Hopeful about our democracy

After being briefly disappointed that the blue wave didn’t materialize as strongly as I’d hoped, I find that I am nevertheless rather hopeful about the future of our democracy.

This hopefulness springs from two causes. First, there are already more Democratic voters than there are Republican. Second, the Fifteenth Amendment is already part of the constitution.

We’re a majority

The number of votes cast for a Democratic House candidate exceeded the number cast for a Republican House candidate by well in excess of 4 million votes. We’re already in the majority by several percentage points.

The reasons don’t already control the levers of power are well understood. The Constitution, through the Senate and the Electoral College, give excess power to small states which currently lean Republican. The Republicans have been more shameless about gerrymandering. Voter suppression efforts targeted at ethnic minorities and at the young have been effective at reducing votes for Democrats.

Even if all of those things stay the same, we’re still a majority, and over time that will win out.

We will probably take control even before time (and demographic changes) bring us to that point. All it will take is a leader charismatic enough to produce some modest coattails, and we’ll once again have a Democratic government.

Once that happens, I very much hope, the Democrats will seize the opportunity to put an end to the gerrymandering and the voter suppression. That will put and end to the power of the racist wing of the Republican party, even if the Senate and the Electoral College remain unreformed.

How can that be done? Through the Fifteenth Amendment.

The Fifteenth amendment exists

Under the Fifteenth amendment, Congress has the power to enact appropriate legislation to ensure that “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

The Supreme Court struck down some of the rules enacted to do that, thereby enabling the recent spike in voter suppression. But the Supreme Court did not rule in favor of voter suppression. Rather, its decision turned rather narrowly on the “appropriate” part of the Congress’s power to legislate on the topic.

Supposedly, once the law had been in force for decades, it got too easy for Congress to just extend it, without doing the analysis to justify its appropriateness. Along those lines, the fact that the law treated some states (those that tried to suppress minority votes) differently from other states (those that did not) “despite our historic tradition that all the States enjoy equal sovereignty” was something the court objected to.

These things can be easily fixed. Congress can do the analysis to justify a long list of required and prohibited practices, and can apply those rules to all the states equally.

If we were a minority, the way the Republicans are, I’d be very worried. If we lacked a Fifteenth amendment, and had to fix this state-by-state, I’d be modestly worried.

As it is, I’m not so much worried as I am annoyed by what we’re having to go through at the moment.

Of course, I felt many of the same hopes back in 2012, and look where we ended up. No wonder some people think I’m a hopeless optimist.

Make my phone more like email

I used to love email. I still do, except so few people use it any more.

I used to use email almost like people use text messages now. I’d write little, one-topic messages and send them to one (or a few) people. Most of the people I exchanged email with had their email on for most of the day, so they’d get the message in just a few minutes and then be able to respond (or not, if they didn’t want to). If they (or I) didn’t want to be available to be contacted for a period of time, it was easy to put the computer to sleep, or turn off email notifications.

It was also easy to get a little more fancy than that. For example, I often set my email client to check email every hour or every half-hour, instead of the default of every few minutes. I was still able to be responsive to people who sent me email, but I wasn’t constantly interrupted by random notifications from random sources.

That’s half of what I’d like to be able to get my phone to do—batch up alerts, and then give them to me on a schedule that I pick.

The other half is to shut up about telling anybody else about what I’m doing. My email didn’t send any information back to people, except the information I told it to send back. (Sure, my mail server knew when I was connecting and from what IP address, but it kept that information to itself.)

If I was going batch up notifications so that I’d only get them every hour anyway, I’d like my phone to disconnect from the network for the 59 minutes in between. There’s no need for anybody, including Verizon and Google, to know where I am in between.

(Of course if I get my phone out to check something I’d like it to quickly connect to the network so it can do so, but that technology works just fine.)

I could almost do that by just turning my phone off for 59 minutes and then turning it back on, except that obviously doesn’t do the trick unless I carry around another timing device to remind me every hour that I want to turn the phone back on. Plus it’s a lot of fiddling around for the hours in which I don’t receive any notifications (not that there are very many of those).

Admittedly, all kinds of things are made easier by being always connected, such as the ability to prioritize a handful of alerts to come immediately—phone calls, text messages from intimates, tornado warnings, etc. But for me, the mental model of email was vastly preferable to the stupid array of alerts I’ve got now.

Ignorance about retiring early

It’s been eleven years since I retired, at age forty-eight.

I hesitated at first to call it “retiring early,” even though in my head that’s exactly what I was doing. Partially that was because I hadn’t decided to take the plunge. I had been intending to retire early, doing the planning, doing the saving. But part of a proper early retirement is deciding that you’re ready, based on having established an income stream that covers your expenses.

I hadn’t done that. What I did was learn that my employer was closing down the site where I worked, and then wing it. I counted my money; I did some figuring. I secretly figured that I could retire, but I didn’t tell people that. What I told people was that, “Although I couldn’t retire, I had reached the point where I didn’t need to work a regular job any more.”

I’d meant to celebrate the 10-year anniversary with a post about how things had gone, but haven’t gotten around to it. And I guess this isn’t going to be that post either, because I’ve gotten so annoyed by an ignorant article  by Jared Dillian in Bloomberg Opinion, The ‘Radical Saving’ Trend Is Based on Fantasy—which manages to both be wrong about the facts, and (more fundamentally) miss the whole point—that I’m compelled to write a response.

Dillian’s item number one manages to be both wrong on the facts and miss the point in roughly equal measure:

Most people save now because they want to consume later. But the FIRE folks don’t want people to consume. For the FIRE folks, the point of saving is simply not to have to work. To give you the freedom to do whatever you desire over the last 50 years of your life. Trouble is, the freedom to do anything you want isn’t much fun when you’re hemmed in by a microscopic budget.

First of all, the “financial independence/retire early” (FIRE) folks do want to consume. It’s just that they’ve figured out that, at some point, just consuming more doesn’t make your life better. Rather, they’ve thought deeply about what they need to consume to make themselves happy, they consume that, and then they stop consuming.

I think of it as drawing a line under the stuff that’s worth paying up to get all I want of exactly what I want, and then paying zero for the things that don’t make the cut. (Most people don’t do this. Instead of a cutoff they have a gradual trickle off, spending smaller and smaller amounts as they work their way down the list of things they want. This is no way to be happy. The money they’re spending on stuff they only kinda want eats into the money they could be spending on the stuff they really, really want.)

Second, the whole point of FIRE is not to “simply not have to work.” Rather, the point is to free yourself to do whatever work you want, instead of whatever work pays best. Everybody I know who’s retired early still works at something.

This point is made very clearly by literally everybody I know of who has written about FIRE. To miss it suggests either that Jared Dillian was very careless indeed in doing his research, or that he is willfully missing the point.

Third, it’s simply false to say that “the freedom to do anything you want isn’t much fun when you’re hemmed in by a microscopic budget.” Rather, the freedom to do anything you want enables you to do the most important thing you can think of.

Maybe the most important thing you can think of is really expensive (in which case you’d have saved a lot of money to fund your retirement). But very likely the most important thing you can think of is free, or cheap, or even modestly remunerative. (The list is endless—crafting musical instruments, researching obscure topics in your field you didn’t have time for while working full time, helping care for a family member, documenting the history of your ethnic group, researching the natural history of your region, working for a candidate or a political party or a non-profit that’s trying to stop global warming or child trafficking or hunger or poverty…)

Finally, who says your budget has to be microscopic? Rather, your budget should fund your planned expenses. If the most important thing you can think of is to take a round-the-world cruise every year, you’ll want to save more money than someone whose most important work is to study the local mosses.

I’m going to skip over his second item, because he just makes the same mistake again, imagining a purpose of being able to “consume more later” is a better justification for saving than being able to live exactly the life you want to live and do your most important work.

His third item manages both to make the same mistake yet again, and to insult everybody who understands the difference between the most important work you could do and the work that pays the most:

What is wrong with working? Why do the FIRE people dislike working so much that they want to quit at age 35? Working gives people purpose… I have had unpleasant jobs, and even working an unpleasant job is preferable to not working at all. I am one of these people who thinks there is dignity in working, that every job is important no matter how small.

(I left out a random swipe against basic income.)

I don’t know any FIRE people who dislike working. I know a lot of FIRE people who dislike working at regular jobs. I know a lot of FIRE people who dislike working for psycho bosses, bosses who take inappropriate advantage of them, and stupid bosses who don’t know how to do their job well. I know a lot of FIRE people who think there is great dignity in choosing to do whatever they think their most important work is, regardless of whether it pays enough to live on.

I’ve worked at bad jobs now and then. Not unpleasant jobs, which are okay as long as the work is worth doing. But some jobs are not worth doing.

One example: a manager one place I used to work put huge pressure on employees to finish a task, despite knowing that the project the task was for had been canceled —because completing the project on-time was required for the manager to get a big bonus. That is work that was not worth doing. (Literally. It produced nothing of value to the company, while keeping the employees from doing something that would be valuable.) That sort of situation, which is more common that you might think, is what FIRE people are trying to escape.

Finally, Dillian suggests:

The biggest issue with the FIRE movement is that it’s the ultimate bull market phenomenon. FIRE seems to work because the stock market has gone straight up. A bear market will change that. Even if stocks do return 8 percent to 12 percent over time, it’s not going to be any fun living on a shoestring budget and watching your nest egg decline in value by 30 percent to 50 percent.

Here I have actual first-hand experience. My early retirement started in the summer of 2007, and pretty much right after that came the financial crisis in which my stock portfolio lost about 40% of its value.

I engaged in some pretty dark humor during those first two years, joking about how I wouldn’t want to be retiring early in that kind of market.

In fact, I was just fine. I did the obvious things: I found a way to earn a little money (in my case by writing, which was what I wanted to do anyway), and I got a little extra frugal (on a temporary basis, to preserve my capital).

So, yes, I did live on a “shoestring budget” for a few years while watching my nest egg decline—although not by as much as 30%, even though the stock portion lost 40%, because the bond portion soared and the cash portion remained stable (although the income it produced declined).

Contrary to Dillian’s concerns, it was actually great fun. I was writing full time—fiction in the mornings and articles about personal finance and frugality for Wise Bread in the afternoons—which was exactly what I wanted to do. We didn’t travel much, and we didn’t buy much in the way of new clothes, but we were very happy.

Since then my portfolio has more than recovered. Part of that was just the bull market. Part of it was basic portfolio re-balancing, which automatically had me sell bonds near the peak and buy stocks near the bottom.

After all, the 4% rule (which I assume is what Dillian is implicitly rejecting) was never a law of nature. It’s always been just an empirical guideline. The FIRE people all understand that you can’t just “set and forget” your spending. Instead you need to pay attention, and adjust as needed. Maybe you need to spend less. Maybe you need to find a way to earn a little money. I did both those things, although not very much of either one.

For eleven years now I’ve spent every day doing exactly what I chose to do.

What I chose to do has varied, of course. At first it was all writing. When I realized that I wasn’t taking full advantage of not needing to be at my desk during working hours, I rearranged my schedule so I could spend more of the daylight hours engaged in outdoor exercise. I took a taiji class, discovered that I really enjoyed the practice, and persisted with it. Now I teach taiji, and it has become one of those modestly remunerative things I was talking about.

But for eleven years, it’s always been whatever I most wanted to do.

The luxury of ownership

Being a member of the Winfield Village Cooperative, I’m technically a home owner and not a renter. In fact, more then technically: I’m actually a home owner.

On a day-to-day basis, living at Winfield Village is a lot like being a renter. I pay a monthly housing charge that feels a lot like a rent payment when I pay it. There’s an office staff that shows units to prospective new owners, and a maintenance staff to fix things (plumbing, appliances, etc.), and keep up the grounds—all very similar to what you could expect at an apartment. But there are differences, and most of the differences are luxuries.

There are a few differences that are financial. For example, I’m entitled to deduct my share of the property taxes and mortgage interest that Winfield Village pays.

One that I hadn’t thought of before was made especially apparent to me a few weeks ago, when a friend mentioned having to sign the next-year’s lease for his apartment, and I was reminded what an annoyance that always was.

Every year when we used to live at Country Fair, we’d get a call from the office asking if we wanted to renew our lease for the following year. Every year the rent went up a little, which was just to be expected.

More annoying was that every year we had to read the new lease. Most years it was the same or nearly the same—the office staff would go through and indicate changes—but we still felt like we ought to read it, because we’d still be agreeing to any changes that the office staff failed to point out. I think twice there was a complete re-drafting of the lease, so we had to read it all the more carefully.

Even years when it was still (mostly) the same, after we read it we then had to go through the whole thing with the office staff, because there were a dozen places we had to initial specific provisions, and then we had to  sign three originals.

Although it was just an off-hand comment, my friend mentioning his lease re-signing brought up a whole bunch of stressful memories, such as deciding how to deal with the provisions that were so badly drafted as to require us to do preposterous things. (One I remember was a provision intended to reduce the chance of pipes freezing that seemed to require that we leave a trickle of water running anytime the temperature was below freezing, which would basically be all winter here in lovely central Illinois.)

There are other ways in which we are owners. We can repaint. We can buy our own appliances, or make other upgrades to our kitchen. (But we don’t have to. If our stove or refrigerator fails, maintenance will come fix it, or replace it if necessary.)

Until my friend brought it up, it hadn’t occurred to me that I haven’t had to go through the whole stressful lease-signing process for three years now! Instead of a lease, I have an occupancy agreement. That agreement hasn’t changed in three years, so I haven’t needed to re-sign. The housing charge hasn’t gone up either. And because it’s a co-op, I’ll have a vote on any major changes that do come up.

Ah, the luxury of ownership.

What good is a militia anyway?

The reason that a well-regulated militia appealed to the founding fathers was that they hoped it would eliminate the need for a standing army.

If you had the whole body of young adult men armed and trained, it was hoped you could raise an army very quickly in case of need. If that were true, Congress could insist that the standing army be run down to just a cadre of specialists and officers. Then, in the event that you needed an army—because you were invaded, or needed to invade someone else—you could mobilize (i.e. draft) the militia to fill the ranks with soldiers.

The founders knew perfectly well that a government with a standing army could not be resisted by the people, even if the people were armed. A standing army was always going to be more disciplined, more highly trained, and better equipped than a militia could possibly be.

So, the purpose of the militia was to eliminate the need for a standing army. If you could make a militia work that way—quickly go from a bare cadre to a fully mobilized army simply by calling up the militia—then you’d be in a position where Congress could insist that the the army in fact be a bare cadre, meaning that neither presidents nor generals could use the army until Congress actually raised one.

It’s an appealing idea, particularly to someone like me who is very doubtful about trusting presidents or generals. Sadly, the evidence is pretty good that it doesn’t work.

This was clear even before the sorts of modern, high-tech weapons and other equipment that take extensive training to learn how to use, and then nearly constant on-going training to preserve the capability.  It took five years to go from a 16,000-man army to a 1,000,000-man army during the civil war. The ramp up for WW I was quicker but also smaller—manpower grew by 16 times in two years rather than 62 times in five years, but that was from a much larger base—basically, a smallish standing army, not merely a cadre waiting to be filled out.

The experience of the U.S., at least as far back as the civil war, is that fielding an army by mobilizing a militia simply can’t happen fast enough to respond to an enemy with a standing army. (The experiences of Switzerland mobilizing to resist a possible Nazi invasion and Finland mobilizing against the Soviet Union at around the same time are interesting, but do not I think make the contrary case.)

Given all that, I’d have to say that a militia is pretty much obsolete, and has been for a couple of centuries at least.

Voting is a constitutional right

The right to vote is a constitutional right. It should not be abridged. In this way it is like all constitutional rights.

There is one important difference between the right to vote and most other constitutional rights. Most constitutional rights apply to “the people,” while the right to vote is a right of citizens. Because of that difference, it makes sense to verify that people registering to vote are citizens. But waiting until someone is at the poll and then demanding that they prove they’re a citizen is backwards.

It is, to use another constitutional right as an example, backwards exactly the same way it would be backwards to take your property for public use, and then make you run all over town for documentation to prove that you own it before you can get it back. Instead, we have a property registry to keep track of who has ownership rights, and then a process called eminent domain whereby the government has the opportunity to present to a court evidence that there is a public need for your property according to well-established rules, and to establish fair compensation. You have the opportunity to dispute that evidence, and to argue for a different interpretation of the rules or for higher compensation.

I would suggest that as being the right model for voting rights as well: We should have a voter registry to keep track of who has the right to vote, and then a court process whereby the government has the opportunity to prove that someone on that list does not have the right to vote according to well-established rules (not a citizen, not over 18, not residing in the precinct, dead). You should have the right to appear at the hearing and dispute both the evidence and the interpretation of the rules.

Nobody should ever be struck off the voter rolls without such a hearing—to my mind it would be just as unconstitutional as taking your property without a hearing.

If that is the standard—as it should be—then there is no need to present an identity document at the polling place. All you need to do is prove that you are the person who registered, which is easily done by comparing your signature when you request a ballot to your signature when you registered to vote.

In any case: The right to vote is a fundamental right of the citizen. Denying it without due process is wrong, and there should be substantial sanctions on anyone who does so (or attempts to do so).

Wrote an article pitch policy

It won’t do any good, but I have written and posted an article pitch policy to discourage people from sending me pitches for article ideas.

In the past few of years, I seem to have gotten on mailing lists for any number of PR flacks (and others), who are constantly offering me reports from their experts on this or that aspect of the economy, results of polls that they’ve done, press releases about new upcoming books, invitations to webinars, etc. None of that stuff is ever of any interest to me.

I’ve never written an article based on anything I received in email. I’ve never linked to someone’s infographic because he sent me email suggesting that my “readers might be interested” in it. In the past I did a few times accept free copies of books for review, but (with one exception—a book by a former fellow Wise Bread writer) I quit doing that back when Wise Bread did its last big structural change.

More carbon in the air means less nutritious food

An interesting and important article about a researcher gathering data that seem to show that although more carbon in the air means plants grow faster, the result is plants with more sugar but less protein, minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients:

http://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/09/13/food-nutrients-carbon-dioxide-000511

the protein content of goldenrod pollen has declined by a third since the industrial revolution—and the change closely tracks with the rise in CO2.