Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Full Financial Disclosure: The Delayed Trickle

The cellist and I are having a small addition built onto our house. We did not finance it by taking on more debt. We're not secret millionaires or lottery winners. We're spending a small fraction of the fossil remains of a fortune made in the early 20th Century that trickled down as far as my bank account in the latter half of the 1990s.

Living within my meager income, I was able to purchase a tiny cottage, with a little help from a relative who provided some money for the down payment on the typical abusive mortgage given to first-time home buyers with low incomes. Then, by luck and careful maneuvering my financial and marital partner at the time and I managed to get our mortgage converted to a fixed rate. We scrabbled on until we decided to go our separate ways, coincidentally around the time I found out I was about to receive something in the neighborhood of $120,000 as my share of a stock portfolio compiled with the proceeds from the sale of Planter's Peanuts by its founders, Amadeo Obici and Mario Peruzzi.

A large chunk went to my departing ex-spouse and to settle our debts at the time. That still left what seemed like a lot of money to me. I took the stocks rather than taking my share as cash, even though I already had misgivings about the morality of the stock market and my ability to monitor my investments closely enough to keep from getting cleaned out by people who make it their business to suck money away from small holders to convey it to large ones.

The investment brokers gradually became more distant and dismissive as it became clear to them that I did not have enough income to buy more stocks and pay them commissions. Occasionally I had to sell some to negotiate a rough patch, but I tried to avoid that as well.

Stock prices soared prior to the "market adjustment" in 2000. We all know what happened in the fall of 2001.  Through all the ups and downs, the value of the stocks that an investment broker had assured me would make me a rich man managed to average out about where they started, minus the amounts I had sold. In other words, it wasn't making me a rich man. Meanwhile, potential costs for medical emergencies, predictable illnesses and retirement in general continued to bounce upward.

Mere misgivings grew to firm belief that whatever corporations were doing to be able to pay dividends to stockholders in times of rising unemployment and recession had to be screwing a lot of people hard. I no longer wanted any part of it, even if it was a mysterious well that bubbled up a little bit of cash all the time. If I took that money, it made me part of the problem.

I'm not just being altruistic. For decades I have tried to support activities that any number can play, to support a true general rise in living standards rather than relying on the misfortune and mistreatment of anyone to improve my own circumstances. Maybe that's hopelessly naive. So be it. I want to believe that the human species can develop a courteous, compassionate and respectful society in which no one has to be subservient or exploited. At the very least I expect that the stock market illusion will crumble within a few years at most. Putting my money into a tangible asset, albeit one that I have to heat and pay property taxes on, is not entirely stupid.

I sold all the stocks and put the money into a lousy savings account. If you put about $87,000 in a savings account you actually get a visible amount of interest every month. But much of that money is destined to be devoured by this minor construction project. It's going to create jobs. In fact, by doing this project and keeping my money in a local bank, the cellist and I have now created more jobs in the local economy than Mitt Romney has. But when it's gone it's gone. I will never again have that much money because I am not important enough to the people who have a lot of money or appealing enough to the multitude who might each give me a little to amass a fortune.

It is ritual suicide. At some point as yet unknown to me, I will face financial ruin because that is shaping up to be the normal destiny of what was formerly known as the lower middle class. I'm building myself a prison. It's a pretty prison in a peaceful setting. When the crunch comes I might be able to sell it to stumble forward a few more years or months, or I might just turn it into my funeral pyre. These are all legitimate options to consider. The one unrealistic fantasy is a healthy, comfortable retirement.

It is interesting to note that conservatives, who are far more likely not to believe in evolution, have a much more Darwinistic approach than liberals to social policy. Live and let die sums up the conservative position. Only the fit survive. This explains their aversion to Social Security and Medicare. By their logic, if you make it to be elderly at all, you've had more than your share of good breaks. If you happen to arrive at old age without a fortune to sustain you, die already and make room for better planners to flourish.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Pondering Atrocity

The recent mass murder in Colorado stirred up the usual discussion at work. For two out of three people there the question was never whether to execute the killer, only what method would be the most appropriately brutal.

Atrocity can't be punished. The perpetrator has already claimed the reward by successfully committing it. Most of them commit suicide anyway, having experienced the best that life has to offer them. Whatever makes them want to achieve this particular hideous thing puts them completely out of reach of our retribution. You can exterminate them but that will not deter the next one. You can torture them, but that's like kicking a rabid dog. It won't change anything that has already happened or cure or prevent rabies. And nothing you do will compensate the ones who have lost their lives or someone important from their lives, and had their trust in humanity permanently injured.

Trust in humanity is misplaced if humanity is capable of producing monsters. Discarding that trust is probably a good survival strategy, at least regarding strangers. But when someone steps horrifically far outside the normal range of acceptable behavior it goes beyond even the average criminal breach of trust. In a crowd one might reasonably fear having a pocket picked, getting groped, or maybe just having to sit too close to someone who farts a lot. You don't want to go through every day wondering when the masked gunman is going to loom up and start mowing people down. Nor should you. First of all, it remains somewhat unlikely. Second, you can't be one hundred percent ready even if you arm yourself. You still have to be in the right place at the time to get a clear and timely shot. Perhaps the only thing worse than a crazed gunman shooting up a theater full of people is a bunch of armed citizens shooting around in the direction they think the attack is coming from.

A gun-rights amendment written in the era of single-shot muskets and pistols is hardly a good guide for society in the age of much more sophisticated killing machines at all levels of combat from interpersonal to international. A well-ordered militia worth a crap to defend community and country is going to need armored vehicles, artillery, air power and more. What kind of personal budget--not to mention what size garage--would you need to house your personal stash of weapons sufficiently powerful to keep your neighbors at bay and "the government off your back?"

Once the shooting starts, intelligence and reason have lost. The issue in the contest becomes simply life and death, not whatever difference of opinion was used as the excuse to become brutal and simple-minded. But who wants to be the only person in the room without a gun when everyone else is using theirs to support their point of view? It's like trying to be a real big-boy nation in the world when other nations are telling you you can't have nukes like they do. No fair! I want to be able to rain fiery destruction like everybody else!

As long as we retain the compulsion to express ourselves with hot lead, things are going to get out of control sometimes.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Set this to any kind of music you think will fit

I'm spending all my money 'til I got no more
'cause if you can't be rich then you'd better be poor.
Mitt Romney says you will be okay
if you live from hand to mouth OR you make a lot of pay
It's those people in the middle who are going away
So get rich or go broke with no further delay.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Better living through innovation

Throughout human history, unprecedented innovations have ushered in improvements in the quality of life. Starting with stone tools and proceeding onward through the threshold of the Industrial Revolution, discoveries and inventions enhanced individual and group survival and started providing lifestyle options.

Right up to the arrival of the Oil Age around the beginning of the 20th Century, each new development added value to the existing level of comfort and convenience. People adopted new technologies because they made life easier. You could still do things the harder, old way, but why would you, if you had the chance to get something better?

Extraordinary innovations became more common from the late 19th Century to the present, accelerating sharply through the latter half of the 20th Century. It looked like the more we had, the more we could get. It was in this surge that we reached the point where we need extraordinary innovation to save us. It is no longer a luxury to enjoy and then become accustomed to having. Our choices during the Oil Age created a civilization so dependent on energy that we can no longer just drop back a little and maintain while we figure out what to do next. We've acclimated ourselves to a level of convenience and operated under the assumption of sufficiency for so long that even dropping back to the level of the 1930s -- a time still in living memory for some people on the planet -- would be a huge shock. And I doubt that the fallback would stop there.

Nature reclaims our infrastructure without the slightest hesitation. It might not be the pretty nature you 'd like to see, when the time comes, because our meddling had decimated the more aesthetic species, but unless we manage to make the planet completely uninhabitable, plants, animals and insects will assert themselves as relentlessly as we have, and we'll be back to meeting them on more equal footing.

The worst of the doomsaying economists predict a crash by the end of 2012 that will make 2008 look like a minor delay collecting for your paper route. I say they're optimists. Their particular doom scenario is tailored to get frightened suckers to sign on with their investment counseling firm, but their hypothesis is based on real observations about undermined or fundamentally hollow parts of the economy that have ended up holding way too much weight.

If the United States, and perhaps the world, falls into a depression worse then The Great One, it will take a lot more than government programs and a global war to pull us out. That combination only worked because of the peculiar circumstances of the time. Those conditions will never be repeated. There may be government interventions. There could very well be vicious war among desperate people sensing the magnitude of the change being thrust on them. In the end, whatever passes for prosperity will not look anything like the rise of nations after World War II. We simply don't have the energy for it.

There's no point in getting ugly about it. There's seldom any point to getting really ugly, although often it's a relief emotionally to get a little snippy. That won't deter some people from getting all cranked up and shooting people, though. You'll have to decide for yourself whether it's worth stockpiling weapons and ammo and non-perishable food, or if the conflict will simply outlast you and your meager supplies no matter how big your cache looks now. What really needs to happen is that people need to decide that everybody needs to work about the same amount, for about the same return, and that no one needs to be given a significantly worse or better time while we're all doing it.

That would be a truly unprecedented innovation.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Political awareness

One of the natural ironies of human development is that young adults who should be very concerned about how their country is being run are distracted by the last tendrils of adolescence, the needs of higher education, the search for a decent income and the urge to find a mate. It's hard to get them to pay close attention to political matters and they lack the life experience to be able to interpret the information they get. As people get older, with less chance that political and social change will directly benefit them, they become increasingly concerned with it.

Everyone mentions future generations when proposing a course of action. How many people really care about these imaginary generations?  Future generations should be the most politically active, and they will be, once they perfect their time machine and come back to dope-slap the current crop of corporate and government leaders. Until that happens, present generations will have to take their best guess at what we should leave for these future people. Would they like a healthy planet with an ecosystem that can support them in the same relative comfort we have enjoyed for millennia? Or would they rather have the smudged, scorched, parched, stinking remnants of an industrial orgy? Will the fortunes created by that orgy survive to give a few of them luxury and the rest of them the illusion that they could attain it? Or will that myth have collapsed? It has to, eventually. The only question is whether we dismantle it carefully, methodically, or have it implode and crush anything beneath it or near it.

How far in the future are we talking here? Born tomorrow? Born next year? Five years from now? Ten? The problem is that future generations don't arrive all at once on some troop carrier. They come sliding in one at a time, even if thousands of them happen to do it at around the same time. They're here and over there and way, way over there, being influenced immediately by all sorts of people who got here ahead of them. They don't know the plan. They may even develop their own ideas.

Some younger adults seem to be getting more involved. Maybe it'll work out. Those who hold power will resist the change, but maybe this time they will not be able to recruit the underlings they would need to preserve their old expressions of dominance. It has to be driven by people young enough to have their most useful, active years ahead of them. Older people can only help or oppose. None of us will see the benefits of a more humane society, should one arise, because too many generations have invested too heavily in inequity for it to disappear before we do. The leading edge of my generation proved unwilling to sacrifice a little 40 years ago to try to set us on a better course. Why should they and their disciples be willing to sacrifice a great deal more now, with their finish line in sight? They'll cling to what they have, grab for as much more as they can get and let those future generations do what they want with what's left over.

Hot, murky summer

The political bullshit is as thick as the humidity this summer. I have to be very careful not to go out of my mind hearing all the catch phrases and code words being tossed around.

The common-denominator morons who respond to these marketing phrases are not really participating in policy making. They are being herded by professional manipulators to help a particular batch of policy makers take or retain control of the lives of all the little citizens who can't think for themselves.

Policy is never discussed openly. You can try to dig around for information, but then your amateur participation in government becomes your only pastime. People in power will never listen to you anyway.

Armed revolt appeals to some people who happen to like combat -- or think they would. That just puts another faction on top trying to maintain their position and remember what their ideals used to be before they had an unruly mob to control. It's not that different from an election, except that there's more property damage and death.

Between bulk-mailed petitions and helpful Internet groups a citizen can quickly join with apparently like-minded individuals to send messages to elected officials and government agencies. You still have to trust that the people providing your information understand the situation and really represent a solution you would actually support. I've joined in on a number of them just to keep general concepts at the top of the pile, but I've slacked off a lot as I find myself short of time to do my own research. Do I really agree with these people who appear to be my allies? Have they analyzed the situation the way I would? Has anyone?

If anyone were to respond it would be a fluke. The powerful, the prominent, like to make a show of occasionally pulling a commoner up from obscurity for a moment of attention and some photo opportunities. It's not the same as actually having an influence. And most likely I would forget anything important I wanted to say in the stress of the unusual moment.