Our Fair Share

January 19, 2020

by Steve Stofka

The holidays are over. This week our city picked up Christmas trees set by the curb. The sun set after 5 PM, the first time since the time change in the first week of November. The sun is returning to the Northern Hemisphere. Despite the variations in the amount of sunshine throughout the year, we all get the same amount of sunshine over the course of a year. Not so with our tax bills.

Estimated taxes were due this week. The self-employed, retired people and others who earn income with no taxes withheld must pay estimated taxes every quarter. This past year the IRS audited less than ½% of returns, a lifetime low. That sounds great because none of us wants to endure an audit. The very word strikes fear in the hearts of many taxpayers, but most of us have a small chance of being audited regardless. We don’t pay enough in taxes for the IRS to do much more than a paper audit, a request for supporting documentation.

The IRS is not a popular agency and became less popular when the agency discriminated against Tea Party and progressive groups during the 2010 election (Farhi, 2017). House Republicans repeatedly cut the agency’s budget, but that retribution has had serious budget consequences. The National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that the government could raise an additional $1 trillion in tax revenue – that’s about 20% of total revenue – with stricter enforcement of existing law (Heeb, 2019). In 2019, the Federal deficit, or budget shortfall, was $1.1 trillion (BPC, 2020). Stricter enforcement would have effectively erased that deficit.

The race for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President promises to center around several themes. The first is the horse race against President Trump, whose incumbency gives him a distinct advantage when running for re-election. The press often seems more concerned with the contest than the underlying issues of a campaign. Taxation is a recurring discussion in each election. More or less? What is a fair share? More, more, more social programs, taxation and regulation, or less, less, less social programs and taxation and more defense spending and power for large corporations?

What is fair? As children we have a keen sense of fairness – our “monkey brain.” We are social creatures who feel scorned at what we perceive as unequal treatment. Equal and fair are not the same thing. A fair share is not the same as an equal share. If I can afford to buy $50,000 worth of goods in a year, why should I have to pay more sales tax than someone who only buys $30,000? We make equal use of a city’s public services. Why should we be treated unequally? Well, we have become accustomed to paying an equal percentage of what we buy in the stores as a sales tax.

Why don’t we follow that same approach for income taxes? States like Colorado do charge the same rate of state income tax regardless of income. Is that fair? Some cities like Denver charge a head tax, a flat fee income tax for anyone who works within the district. Should we follow the same approach throughout the nation? Warren Buffett and I would pay the same amount in income taxes. Is that fair?

Should prices for public utilities be adjusted based on income? If my neighbor makes twice what I do, should they pay twice for the same amount of water? Currently, we are charged the same rate. The income and property taxes of those over 65 are often given a discount. In some districts, a person who reaches 65 finds that they can lower their property tax by 50%. Is that fair?

Elizabeth Warren, a candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, proposed that all student debt be eliminated. Should students who went to more expensive private schools be rewarded more than students who borrowed less because they went to a state college? Should students who borrowed less because they worked part time while going to school be penalized? Is that fair?

In Matthew 20:1–16, Jesus tells a parable of the workers in the vineyard. Workers who came to work in the morning agreed to an amount of money for a day’s work. Workers who came to work later in the day were also promised the same amount of money for working the rest of the day. Jesus was making a point that each person will be rewarded equally in the kingdom of heaven no matter when in their lifetime they come to God’s love. No matter what your religious orientation, is that fair?

Each election we get to vote on what’s fair. Some people don’t vote because they say that their opinion doesn’t matter. It certainly doesn’t if they don’t vote so they have proved their case. If I vote and my neighbor doesn’t, my vote effectively counts double. In a few weeks, the Democratic primaries will start. The first two are in Iowa and New Hampshire, states with small populations and an even smaller number of people who participate in the caucus system. The votes of a few thousand people can make or break a candidate’s campaign. In a democratic nation of 320 million people, is that fair?

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Notes:

Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC). (2020, January 9). Deficit Tracker. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://bipartisanpolicy.org/report/deficit-tracker/

Farhi, P. (2017, October 5). Four years later, the IRS tea party scandal looks very different. It may not even be a scandal. Washington Post. [Web page]. https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/four-years-later-the-irs-tea-party-scandal-looks-very-different-it-may-not-even-be-a-scandal/2017/10/05/4e90c7ec-a9f7-11e7-850e-2bdd1236be5d_story.html

Heeb, G. (2019, November 19). The US could raise $1 trillion more in taxes through stricter IRS enforcement, according to a new study. Markets Insider. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/us-could-raise-1-trillion-more-tighter-irs-enforcement-study-2019-11-1028700145

Photo by Maria Molinero on Unsplash

The Fuel of Fear

by Steve Stofka

January 12, 2020

The Constitution requires that a census be taken every ten years. The first census in 1790 counted almost four million people. The Census Bureau estimates the population at 330 million now, a hundred-fold increase (Census Bureau, 2019). The Constitution was a hard-fought bargain between representatives of regional interests. Politicians in the North and South distrusted each other. Southern states estimated that they would gain the most population growth in future decades because the growing season was longer in those states, and most people depended on agriculture for their existence. Until those population trends developed, the South worried that the more populous North would dominate Federal policy (Klarman, 2016). Our lives are impacted by the fear and distrust of our founders.

Minority and isolated rural communities are at risk of being undercounted because they distrust government. Minorities may have come from a country where there is good reason to distrust government. Indian tribes have several hundred years of reasons to distrust state and federal governments. Response rates to the census questionnaire vary dramatically. In some of the 3000 counties nationwide, responses are only 20%. In some, the response rate is 80-85% (C-Span, 2020). An advocacy group testifying before the House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing this week estimated that 400,000 Latino children aged 0-4 were not counted in the 2010 census (C-Span, 2020). Pre-school programs for at-risk Latino children receive less funding when the government doesn’t know those children exist.

During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt and a Congress ruled by the Democratic Party made an abrupt shift in the role of the Federal government. Until then, the policies of state governments had a more direct impact on the lives of most Americans. Today, the Federal government is involved in every aspect of our lives. Census counts determine the distribution of hundreds of billions of Federal tax dollars each year.  Political scammers rely on the fact that minority populations are fearful, and they spread disinformation about the census to fuel that fear and help reduce the population counts of those communities. Because so many federal programs are tied to the census, people who are fully counted in one state benefit if those in a neighboring state are under counted. The counting of people has become a political sport.

Politicians are afraid of losing the jobs they worked hard to get in the first place. Their interests become aligned with companies whose campaign contributions help protect a politician’s position. Some fault the private market for overpriced drugs and high housing costs but it is the failure of policy makers to respond to the interests of the constituents who voted them into office. Politicians respond instead to the wishes of pharmaceutical, energy and real estate companies. A dominant company in an industry does not want competition. They lobby politicians to craft policies that make the market less free to protect their market domination. It is not the role of private companies to respond to a broad constituency of voters. That is the role of politicians, who blame the private market instead of their own public policy. Then they call for more public policy failures to fix private industry. Private industry increases their lobbying and campaign contributions in response.

Humans have a proclivity for fear and are more alert for negative experiences. Psychologists calls it a negativity bias (Cherry, 2019). For good and bad, fear infected our Constitution at the outset and drove the founders to craft a Constitution of compromise. Smaller states feared the majority will of the larger states. The founders feared the power of the British Parliament and the king just as minority populations fear the government today. Driven by fear for their own political survival, politicians sought the support of the few at the expense of the people who voted them into office. Then and now, we fuel our public policies with fear of the other, whoever we think that is. Our country becomes ruled by fear.

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Notes:

Cherry, K. (2019, April 11). What is the Negativity Bias? VeryWellMind. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/negative-bias-4589618

C-Span. (2020, January 9). Hearing on 2020 Census: Response rates. [Video, Transcript]. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?467977-1/hearing-2020-census&start=12401

C-Span. (2020, January 9). Hearing on 2020 Census: Latino children. [Video, Transcript]. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?467977-1/hearing-2020-census&start=13069

Klarman, M.J. (2016). The Framers’ Coup: The Making of the United States Constitution. New York: Oxford University Press. Pg. 192.

Photo by Drew Graham on Unsplash

U.S. Census Bureau. (2019, July 1). Quick Facts. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219

The Black Hole of Generational Wealth

January 5, 2020

by Steve Stofka

As we begin this new decade, let’s look at some developing trends. In 2005, the wealth of the Boomer generation (1946-1964) finally surpassed that of their parents (Federal Reserve, 2019). This was the so-called Silent generation born in the years 1925-45. In 2005, each of those two generations owned a quarter of the nation’s wealth for a total of slightly more than half the nation’s wealth. There are about five generations that make up a human life span. Older generations have had more time to accumulate wealth, so this distribution of wealth among the two oldest generations was expected.

Turn the dial forward 14 years to 2019 and the distribution of wealth has changed significantly following the Financial Crisis. The median age of the Boomer generations is now 64 and they own 60% of the nation’s wealth. Even more remarkable is the 25% share of the country’s wealth owned by the oldest generation who are 75 years or older (Federal Reserve, 2017). The median wealth of those oldest households is greater than that of the Boomers.

What happened? Most of that wealth is in real estate. Following the financial crisis, asset prices have recovered. Housing prices have risen sharply on both coasts where most of the country’s population lives. Between the 2013 and 2016 Surveys of Consumer Finances, the median net wealth of the 75+ generation increased 32% while the oldest of the Boomer generation aged 65-74 had a 6% decline.

As these oldest Americans die, their wealth will pass to younger generations but most of it will presumably pass to their immediate heirs, the Boomers. Within five to ten years, the Boomers – less than 25% of the population – will own 70% or more of the nation’s wealth.

The Consumer Survey data shows that approximately 80% of that 70% will be owned by 10% of the Boomers (Federal Reserve, 2017, Figure B). A small percentage of old people will control a majority of the wealth in the country. Wealth buys political influence to protect that wealth. Younger generations have a greater number of votes but have not exercised that vote power in the same percentages as older people. Will the concentration of wealth prod younger people into exercising their power at the ballot box? Older and wealthier Americans have political alliances that give them more electoral power than their vote numbers. In this coming decade younger Americans will have to come out in overwhelming numbers on election days to overcome the power of those alliances. Will we see a generational revolution this decade?

The strength – and weakness – of older people is their predictability. They will counter proposals for fairer wealth distribution with familiar arguments. “These younger people want something for nothing” has been an effective counterargument for several decades. “These policy proposals are socialist and un-American” is another effective ad campaign against policy changes. “How will we pay for this? Higher taxes and less money for working people” is another strategic counterargument that attracts moderate and conservative voters.

The past decade has been historic. We ended the “aughts” or 2000s with the election of a black American for president and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. We ended this decade with the impeachment of President Trump. Like President Clinton who was impeached in 1998, both men enjoyed robust economic growth, historically high stock and housing market prices during their terms. Economic well being did not insulate either president from impeachment by the opposite party. Get ready for the next decade. I’m betting that economic disparity and political friction create a maelstrom that makes the past two decades look tame.

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Notes:

Federal Reserve. (2019, December 23). Distribution of Household Wealth in the U.S. since 1989: Wealth By Generation. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/z1/dataviz/dfa/distribute/table/#quarter:120;series:Net%20worth;demographic:generation;population:all;units:levels

Federal Reserve. (2017, September). Changes in U.S. Family Finances from 2013 to 2016: Evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances: Table 2. Family median and mean net worth, by selected characteristics of families, 2013 and 2016 surveys. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/2017-September-changes-in-us-family-finances-from-2013-to-2016.htm#xtable2-familymedianandmeannetworthb-c9084a05

Photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash

Look Back, Look Forward

December 29, 2019

By Steve Stofka

In this last week of 2019, I’ll look way back for a bit of perspective heading into the coming election year. In 1932, voters elected FDR to the Presidency. More significantly, they elected an overwhelming majority of Democrats to the Congress to enable FDR to make big changes. Voters wanted an activist government to fix things.

$2.8 trillion is a lot of money, about 2/3rds of what the federal government spent in 2018 (CBO, 2019). That’s how much inflation-adjusted money depositors lost in bank failures during the Great Depression (Investopedia, n.d.). Imagine if ¾ of all the cash and money in checking accounts just vanished. That’s $2.8 trillion.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was created in 1933 to protect bank depositors from the loss of their life savings. During the 2008 Great Financial Crisis, Washington Mutual had losses of $307 billion. Depositors lost nothing. That’s activist government.

Republican advocate for a reactive rather than a proactive government – one that has a light regulatory hand. Too often this type of government ignores signs of trouble until a full-blown crisis develops like the 9-11 terrorist attacks or the Great Financial Crisis.

Voters will be asked to decide on which government role they prefer. Advocates for an activist government believe in grand communal solutions, many of which are poorly executed but are better than nothing. Cars, phones, computers and the social media that dominates our public policy discussions were all privately developed solutions that have adapted quickly to user demands. Government solutions are clunky contraptions of conceited ambitions that are slow to evolve as effective solutions. When they finally achieve some efficiency, the problem has changed. Examples include rent control, Social Security, Medicare, and the federal student loan program.

Advocates for a reactive government wait until the situation is near crisis levels, see that no one has created a solution yet and propose a public private partnership (PPP). These programs are not well designed to solve the problem but serve the purpose of funneling public tax dollars into private coffers while policy makers pontificate about free market solutions.  Examples are prisons, toll roads, and university student housing.

Presidents are usually elected for a second term. President H.W. Bush lost his bid for a second term in 1992 because of the lingering effects of a recession.  In 1980, President Jimmy Carter lost his bid for economic reasons as well. Divisions in the Democratic Party over the Vietnam War convinced an unpopular President Lyndon Johnson that he should not run for a second term in 1968. It’s unlikely that we will have a recession next year and that will increase the likelihood that Mr. Trump will be re-elected. Will that influence your financial decisions in any way?

The SP500 has gained 41% since President Trump took office in January 2017. Most of that gain has come in the past year. A record amount of money flowed into equity ETFs in December (Bell, 2019). Are investors chasing the high? Now is a good time for older investors to evaluate the risk-reward profile of their portfolio. An unpleasant task is to imagine what choices you might need to make if the value of your equity holdings were cut in half. That’s what happened in 2001-2002 and again in 2007-2009.  

97% of the U.S. is classified as rural but only 20% of the population lives there (Census Bureau, 2016). The map of the country may be colored a political shade of red, but there are relatively few voters per county. An ever-increasing portion of the people live in the scattered blue and politically purple areas. For decades the children who grew up in rural communities have left and not returned. The political fight for the direction of the country is not between rural and urban populations but between voters in smaller metro areas and suburban communities (Marema, 2019).

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Notes:

Bell, H. (2019, December 20). ETFs See Record $52B Inflows. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.etf.com/sections/weekly-etf-flows/weekly-etf-flows-2019-12-19-2019-12-13

Census Bureau. (2016, December 8). New Census Data Show Differences Between Urban and Rural Populations. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2016/cb16-210.html

Congressional Budget Office. (2019, June 18). The Federal Budget in 2018: An Infographic. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.cbo.gov/publication/55342

Investopedia. (n.d.). Bank Failures. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/b/bank-failure.asp

Marema, T. (2019, March 14). Contrary to What You Hear, the Rural-Urban Gap Didn’t Grow in 2018 Election. The Daily Yonder. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.dailyyonder.com/contrary-hear-rural-urban-gap-didnt-grow-2018-election/2019/03/14/

Majksner, Nikola. (n.d.). The Battle of Sutjeska Memorial Monument Complex in the Valley of Heroes, Tjentiste, Bosnia and Herzegovina. [Photo]. Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/photos/as_pS7EkK-Y

A Lump Of Coal

December 22, 2019

by Steve Stofka

While going through the personal items my mom left behind, I found a picture of her and some childhood friends lounging on the grass. The girls were dressed in simple clean dresses that looked homemade. The boys were dressed in pants whose legs could not keep up with a 7th grader’s growth spurt. The year was about 1934, the place a farming community in Texas during the Great Depression.

When we were kids, my mom would not allow us to call someone names. Cursing was out. No surprise there. Even popular pejoratives like “fink,” “bozo,” and “retard” were out as well. “I will not have my children behaving like cheap white trash,” she would say. We never got a definition of cheap white trash. We could only get a sense of it. Bad manners, an insensitivity to the feelings of others, a lack of respect for authority and other people’s property, a lack of responsibility. Cheap white trash was not about a bunch of depression-era kids dressed in simple clothes. It was not about being poor in material wealth; it was about being poor in spirit.

President Trump is our century’s version of the circus ringmaster P.T. Barnum. Almost half of voters chose him in the hope that he could tame the beasts in Washington. He behaves in a brash and boorish manner that is better fit for a wrestling persona than a president. Mr. Trump’s overbearing manner echoes that of Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian Prime Minister and billionaire media mogul.  

This week the House of Representatives voted to impeach Mr. Trump on two counts, one of which was obstruction of the House’s impeachment inquiry. Unlike previous impeachment proceedings, Mr. Trump refused to testify on his own behalf and blocked the testimony of several material witnesses. After the vote of impeachment, he sent a six-page letter to the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. The letter detailed his explanation of events and voiced his condemnation of the House’s impeachment process (Trump, 2019).

Mr. Trump is a champion of insensitivity who claims to be above the rules of propriety but holds his perceived enemies to a rigid code of conduct. One of the many contradictions that makes him such a colorful character.

I heard an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition this week. One of the program’s hosts, Steve Inskeep, interviewed a spokeswoman for the White House about the impeachment (NPR, 2019). Mr. Inskeep had to interrupt several times when her assertions contradicted known facts. She attempted several versions of the history of the impeachment proceedings. She reminded me of a running back who hits the defensive line, is rebuffed and persistently tries another opening.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader and the person who single-handedly controls the journey of most legislation, has promised to closely coordinate with the White House during a Senate impeachment trial. According to Ms. Pelosi, about 275 bipartisan bills passed by the House this year are buried in Mr. McConnell’s desk (C-Span, 2019). He is up for re-election in 2020 and faces challengers from the party’s base in his home state of Kentucky. He is standing very close to President Trump as a matter of survival, not principle. The first principle of political success is to get re-elected.

Politics in a democracy is a messy affair of conflict and compromise, bare knuckle bargaining and chess master tactics. Relatively few of us enter the field. Those who do must convince themselves that they have not compromised their character even when they had to compromise their principles. Many campaigned hard to get elected to office and work even harder to stay elected.

For more than two years of former President Obama’s first term, Mr. Trump was a leading spokesman for the “birther” movement to nullify Mr. Obama’s presidency because his birth certificate was a forgery. Only after Mr. Trump secured the Republican nomination in 2016 did he admit that Mr. Obama was born in the U.S. and that his presidency had been legitimate (NPR, 2016). In a touch of irony characteristic of an episode of the Twilight Zone, the House has put a certificate of another sort, the black mark of impeachment, in Mr. Trump’s Christmas stocking. He promised to revive the coal industry. Now he has his lump of coal.

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C-Span. (2019, December 19). House Speaker Weekly Briefing. [Transcript]. Retrieved from https://www.c-span.org/video/?467564-1/speaker-pelosi-wait-senate-trial-details-naming-impeachment-managers

NPR. (2019, December 19). White House Responds to Impeachment. [Transcript]. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/12/19/789704256/white-house-responds-to-impeachment

NPR. (2016, September 16). Without Apology, Trump Now Says: ‘Obama Was Born In’ The U.S. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2016/09/16/494231757/without-apology-trump-now-says-obama-was-born-in-the-u-s

Photo by Nick Nice at Unsplash.com

Donald J. Trump, President of the United States. (2019, December 17). Letter to: The Honorable Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives. [Web Page]. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/Letter-from-President-Trump-final.pdf

Price Points

December 15, 2019

by Steve Stofka

This week I tested Alexa. You know who I mean. She who shall not be named in idle conversation for she will respond. She can do arithmetic, but can she do algebra? I asked her, “What are the factors to the expression x2+2x+1?” She gave me the simple factors x(x+2) + 1. A better answer would have been (x+1)2. Not bad.

We have adapted so quickly to these new technologies. It is normal to talk to a cylinder. Farmers guide their tractors with a cellphone app (Future Farming, 2017). A library of information readily available 24 hours a day. An earthquake on the other side of the planet and we learn of it within the hour.

Despite the accessibility of information and communication, we are bombarded with disinformation. We can’t talk to members of our family or some of our friends because of their political beliefs. Has technology unloosed our own demons from Pandora’s box? In one version of the myth, the demons burst out from Pandora’s box and she was so frightened and alarmed that she closed the lid before the last demon, Hope, could get out. Is hope a curse or a blessing?

We have become accustomed to the entertainment, communication, information and convenience of our phones. They make us powerful. We watched a movie on DVD tonight. I forgot we still had a DVD player. The remote didn’t work. We had to put new batteries in.

On a job site a decade ago, I heard a family arguing. Mom was taking her kids’ phone away because he did something or didn’t do something. A short while later I heard the kid crying. This was a big 12-year-old boy who had received a smart phone as a gift. The phone had become this kid’s heartbeat. He was addicted to a phone.

Have we become a nation of addicts? We are addicted to high energy use even if it does introduce much more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the plants, soils and oceans can absorb. Yes, it’s a problem, but …

I forgot my phone last week, turned the car around and came back eight blocks to get it. I was only going to be gone for a few hours. Yes, I know I’m addicted to my phone, but…

Are we addicted to our opinions? God forbid that someone should threaten our political or religious beliefs. Don’t try to change my mind about something. If I want to change my mind, I’ll do it on my own time, thank you. We have so much information at our fingertips that we can’t absorb it all, so we select a few sources and satisfy ourselves that we have a balanced enough perspective.

The stock market has gone up more than 10% in the past one hundred days. Is that the final hurrah before prices dive? Or is the market waking up to a new era of continued low inflation and healthy corporate profits? I’m surrounded by a cacophony of opinion.

In a decade, my calendar app will know what to remind me about. I won’t have to tell it. For that to happen, the app will need access to a lot of personal and financial information about me. “You paid for a subscription to National Geographic magazine last February,” my app will say. “Shall I add a reminder for this coming February?” Sure, why not. I’ve already given away so much information.  I will need an app to guard my information in case someone hacks into the database where my calendar app stores all my information.  

Each of us has price points – boundaries of what we’re willing to pay for something. There was a time in my life when I wouldn’t spend more than a $1000 on a car. Then it was $2000 for a reliable car. My price points were moving up.

Starbucks has been around for almost 50 years (Starbucks, n.d.). I couldn’t believe it. Sometime in the 1990s I became aware of them. Who would pay $3 for a $1 cup of coffee? Lots of people.

A decade ago, who would pay $700 for a phone? A decent computer could be bought for that price. Apple rolled out the iPhone 3G for $199 with AT&T as the exclusive carrier (Wikipedia, n.d.). More than a million people bought one in the first weeks. $199 was just the down payment on the phone. The two-year contract with AT&T included about $20 extra per month for the phone according to some estimates. That raised the cost of the phone to $700.

If the stock market goes down 20%, who buys and who sells? What are the price points? What about 30%? 50%? During the 2008 financial crisis, brokers said they got a lot of calls when the market was down 50%. They cautioned their clients that this was the wrong time to sell. Most of the damage had been done. Their clients couldn’t take it anymore. Sell, sell, please sell. There was a last hurrah of selling and then…the buying began in earnest.

What are our political price points? I asked Alexa. She doesn’t know that. What causes people to say, “I’ve had enough!” and go out in the streets to demonstrate? In the past month the world has witnessed large scale demonstrations in Tehran, Iran, in Hong Kong, in Baghdad, Iraq, in Santiago, Chile, and in Barcelona, Spain. I think 2020 will be an American crisis year and we will see such demonstrations in our country. I hope I’m wrong.

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Notes:

Future Farming. (2017, June 21). App turns smartphone into a cheap tractor guidance system. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.futurefarming.com/Tools-data/Articles/2017/6/App-turns-smartphone-into-a-cheap-tractor-guidance-system-1597WP/

Photo by Colin Watts at Unsplash.com

Starbucks. (n.d.). Starbucks Company Timeline. [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.starbucks.com/assets/ba6185aa2f9440379ce0857d89de8412.pdf

Wikipedia. (n.d.). iPhone 3G. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPhone_3G

A Junk Drawer of Changes

December 8, 2019

A tip of the hat in respect to those servicemen who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941 – almost 80 years ago.

This week I was cleaning out two kitchen drawers that had turned into junk drawers over the years. I became aware of how much things have changed in the past twenty years. There was a digital pedometer that we don’t use anymore. A cell phone app does that now. There were 9- volt batteries in the drawer that were long past their expiration date. The new lithium smoke and carbon monoxide detectors don’t need them. The manufacturer says to replace the entire unit after ten years. There were bayonet type Garden Accent light bulbs in the drawer. We use LED fixtures now. There were phone cords and phone couplers for landline phones. We don’t have those anymore. There were batteries for a modest digital camera. We use our cell phones to take photos now. There were expired C-batteries for a battery-operated adding machine that we don’t use anymore. Technology is changing more rapidly than I clean out my junk drawer. Maybe I should do that more often.

Talking about change….

I was in Amish country in Iowa a week ago. Although different communities have different rules, they ordinarily don’t use fossil fuels. We were in one store with a big iron wood burning stove. At a grocery warehouse, the clerk used a battery powered adding machine instead of a cash register. We saw a few men cleaning up the fields and tossing the remains of last season’s planting into a large container sized like a dump truck. It was pulled by a team of four horses. For tasks requiring gasoline, natural gas and electricity, the Amish rely on outsiders whom they call “English.” For farm work requiring a combine, they hire outsiders.

Most of us do not want to live the way of the Amish. We have become accustomed to the benefits of the very efficient energy provided by fossil fuels. Our society and economy thrive on energy. Stricter regulations have spurred technological advancements that enable our cars, furnaces and power plants to burn fuels much cleaner now. Climate scientists point out that we are putting far too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Some scoff at the idea that carbon dioxide can be a problem. We breathe it out. Plants breathe it in. As part of the dynamic energy cycle, carbon dioxide itself is not a problem.

The threat to our way of life is the extra amount of carbon dioxide that our industrialized society is exhaling into our atmosphere. We are rapidly tapping a reservoir of carbon that was stored in the earth more than 300 million years ago. The key word in that sentence is “rapidly.” We are putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the plants can absorb. In some developing countries, people are cutting down the trees that absorb carbon dioxide as part of their life cycle.

From ice cores extracted from Greenland and the Antarctic climate scientists have been able to deduce a familiar cycle of events when the carbon dioxide concentration increases. The planet warms, the oceans rise, and precipitation increases. Permafrost at extreme latitudes melts and releases the carbon it has stored. That creates a feedback loop that intensifies the effect.

We need to slow down our consumption of fossil fuels, but we don’t want to give up the savings from the energy they provide. The internal combustion engine lowered food production costs, increased yields and lowered the cost of food for all Americans. Farmers dry their corn and other staple crops with fossil fuels. In another time, they might have plowed a damp surplus crop back into the ground.

We can’t attribute the lower cost of food entirely to fossil fuels, but a comparison of prices surprised me. A hundred years ago butter cost .58 per lb. in NYC (BLS, 2006). That’s $7.54 in current dollars. Eggs were .57 per dozen, so about $7.40. Current price for eggs was $1.28 last month (BLS, 2019). That’s a sixth of the price a century ago. Milk, a government subsidized product, was .28 per 1/2 gallon – approximately $3.64 in today’s money. The current price for milk is $3.12 for twice as much, a gallon. Milk today is about 40% of the cost it was a century ago.

Sixty years ago, the development of nuclear energy plants promised cleaner and less expensive energy. After the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the building of new nuclear plants was severely curtailed [Wikipedia, n.d.]. Each year more coal miners die in accidents than all the people in history who have died from a nuclear accident. When it comes to nuclear, people disregard comparative statistics.

We don’t like making hard choices. We don’t like inconvenience. We absorb change and become accustomed to it. We put our old ways of doing things in the junk drawer of history and forget about it. We don’t want to live like the Amish to adapt to a planet with rising levels of carbon dioxide. What choices will future generations make?

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Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). (2006, May). 100 Years of U.S. Consumer Spending. [Web page, PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/opub/100-years-of-u-s-consumer-spending.pdf

Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). (2019, November). Average Retail Food and Energy Prices, U.S. City Average and Northeast Region. [Web page, PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.bls.gov/regions/mid-atlantic/data/averageretailfoodandenergyprices_usandnortheast_table.htm

Photo by katherine cunningham on Unsplash

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Three Mile Island accident. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Mile_Island_accident#Effect_on_nuclear_power_industry

Thanksgiving Leftovers

December 1, 2019

by Steve Stofka

My wife and I were visiting dear friends in Cedar Falls, Iowa, a college town surrounded by farms, small industrial businesses and several Amish communities. The people are friendly, the town is bucolic, and the downtown area has been revitalized after a flood several years ago. I was introduced to Hurts Donuts, a franchise of cake style donuts that just opened in Cedar Falls (KWWL, 2019). Yum, yum.

A 1600 SF house built in the 1950s can be had for less than $200K. I priced one house in Cedar Falls that would have sold in Denver for $350-$400K. Asking price was $180K. We helped a friend move into a townhome with 1100 SF living area and a garage. Rent? $850 per month, half of what I could rent a townhome in Denver.

Do the residents make considerably less? Not according to Best Places (n.d.). Their median household income and average income are almost exactly the national average. Cedar Falls sister city is Waterloo, which has the largest population of African-Americans in Iowa. At about 10,000, that’s less than 2% of the state’s population. That’s half of the black population in a neighborhood two miles from where I grew up in New York City. Iowa doesn’t do black. New York City does.

The city made the local news this year when the financial web site 24/7 ranked the city as the worst place in America to be African-American. Ouch. A reporter with the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier dug deeper into the Census Bureau numbers used by 24/7 and confirmed that the data was not skewed or taken out of proper context (Steffen, 2019).

Presidential candidates visit the twin city area frequently. Elizabeth Warren was going to be back in Cedar Falls on December 1st, but we couldn’t stay there. Candidates for either party pound the rostrum and offer solutions for big problems. The biggest problems are the small ones next door to us.

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Works Cited:

Best Places. (n.d.). Cedar Falls, Iowa. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.bestplaces.net/economy/city/iowa/cedar_falls

KWWL. (2019, November 6). Hurts Donut open today in Cedar Falls. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://kwwl.com/news/top-stories/2019/11/06/hurts-donuts-open-today-in-cedar-falls/

Steffen, A. (2019, February 2). Waterloo Confronts List’s Label as Worst Area to Be Black. Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/iowa/articles/2019-02-09/waterloo-confronts-lists-label-as-worst-area-to-be-black

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Bayside, Queens. [Web Page]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bayside,_Queens

Holiday Snacks

November 24, 2019

by Steve Stofka

I’ll keep it short this holiday week and pass on a few things that caught my attention. The comedian John Oliver called it “whataboutism.” When accused of something, point to someone else and say, “What about them?” I thought the term was new, but Wikipedia says it goes back to 1960s Russia (Wikipedia, n.d.). I did it when I was a kid. My kids did it. In Russia, the practice is a national pastime.

In the impeachment hearings this week, several Republicans repeatedly defended their President of crimes by raising up the Steele dossier. Not familiar? There’s a book out by the two former Wall St. Journal reporters who formed Fusion GPS (NPR, 2019).  It’s the same argument Republicans gave to accusations regarding wiretapping at the Watergate complex.

Until the Supreme Court decided the 2000 election in Bush v. Gore, I thought the judiciary was above this. They were not. The decision was a rare one for the Supreme Court and it was careful to note that the decision set no precedents (Oyez, n.d.). A few months later, the stock market began its hard fall from the dot com boom, China was admitted into the World Trade Organization and later that year, the tragedy of 9-11. That election and the year 2001 marked the end of American innocence. By the time President Bush stumbled into the Iraq war, we were wearing the masks of our own folly.

Now Russia’s Putin smiles wryly as he watches the Americans behaving like Russians. When accused of something, point to someone else and say, “What about them?” Every week comes another revelation of secret visits to Ukraine by someone on the Trump squad. Devin Nunes, the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, has just been fingered by Lev Parnas, one of Mayor Giuliani’s indicted Ukrainian fixers. In a crowd of crooks, who knows what the truth is? Putin sees the arrogant Americans pointing fingers at each other and smiles.

Let’s move on to other news. County by county surveys reveal that half of single person senior households have trouble meeting basic expenses each month (Elder Index, 2019). Ouch. A quarter of two-person senior households have the same problem. I was even more surprised to learn that seniors can now live less expensively in Los Angeles than in Denver. Whether renting or having no mortgage payment, costs were higher in Denver. Another ouch. Denver has California-itis. Interested readers can check the web site in the notes below and compare counties of their choosing.

There’s got to be some good news in this week’s blog! Sales of existing homes climbed 4.6% in October. Hooray. On the other hand, less than a third of those sales were to first time buyers, who are getting left out of the market.

Ok. I’ll stop. Next week, I promise I’ll have some cheerier news.

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Notes:

Elder Index. (2019). The Elder Index™ [Public Dataset]. Boston, MA: Gerontology Institute, University of Massachusetts Boston. Retrieved from ElderIndex.org

Haddad, T. (2019, November 23). After Giuliani ‘Fixer’ Alleges Nunes Met with Ukrainian Officials to Seek Biden Dirt, Congressman Threatens to Sue Media. Newsweek. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/parnas-lawyers-nunes-ukraine-officials-meeting-lawsuit-1473679

NPR. (2019, November 22). Book Reviews: In ‘Crime In Progress,’ Fusion GPS Chiefs Tell The Inside Story Of The Steele Dossier. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/11/22/781589327/bosses-of-fusion-gps-tell-the-inside-story-of-the-steele-dossier

Oyez. (n.d.). Bush v. Gore. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.oyez.org/cases/2000/00-949

Photo by Steve Stofka

Wikipedia. (n.d.). Whataboutism. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whataboutism#Soviet_and_Russian_leaders_usage

The Tweet Heard Round the World

November 17, 2019

by Steve Stofka

Those who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 were drawn to his plain-spoken if gruff manner. Some older voters might have been reminded of another New Yorker with the same characteristics: Archie Bunker, of the 1970s TV series All in the Family. During the financial crisis, politicians handled the financial elite with kid gloves while ten million families lost their home to foreclosure (Picchi, 2018). Despite candidate Barack Obama’s 2008 promise to treat homeowners fairly, most of those foreclosures happened on his watch (Qiu, 2017). Tired of mealy-mouthed rhetoric from politicians of either political party, almost half of voters in 2016 pulled the lever for a candidate with no political experience.

This past Friday, former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch testified before a House Select Committee on Intelligence. Ms. Yovanovitch is a highly decorated officer with the foreign service, and for several decades has served both Republican and Democratic presidents. Shortly after her opening statement on Friday morning, President Trump tweeted an attack on Ms. Yovanovitch, linking her service in dangerous regions like Mogadishu with the unrest in those countries (Shear, 2019).

Mr. Trump’s spiteful tweet reminds us of someone who rode a wave of worry in post-WW2 America. In 1953-54, Senator Joseph McCarthy hunted down communists in the U.S. and found them everywhere, including the U.S. Army. Thousands of American citizens ran afoul of Mr. McCarthy’s self-aggrandizing campaign and suffered the permanent loss of their careers. This included several high-profile actors, writers and directors in Hollywood.

Mr. McCarthy, a heavy drinker, was noted for his lack of decorum at the committee hearings he chaired. Fed up with the personal attacks and insults at a hearing, the Army’s lawyer, Joseph Welch, asked Mr. McCarthy, “Sir, have you no decency?” (U.S. Senate, n.d.). The question resounded with the American public who soured on McCarthy and the hearings. He quickly lost power and the witch hunt was over.

Mr. Trump attempts to vindicate himself against criticisms that he was the chosen candidate of Russian leader Vladimir Putin. As Republicans in Congress gather around to defend the president, they are ignoring the fact that the 2016 Russian disinformation campaign was launched against fellow Republican candidates before it was turned on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

The comments by members of either party surrounding this week’s proceedings are characterized by a low signal-to-noise ratio. Each side tries to frame the debate, the process and the facts in evidence. The contradictions in speech and behavior thrive like weeds in a sunny field. When House Republicans launched impeachment proceedings against President Clinton twenty years ago, Democrats protested procedures and cried foul. These are experienced politicians with access to the same playbook.

Despite assertions to the contrary, the Constitution specifies no rules of impeachment. In 1998, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) prepared a history of previous impeachments for the U.S. Senate. What is an impeachable offense?

Each of the thirteen American impeachments involved charges of misconduct incompatible with the official position of the officeholder. This conduct falls into three broad categories; (1) exceeding the constitutional bounds of the powers of the office in derogation of the powers of another branch of government; (2) behaving in a manner grossly incompatible with the proper function and purpose of the office; and (3) employing the power of the office for an improper purpose or for personal gain.

(CRS, 1998)

 13 impeachments? Presidents are not the only federal officers subject to impeachment. Our political system is an organized street fight. There are rules of engagement that both sides have agreed on and each presidential impeachment has been prompted by a breach of those rules.

In 1868, President Andrew Johnson was impeached for the termination of a cabinet member without approval by Congress (CRS, 14). A Democratic House impeached Mr. Nixon because he obstructed a Congressional investigation into illegal campaign activities during the 1972 election (CRS, 15). Mr. Clinton was impeached for lying to Congress about his dalliance with a White House aide, Monica Lewinsky. Mr. Trump has been accused of parlaying foreign aid to Ukraine to gain an electoral advantage in the coming election.

No president has been convicted of the charges of impeachment brought against them. The Republican led Senate seems little inclined to break that tradition in President Trump’s case. In 1974 the public impeachment hearings of Mr. Nixon helped the Democratic House turn public opinion in their favor. Responding to public pressure, Republican Senators advised Mr. Nixon that they could not guarantee his safety against a vote of conviction. Mr. Nixon resigned rather than face the ignominy of a conviction in the Senate.

Democrats are hoping for a similar shift of opinion against Mr. Trump. While there is only a slight chance of conviction, Democrats hope that the impeachment hearings will convince a decisive number of voters that Mr. Trump does not deserve a second term in office. If he is to be convicted, it will be at the ballot box next November.

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Picchi, A. (2018, September 14). 5 groups still recovering from the financial crisis. [Web page, video]. Retrieved from https://www.cbsnews.com/news/5-groups-still-recovering-from-the-financial-crisis/

Qiu, L. (2017, January 5). Barack Obama’s top 25 campaign promises: How’d he do? [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2017/jan/05/tracking-obamas-top-25-campaign-promises/

Photo by Wim van ‘t Einde on Unsplash

Shear, M. (2019, November 16). With a Tweet, Trump Upends Republican Strategy for Dealing With Yovanovitch. New York Times. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/15/us/politics/trump-tweet-yovanovitch.html

U.S. Senate. (n.d.). Have You No Sense of Decency? [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/Have_you_no_sense_of_decency.htm

Congressional Research Service (CRS). (1998, October 29). Impeachment Grounds: A Collection of Selected Materials. [PDF]. Retrieved from https://www.senate.gov/CRSpubs/dfe6ac8e-78ad-4e59-bcda-d612c382ec2f.pdf Pgs. 14, 15, 26.