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The problem with parallels

October 18, 2018

A historian who specialized in mid-20th c. Europe takes a look at our present times. Some of the interesting parallels that Trump’s America First policies have with the American right between world wars, and the shared joy that America’s current conservatives and Germany’s conservatives then took from their partnership with a fascist leader:

Whatever secret reservations McConnell and other traditional Republican leaders have about Trump’s character, governing style, and possible criminality, they openly rejoice in the payoff they have received from their alliance with him and his base: huge tax cuts for the wealthy, financial and environmental deregulation, the nominations of two conservative Supreme Court justices (so far) and a host of other conservative judicial appointments, and a significant reduction in government-sponsored health care (though not yet the total abolition of Obamacare they hope for). Like Hitler’s conservative allies, McConnell and the Republicans have prided themselves on the early returns on their investment in Trump.

The hyperpartisanship then also was similar:

In France the prospect of a Popular Front victory and a new government headed by—horror of horrors—a Socialist and Jew, Léon Blum, led many on the right to proclaim, “Better Hitler than Blum.” Better the victory of Frenchmen emulating the Nazi dictator and traditional national enemy across the Rhine than preserving French democracy at home and French independence abroad under a Jewish Socialist. The victory of the Popular Front in 1936 temporarily saved French democracy but led to the defeat of a demoralized and divided France in 1940, followed by the Vichy regime’s collaboration with Nazi Germany while enthusiastically pursuing its own authoritarian counterrevolution.

Faced with the Mueller investigation into Russian meddling in the US election and collusion with members of his campaign, Trump and his supporters’ first line of defense has been twofold—there was “no collusion” and the claim of Russian meddling is a “hoax.” The second line of defense is again twofold: “collusion is not a crime” and the now-proven Russian meddling had no effect. I suspect that if the Mueller report finds that the Trump campaign’s “collusion” with Russians does indeed meet the legal definition of “criminal conspiracy” and that the enormous extent of Russian meddling makes the claim that it had no effect totally implausible, many Republicans will retreat, either implicitly or explicitly, to the third line of defense: “Better Putin than Hillary.” There seems to be nothing for which the demonization of Hillary Clinton does not serve as sufficient justification, and the notion that a Trump presidency indebted to Putin is far preferable to the nightmare of a Clinton victory will signal the final Republican reorientation to illiberalism at home and subservience to an authoritarian abroad.

There is no good correction to hyperpartisanship. Someone from today could not go back to that time and place, read them the history yet to come, and persuade various sides of a common course. Indeed, such a time traveler would make things worse, teaching the most ruthless how to avoid their practical blunders.

All historical analogies are at best rough. History never repeats. What strikes me as a large difference is that Trump never was a politician. He did not create the movement he rode to power. He is a conman who saw it there wanting its leader. Some might argue that doesn’t matter so much, once he was installed in power. I think it has introduced a certain aimlessness. Despite his intentional cruelties, from his policy of separating refugee families to putting all Dreamers into a legal limbo, they fall short of what the Trumpistas would support. And despite his nepotism and appointment of hacks whose first trait is their loyalty, he has failed at consolidating power. So far. Even the new Trumpista street fighters seem more Joke Boys than Proud Boys.


El Yunque’s disappearing insects

October 17, 2018

I don’t worry about honey bees. They are a domesticated species like cats and cows, that people will keep as part of their industrial or recreational kit, wherever people go, as long as people are around.

I worry when I read about orders of magnitude decline in wild insect populations in Europe, in the Americas, and now in Puerto Rico’s El Yunque (cite). Insects are central to virtually any land ecology, serving not just as pollinators, but as the first layer of the food chain for birds and other small animals. Hummingbirds eat small bugs as much as they do nectar. Which is why they can be seen working mesquite trees and other plants that give no nectar.

The authors of that Puerto Rico study, Lister and Garcia, do some analysis tying the decline of insects there to global warming. That seems likely, alas. It’s not habitat loss driving these declines, given that El Yunque has been protected for so long, and that Puerto Rico as a whole has not experienced a development surge in recent decades.

I suspect, in fifty years, people will look back on this time and wonder at the loss of species and ecosystems, and wonder why environmentalists couldn’t stop that. The simple truth is that most people are nature blind. If a forest dies, and only biologists are there to see it and write about it, does the world care? Seemingly not.

Perhaps I shouldn’t care. I’ll be dead in fifty years, with time enough before then to visit rain forests still vibrant, even if on their last legs. The millennials may feel that loss, when they’re my age. Then will be too late. If they don’t want to live in a world largely denuded of the environments our species has enjoyed since its beginning, they had better wake up.


October 16, 2018

Lyndsey Gilpin tweets about Trump going to Appalachia in August and promising “crystal clear water.” Click through to the tweet chain to see some of the context:

Both in Appalachia and on the gulf coast, there is the odd phenomena that many local residents support Republican politicians who have let industry poison their local environment. Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land is the mandatory reading on that. Florida is suffering that in spades. Seemingly, their red tide is hanging on a bit longer, despite Michael.

Ezra Klein is too mild in this tweet:

I think it is simpler. Trump is a habitual liar, blatantly dishonest in a way that repels ordinary people. Those who work for him either are so dishonest themselves that they find that no problem, or they somehow construct a justification for putting up with that. Time will tell with his staff which side they fall on that divide.

Another J-shaped curve

October 15, 2018

JCurveA new study (cite) from Washington University School of Medicine is getting a lot of press. The typical headline is enough to get you to swear off booze: “Even light drinking increases risk of death.”

Now me? I love a little whiskey almost as much as I do a good graph. The one shown above is from the study. The first thing to understand is the population to which it applies: people who don’t smoke and who don’t binge drink. If you do either of those, you’re in a different ballpark. And not a good one, when it comes to your health.

This graph is looking at light drinkers and non-drinkers, plotting their all-cause mortality by how many days a week they drink. Which is an interesting way to cut the data. The first remarkable thing is that it exhibits that damn J-shape, foiling those who would wag a finger and say: no amount of drink is healthy. Or it should, though seemingly some people don’t read very well.

The second remarkable thing is that never drinkers have a higher risk than former drinkers. Or any of the other groups. There has been some speculation that one cause of the J-shaped curve in mortality data relative to drinking is that people who gave up drinking for health reasons were spoiling the data. The so-called “sick quitters.” Recent studies have taken to separating former drinkers from other non-drinkers. In this study, with regard to frequency of drinking, it’s the never drinkers who show the greatest risk. If I were writing headlines, I would be tempted to emphasize that: “Lifelong teetotaling increases risk of death!”

Truthfully, it is an odd thing. I’m not sure what to make of it. I’ll ponder it this evening over a drink.

All that said, the study does show that those who drink daily have a hazard ratio (1.2) significantly greater than those who drink 3.6 times a week. Which is the optimal number of days to drink. I am not quite sure how someone is so disciplined, that they drink never less than three nor more than four days a week. The hazard ratio for those who drink daily relative to those who drink 1 day a week is a mere 1.09. A Belgian friend of mine claimed that the important thing with that J-shaped curve isn’t where it is minimal, but where drinking is not much worse than not drinking. I suspect he drinks daily.

I’m not sure I want to see the study that plots mortality risk against number of days each month spent on a boat.

Buy? Or sell?

October 11, 2018

MendingNetsA professional financial adviser, a friend of mine, yesterday remarked that this dip was a buying opportunity. He likely is right, because most stock market dips are. Certainly to any young person — someone not yet in their fifth decade — the prudent advice remains the same: Put a third of your paycheck into an index fund, and ignore it. Decades of constant saving and investment will beat market downturns and almost anyone trying to time them. A good part of my retirement accounts were made in that fashion, and will stay there, because I have limited expectations of my own estimation of tomorrow.

That said, old men think we have learned a bit about how the world works. My suspicion is that we are not seeing a short squall, gone tomorrow, but the start of something larger and more ominous. Both the bond and stock markets have been proceeding as if the world today were the same as the world three years ago, not pricing in a variety of risks, some new, some just growing. This past year I have been lessening my market exposure. I would view this as a selling opportunity, had I not already been selling.

I’m posting this right after market close on Thursday. So, tomorrow, watch the market jump a 1,000 points or more. That usually is the case when I prognosticate. Tonight is poker, so I get a chance to bet wrong there, too.

Update: Nick Cunningham, writing about future oil demand, sees some of the same risks I see.

The conspiratorial right vs. Taylor Swift

October 11, 2018

I don’t know much more about Taylor Swift than I do about Kanye West. Her stand against Trumpism, while laudable, is less interesting to me than the reaction of her right-wing fans. They had constructed a variety of political fantasies around her. And now are making different ones, darker ones. Those fantasies — both the before and after — are almost as loony as the conspiracy theories about Clinton. Or about Obama. Despite the fact that Swift has been largely non-political until now. That conspiratorial thinking, that love of a pretend America with them as pretend heroes, is how Trump captured their support. No other national politician before him could produce the firehose of lies they wanted so much to hear, just like the ones they heard from their pundits and preachers and select cable channels.

Max Boot is doing what many conservatives should be doing at this time, pondering how he had been so wrong about the GOP:

Upon closer examination, it’s obvious that the history of modern conservative is permeated with racism, extremism, conspiracy-mongering, isolationism and know-nothingism.

That conspiracy-mongering plays a larger role in the modern right than most credit it. Boot is correct to distinguish them from conservatives of a more moderate — one is tempted to say, conservative — bent. I like the term “neo-fascist” to describe the turn the GOP has taken, bringing Trump to power. Boot falls back on “extremism,” which is so generic that it doesn’t really say much. When conspiratorial thinking is used to demonize groups who are cast as threats to the nation, and a strong leader promises he is the sole protection against them, and the path to national restoration, that kind of politics has historical precedents.

Right-wing violence is leading an upswing in terrorism in the US in the last couple of years. That is, as they say, related news.

Update: It is the Jews’ fault. Of course.

When to draw social security

October 10, 2018

Someone close, both in familiarity and age, has asked my thoughts on when to draw social security. That is not an easy question, because the rules with regard to married couples raise some interesting exceptions, especially if they are far apart in age and income. The thinking below applies to single individuals and to those married, but close enough in the relevant aspects that they can ponder the question individually.

Imagine two single women, fairly similar, both 70, neighbors. Perhaps it’s hard to imagine being 70, but if you have read this far, you likely are closer to 70 than to your birth. When you reach 70, you will need money just as you need it now. The first woman, Presta, draws a social security check of $1,000 every month. The second, Patience, draws $1,760. Assuming both are mostly relying on that for income, that $760 difference is substantial. Personally, I could live on $1,760 in most places in the US. Not well, but managing to keep roof over head and victuals in the fridge and a couple of bottles of wine in the cupboard. Social security benefits get bumped up with inflation. That is a feature that will be more important in this coming decade than the last one. So that guaranteed monthly income would indeed provide a measure of future security.

Things are much tougher on $1,000 a month. Is that enough even for rent (or house taxes and maintenance), insurance, utilities, cellphone, internet, transportation, and groceries? Enough to cover your nut? Not for many Americans.

Maybe things aren’t so bad for Presta. Perhaps she has an extra $100K or more stashed away in a savings account. Because the only difference between these two neighbors is that Presta started drawing her social security eight years past, when first she could at the age of 62, while Patience just started drawing hers, at the age of 70, when one’s monthly benefit is maximized. Let’s assume, not entirely realistically, that Presta diligently put aside that $1,000 each month into a savings account, starting at 62, and now has that as a significant cushion from which she can draw.

The question is: who would you prefer to be at 70, Presta or Patience? I would argue Patience. Even though Presta can draw from her additional savings to make up for her meagre income, how much will she feel comfortable drawing? Once you reach 70, you realize you might reach 85. Or 95. And you don’t want to outlive your money. If you’re having to dig into savings each month, you have to make it last. So Presta, if she is wise, will be quite cautious in using that cushion. Patience likely feels more emotionally secure spending as much or more than Presta each month, because she knows her greater income will be there every month, indexed for inflation, no matter how much long she lives or how well she invests.

An article at Motley Fool cites research that those who draw social security early don’t regret it. The research (cite) is behind a paywall, so I cannot read it. Many so queried may have had good reason to take benefits early. I discuss some below. And people tend to justify their past decisions regardless. On this, I would be more curious how views change over time. I can well imagine Presta answering one way at 70, and another at 80.

If Patience dies suddenly at 75, one can imagine Presta crowing that she made the better decision, because Patience never really got the benefit of her extra income, and Presta pulled more money out of the system at that point. Except, Patience did benefit. Not knowing when she would die, it provided her peace of mind about the future. Her heirs are the only ones who suffer a financial loss from Patience dying before the theoretical crossover point. Which comes about age 79 as the graph above shows. In contrast, when Presta reaches 80, and her $1,000 each month seems not nearly enough, and her cushion now is much smaller, and her future needs still stretch to an unseen horizon, she might well wish she had been more patient. So might her heirs, as she starts to ask money from them.

Of course, Presta might not have had much choice in the matter. There are some sound reasons to start drawing social security before reaching 70, of which I will mention two. 1) You need the money. You have reached the point where the only alternative to drawing social security is going into debt. The truth is many Americans don’t have much leeway in when to take social security benefits. I don’t mean this post to be a criticism of those who make hard choices. 2) On the basis of your health, you are quite certain you will die before 75. Why wait, when your physicians have read you the writing on the wall?

If those don’t apply, I suggest giving serious thought to a strategy of patience. If you’re in your early 60s, expect an average lifespan, and you face the practical choice between a) pulling money out of IRAs or other savings for a few years, or b) taking social security now, my first thought is that you should deplete your other resources, even drawing them down to quite little, and put off social security benefits. Social security pays you about 8% in increased benefits each year you wait. It is hard to beat that, investing. Impossible, without substantial risk. And there is large advantage to social security over most other retirement vehicles:

Unlike conventional investments, Social Security isn’t affected by stock market changes, provides protection against inflation and is designed to pay out no matter how long you live. Social Security also provides guaranteed, inflation-adjusted income — which can be expensive and difficult to replicate with investments.

Take full advantage of it for its designed purpose.

Let me emphasize that the average 60 year-old already is under medical care. People who have chronic disease and who have had heart attacks and cancers and bouts with other serious diseases often go on to live decades more. When I qualify my advice above to those who “expect a normal lifespan,” I don’t mean someone in the peak of health. If you’re 60, you likely have some medical issue. And still are likely to live another couple of decades. And will need money as long as you do.

The more complex issue for those now nearing retirement is medical care. Traditional Medicare works well. Alas, the Republican Party is intent on destroying it. (As well as slashing social security.) Whether Medicare still will be around in ten years in its current form depends quite a bit on the political winds. Ryan’s subsidized premiums for private health insurance will impoverish those depending on social security. Not to mention requiring everyone to navigate a maze to get medical care. Ask anyone who has HMO insurance what it is like to find a specialist in the program, to get a referral from your primary care physician through the insurance company, all in order to get a first appointment for a problem. I have no practical recommendations there. Except, of course, vote against Republicans every chance you have.

A 62 year-old American woman has an average life expectancy of 23 years. That’s the typical woman, already suffering a variety of ailments. The median net worth of a household headed by someone 62 is $225,000. Which is better than I suspected. The average social security benefit check today is $1,360. That would be a lavish stipend for the typical 23 year-old, who is comfortable sleeping in the rough and whose chief nutritional requirements are cheap beer and dance and calories. It doesn’t seem quite enough for someone who is older, whose joints creak, whose digestion is more finicky, who has to fill out that part of the questionnaire in a doctor’s office, about which medicines she takes.