-opted by the Ayn Rand wing of the Republican party into the AHCA, and once the bill passed the first step in the legislative process, they celebrated with Bud Light as they had designated bus drivers take them down the mall towards the White House. You know, that last bit may be the worst of all of this. To think that Republicans believe Bud Light is actually beer says more about them than all of their pronouncements of the moral inferiority of those who develop pre-existing conditions.

We now have a massive tax cut for the truly wealthy disguised as a revamp of health care legislation. If failure to staff the government is one of the manifestations of incompetence of this administration, then allowing this reversion to the bad old days of insurance company death panels represents the evil side of the administration. And still, the true believers do not realize that they have been trolled by experts as they pledge undying support for their supreme leader. If this legislation actually does pass, then their undying support will likely turn into dying support as states requesting waivers to the mandated treatment standards remove drug abuse treatment from insurance. The waivers will reinstitute lifetime caps on payments. But for those who are fortunate enough to remain healthy, they will save a pittance, and the Republicans will say, “See! We came through for you!”

Hum along with Spring

hummingbird-847904__340

Hummers are here! The hummers have landed. We put our feeders up on April 30, and shortly afterwards heard the low-pitched hum of their wings at about 80 hz and heard the chirping sounds of their approach. We must truly be turning the corner towards summer now that these amazing creatures have returned in our midst.

This past Sunday, we saw a soap opera performance in our front yard. A bluebird love triangle played out before our eyes. Early this spring, we had a bluebird couple appear, and the male drove other birds off away from the birdhouse. Then, we saw only a female reappear, and a week ago, began hearing the excited chirps of the young bluebirds each time the mother appeared with food.

On Sunday, a male appeared with another female. The male wanted to take possession of the nesting space, but the female who had been tending the nest would have none of it. We had aerial combat on the power wires, up in the branches, and on the walkway going to the street. I could see in the shadows on our lawn that the combat was continuing up above the house. Flashing wings thrashing against each other in a flying struggle. I could just do an anthropomorphization of the situation. “You left me pregnant, no help with the children. And now you bring your hussy and want to take over my home? How dare you!”

The winner appears to be the female who had been tending the nest. We haven’t seen the male and his other squeeze for two days now. Virtue and honor is upheld in the bird world.

Spring has blossomed in its vibrant glory. Visits to the garden center and farmer’s market have caused our hanging baskets, gardens, and containers to share the colors of the rainbow with the rest of the world. If only we can keep them watered throughout the year so that we can still see the colors in October as they are in early May. Meanwhile, the hooved rats have struck, eating only the purple blossoms from one lantana plant among four that we set out in containers. Lantana is supposed to be deer resistant, but the purple flowers must have lost their resistance.

Ever hopeful, I’ve planted the tomatoes and peppers out on the deck. Looks like if we make it past this coming weekend when the temperature may threaten frost, we will have gotten a jump on the growing season. It is funny how the dream of a juicy tomato to grace a salad can seem so overpowering in May. By September, I may be going “Are they STILL producing?” But tonight, we had our first green onions and radishes from the garden in tonight’s salad. And nothing can compare to the taste of the vegetables grown through one’s own efforts.

Spring calls for ever more things to do than there is time to do them in. The gas grill is awaiting its annual cleaning. Our siding has turned a subtle shade of green on the north side, so a scrubbing with a cleaning solution is at hand. And this is the year when I need to clean, then reseal our 20 year old deck. When we bought our home in 1992, the deck was about 20 years old then, and it looked it. Rough wood, splinter inducing, and seemingly on its last legs. Four years later we replaced it, and it is reaffirming that it still has smooth surfaces and looks like it can stand for another 20 years. We must be doing something right.

This past Sunday, it was snake day at the house. Our smaller black cat Blinky was out on a slope and was riling up some creature that was shaking the lenten roses and faded daffodils. I went out there, and saw about a 3′ long black snake that was trying to avoid contact with the cat. I have never seen a bigger snake on our property since we moved in. I managed to get our cat away from the snake, then later in the day, both black cats were bothering another snake out on the driveway. I went out and saw an 18″ garter snake trying desperately to get into the shelter of the grass. I convinced the cats that I was going to give them food inside and got them away again, then went out and looked at the snake, making sure that it was uninjured. I have gone years without seeing a snake on our property, and seeing two in one day was an aberration. I thought of my mother, who was massively phobic about snakes. She would have required that both snakes meet their master that very minute. But since she left us on New Year’s Eve, I didn’t have to yield to her past wishes. Both snakes went on their way, and I may never see them again.

The grass that we planted 10 days ago has sprouted underneath its blanket of straw. Tiny narrow green sprouts are beginning to poke up through the straw. We’ve kept it moist enough to prevent the death of the sprouts. It will be good if we can keep it in good shape till the grass is able to stand on its own. We miss our hemlock tree, but life and growth must go on. What is encouraging is that the garden does not listen to or heed any political pundits. The only spin in this zone is the tree seedlings that spin in a whirligig fashion as they seek a fertile landing point. Yesterday after a strong rain storm, the wind picked up, and then the air was full of tree stuff. You could see leaves falling amidst the tiny specks of pollen. It looked like a snow storm, there was so much pollen and spent tree flowers, and other miscellaneous organic matter. My old Prius got coated once more in its annual yellow dusting.

Spring! The hopeful season. May it bring a rebirth for all of us in this time of trouble.

 

 

We Are Living In A Cartoon

Trump's world

 

On one of the internet bulletin boards I frequent is a user who has an acronym as a handle. It is WALIAC – We Are Living In A Cartoon. I nod in agreement with that image as yet another week passes and our Narcissist-In-Chief demonstrates repeatedly the reasons why he should never have taken the US government hostage. And yet. And yet he can set up another campaign rally where he denigrates all media as fake, drawing fawning adulation from his supporters who had nothing better to do than get in line at 1:30 AM for a 7:30 PM event. Those who believe in Donald Trump have not been swayed from their allegiance because of the events of the past 3+ months.

I maintain that we have a national case of cognitive dissonance. We as a nation hold two completely contradictory views of the Trump administration. His supporters see a man who works tirelessly on their behalf, one whose progress is being held up by the fifth column within the Republican party, or the immoral judiciary who dares to contradict their leader’s dictums, or (gag) the Demoncrats and / or the lyin’ media.

His detractors see the incompetence and internal squabbles of the administration playing out in firings, reassignments, strategic pronouncements followed immediately by bumbling retreats, and revealed hypocrisies. They see a changeling in front of the camera, a troll and not a man, who has not learned how to string two complete sentences together. If Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland made the “Hey, let’s put on a show!” meme famous, this is the group that put together “Hey, let’s put on a Federal government!” with just as much forethought.

Only the consequences of having this gaggle of historical illiterates in charge of the levers of power are so fraught with peril, that it makes survival within the cartoon iffy at best. And the imagery is getting worse. Just this week as part of the media crush to commemorate the centennial of days of this administration, came an observation from our President that the constitution is getting in the way of effective and efficient administration of the nation. You know, those pesky checks and balances that have worked for nearly a quarter of a millennia. This is where the real risk comes in, when an outlandish idea can be presented that is completely contradictory to our founding principles, but due to the cult of personality being developed, it gains traction.

That is the only way I can describe what is happening now in our nation. We are in the beginning of the creation of a cult of personality around Donald Trump. We’ve seen this happen in the past across the globe and the results are never good. First comes the normalization of the bizarre conduct. I have seen that especially in the financial arena where all of the inconsistency and incompetence is swept under the rug, just because “this administration is friendly to business”. Commentators who originally disdained Trump due to his persona during the campaign, have grown to accept him and all of his foibles, because his policies will make them money if they are adopted.

It is well established how Donald Trump’s misogynistic and xenophobic words and deeds have loosened the restraints from many of his followers. I’ve seen it on the internet forums where anti-semitism and racial hatred have been unleashed. We saw it during his rallies where he all but called for his followers to beat up demonstrators in the rallies. After all, he said he’d pay the bail and legal fees to “knock the crap out of them.” Society has a very thin veneer, and it seems as though Donald Trump is deliberately pouring solvent over the top of an antique table, looking to peel off the surface beauty in order to reveal the crude wood surface below.

Now, with a charismatic (to some) head of the government mumbling about the inefficiencies of our constitutional system of government, and with the movement already in place to hold an article V convention of the states colliding, bad things can happen very quickly in this country. An article V convention refers to the process whereby if 2/3 of the state legislatures have called for a constitutional convention, then such a convention will be convened. That means if 34 state legislatures call for a convention, one will happen, and once that happens, all bets are off. Know how close the Koch brothers backed forces are to getting their desired convention? The 29th state legislature supported it just this spring. Although many of the legislatures have called for only a convention to propose a balanced budget amendment, once such a convention is called, there are no constitutional constraints on its content.

So be afraid. Be very afraid. And speak up through whatever means you have to prevent a constitutional convention from being called, because if it is, fascism and dictatorship may soon follow.