Show me your papers…

A few months ago, I kicked around the idea of starting up a weekly limited feature focused on topics that some people might consider controversial, unpopular, or otherwise not appropriate for polite company. Nothing much came of the idea then, but it has stewed in my head ever since. This is the next of what I like to think will be a recurring series of Friday evening contemplations. If you’re easily offended, or for some reason have gotten the impression that your friends or family members have to agree with you on every conceivable topic, this might be a good time to look away. While it’s not my intention to be blatantly offensive, I only control the words I use, not how they’re received or interpreted.

I’ve spent a few Friday evenings opining on topics that would inevitably annoy my friends on the right, so it only feels fair that I offer up something to antagonize my friends on the left. 

You see, I support the notion that only citizens should be eligible to vote in our elections. What’s more, I believe where people vote should be inextricably tied to where they live. For instance, Mark Meadows should not have in any way been considered eligible to vote in North Carolina elections while not domiciled in that state any more than I should be allowed to vote in Tennessee elections simply because I use to live there once upon a time.

That there should be some form of identification required to ensure someone who seeks to participate in the electoral process is, in fact, eligible to participate feels like it should be a no brainer. 

“But,” I can hear the cry, “Voting is a right protected by the Constitution.” Yes. It is. Licenses and permits are required for many constitutionally protected activities. If I wanted to exercise my 1st Amendment right to stage a protest on the National Mall, for instance, I’d need a permit from the National Park Service. If, heaven forfend, I wanted to use my 2nd Amendment rights to purchase a handgun in the state of Maryland, I’d need to show ID, get finger printed, spend money to apply for a special Handgun Qualification License, and undergo an additional background check through the Maryland State Police. That hardly feels like unrestrained and unfettered exercise of a Constitutional right. 

As a nation, we’ve already accepted limitations placed on how and when we can exercise our rights under the Constitution. Unless we’re going to suddenly agree to roll back the others, needing to show some valid form of ID at the polling place hardly seems onerous or out of line with limits already in place for other rights. 

Perhaps more unpopular than my take on voter ID is my heretical notion that just because people are eligible to vote doesn’t mean they should. I think often of George Carlin’s quote that encourages us to “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.” It’s a reality that makes me question if we really should be making such a big push by saying everyone should vote. Expecting everyone to have an informed grip on who or what they’re voting in favor of or against doesn’t feel strictly reasonable… which in my estimation leads to people simply voting for whatever voice happens to be loudest in their ear rather than any kind of informed self- or community interest.

So maybe we should back off this “get everyone to the polls” bit. If you’re not interested enough to know it’s election day without being bludgeoned over the head with that information, what are the chances you’ve spent even ten minutes “studying” the issues at hand? This business of getting everyone to the polls has contributed largely to getting us exactly the kind of government we deserve, so all I’m saying is maybe try a slightly different approach and focus in more on eligible voters who are halfway informed than the broader pool of eligible voters who don’t know or don’t care what’s happening in the wider world.

For most of us, voting is the most important responsibility we’ll ever exercise as citizens of the republic. Cleaning up the process a bit doesn’t feel like it should be a bridge too far. 

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Crypto. I hold a vanishingly small position in Bitcoin. Of course, that position has grown even smaller over the last week. The collapse of Bitcoin has been met with the expected gnashing of teeth. Crypto was billed as a lot of things – including the future of online transactions as well as a hedge against inflation and the vagaries of traditional stocks. It was going to be the New Gold. Its behavior in the current downturn hasn’t proven any of that out. I mostly bought in wanting to learn about this new technological wonder, rather than execting Bitcoin would pop to $1,000,000 and I’d make my fortune. Crypto, for all its hype, has an astonishingly unproven record of being useful in the broader economy outside of being an item of curiosity. At best, it’s felt like even more of a casino than your run of the mill investment opportunities, so as they say, “don’t gamble with funds you can’t afford to lose.”

2. People. After attempting to resolve my ants in the well issue last summer by working with well and water experts and meeting with only temporary success, I turned to a local exterminator this spring to get a second opinion. I’m not sure whether I should be insulted or not that the first thing he said to me was “Yeah, don’t dump any poison down the well.” I suppose just the fact that he said that so quickly implies that there’s a non-zero number of my fellow residents of Cecil County who do respond to similar issues by actually running out and poisoning their own water source. I assured him that I had no intention of emptying a bottle of Terro into my drinking water supply and that I was consulting him for alternative approaches that wouldn’t result in potentially killing myself. The more unsettling part of this whole conversation is that the people who do have to be cautioned against drinking poison are also the people we encounter on the roads each day. They’re the people we encounter while we’re getting groceries. They’re the ones who sit in judgment of us as jury members. They’re the people who go to the polls to elect our leaders. Honestly, the fact that such a warning needed to be said explains a lot about why things are the way they are.

3. An unnamed online brokerage. On a lark, I opened an online brokerage account years ago. I threw a few dollars in it and attempted to teach myself a bit about the exciting world of penny stocks. Believe me when I say that didn’t go anywhere beyond giving me a solid lesson that I have no business spending time being a stock picker. As the market began its fall back around the first of the year, I dug out my log in and set up a small weekly buy order for a broad index fund. It was a chance to use the falling knife to begin capturing some shares outside what’s locked up, sacrosanct and untouchable, in my retirement accounts. I try very hard to be a set-it-and-forget-it investor. In fact, going weeks or months between looking at things isn’t uncommon. The fact that this particular broker has somehow managed to bungle my last two automatic transactions, though, has me double checking all their work to this point. Add in the apparent impossibility of getting authoritative answers from customer service and I’m left to wonder if it’s not time to decamp for an alternative platform. That’s its own flavor of pain in the ass, so I’m begrudgingly staying the course for the time being. If the next transaction inexplicably goes wonky, I’ll have to try elsewhere for my own sanity.

Freebooters…

The filibuster has a long and storied history as a delaying tactic employed by members of the minority party in U.S. Senate. In its most simple form, the filibuster means the minority can prolong or delay a vote as long as they can keep a solid block of 41 senators behind the effort.

The problem isn’t really the filibuster in and of itself. It’s the fact that since the 1970s, the threat of a filibuster has been enough to derail legislation. Since then, all a senator has had to do is signal their intent to filibuster and the majority leader most often opts not to bring the bill to the floor. It wasn’t always thus. 

Rather than eliminate the filibuster – and the need to get to 60 senators to invoke cloture – simply fall back on the more historic rules of the Senate. If the minority party, a small segment of senators, or even an individual wants to block legislation, go back in time to when they had to earn it. Make the bastards hold the floor. Make them talk until their exhausted. Don’t let them eat. Don’t let them drink. Don’t let them sleep. Make them grind the machinery of state to a halt right there in the chamber with the cameras on them. Make them stay in session on Fridays and over the weekend. If they want to filibuster, make these octogenarian asshats do the work.

Right now, the minority party can weaponize the filibuster and the majority just stands around and takes it… but the majority can weaponize the rules and procedures of the Senate just as easily. Plus, taking the filibuster back to the future is the far more poetic option than throwing it over and turning the Senate into a smaller, more elderly, simple majority needing version than the House. 

Make the Filibuster Painful Again. That’s Ol’ Doc Tharp’s prescription. 

Well, well, well…

The bullshit of homeownership continues at pace. I’ve often thought whoever coined the notion of finding joy in owning your own home probably never owned one himself. Or maybe he had staff and an unlimited sinking fund for doing maintenance and repairs. In any case, unbridled joy is rarely my first thought when I consider what goes into keeping the roof over my head.

Maybe that’s because every damn time I turn around something needs fixing or replacing. You regrade the back yard because the basement leaks, then replace a water heater, then a furnace, then get the gutters tinkered with every few months, then you’re due for a new clothes dryer before replacing the faucet on the kitchen sink. That’s all before you take on more basic general maintenance tasks that need done weekly, monthly, or quarterly. Don’t get me wrong, I like the place well enough, but it’s all a labor of necessity rather than one of love.

It’s possible that my view of the whole things is currently jaundiced because the ants that I thought we cast out last summer and now comfortably (for them) back in my well casing. I know this because teeny tiny ant parts are getting sucked into the well, passing through my fancy filter system, and showing up in the sink, the shower, and every other place water is piped through the house. It’s almost equal parts disgusting and infuriating.

Last year, I tried the advice of the well and pump experts. This year I’m starting off seeking a fix from a local exterminator. I think I was very clear with him on the phone that I was going to insist on a solution that didn’t involve pouring poison directly down my own well. I like to think that would go without saying, but life experience tells me sometimes you need to say that obvious out loud.

I have no idea what the next step is if there’s not an effective way to kill these little bastards without killing myself in the process. I wonder if I need to pull a county permit to dig up the front yard, bury a cistern, and have potable water trucked in once a month.

A mark on the wall…

I signed the contract for my bathroom renovation back in September. A few days before Christmas I got an email from the contractor stating that all supplies are backlogged, half the employees are out with the Great Plague, and every project they have is running way, way behind. Here we are in May, five months hence, and I’ve finally talked to the company’s operations manager and have a tentative start date plugged into the calendar towards the end of the month. At long last, there’s a mark on the wall.

Look, I’ve loathed the master bathroom in this house since the first time I saw the place. I almost took a pass on the house because of it. The giant tub and no shower made it mostly dead space to me. For the last seven years it has been serving as a glorified hallway where I kept the cat’s food and litter box and that I have to walk through to get to the master closet. Aside from the very big windows facing the woods and excellent natural lighting, it has no redeeming qualities at all. The room is cold as blue hell in the winter and for reasons I’ve never managed to figure out, has no particular aesthetic at all. It’s as if the original owners realized three days before they finished construction that they needed a master bathroom and scrounged up whatever parts and pieces they could on short notice.

I’m not saying this new bathroom is going to be particularly beautiful, but it’s damned well going to be functional. I’m cautiously optimistic that the designer (probably) didn’t let me get the overall look and feel too far out of whack. I mean it all looks good enough on the renderings, but there’s no way of telling what it’s really going to look like until it’s all there live and in person… which now looks like it’ll be sooner rather than later.

My fingers are firmly crossed in hopes that I haven’t spent tens of thousands of dollars on something I’ll hate once it’s all thrown together… Though the simple fact that I won’t have to schlep down the hall to shit, shower, and shave every morning will go a long way in making it a favorable outcome. Being able to do it all with toasty warm floor tiles will probably seal the deal regardless of appearance… and then I can rack and stack the list again and see what project is next.

I support personal liberty and choice…

A few months ago, I kicked around the idea of starting up a weekly limited feature focused on topics that some people might consider controversial, unpopular, or otherwise not appropriate for polite company. Nothing much came of the idea then, but it has stewed in my head ever since. This is the next of what I like to think will be a recurring series of Friday evening contemplations. If you’re easily offended, or for some reason have gotten the impression that your friends or family members have to agree with you on every conceivable topic, this might be a good time to look away. While it’s not my intention to be blatantly offensive, I only control the words I use, not how they’re received or interpreted.

Well, it looks like the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hand down a ruling this summer that will overturn 50+ years of “settled law” and precedent. On January 22, 1973, the court’s ruling in Row v. Wade found that the Constitution protects a woman’s liberty to choose to have an abortion and that right could not be broadly restricted by the government. Associate Justice Blackmun hung his argument on the idea that such restrictions violate the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Blackmun’s opinion in Roe was further exercised in a number of subsequent cases to enlarge a Constitutional protection of personal privacy rights. And before anyone says it, no, a specific right to privacy is not mentioned anywhere in the text of the Constitution. The right to privacy, however, is strongly implied by a plain text reading of the 4th, 5th, and the 14th Amendments. The whole intent of the Constitution was and is to restrain the actions and behavior of government. One might say there’s a compelling national interest in keeping the various levels of government as far out of people’s business as possible.

The people are, after all, the font of sovereignty in this country. And on this particular issue those people believe that Roe should be upheld by a 2-to-1 margin. 

My position on abortion is consistent with my position on most other things. Don’t want a gun? Don’t buy one. Don’t want a gay marriage? Don’t get married to someone of the same sex. Don’t want an abortion? Don’t have one. See what I’m getting at here? Personal liberty = good. Jamming your religio-political beliefs down everyone else’s throat = bad.

Yeah, if the thing you care so desperately about doesn’t actually impact you in any way, just mind your own goddamned business. I have no idea why that’s idea is so hard to glom onto for 25-30% of the people in this utterly beshitted country of ours.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Pope Francis. In a report this week, the Pope has said NATO is responsible for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I’m sure His Holiness is a wise and intelligent churchman, but I have to encourage him to get the fuck directly out of here with that line of thinking. The person directly responsible for the invasion of and subsequent destruction in Ukraine is Vladimir Putin. Period. Full stop. John Paul II took a courageous stand against Soviet repression across Eastern Europe. It seems his successor would rather stand with tyrants… and that heaps nothing but shame on him. 

2. Page views. My page views fell off a damn cliff this week and I have absolutely no idea why. As of this evening, views are down 68% from this time last week. Mercifully I’m not trying to sell anything here, because that’s just abysmal. Is it something I said? Was there a tweak to the algorithm? I’ve got loads of metrics about this page, but not one of them is giving me any particularly helpful insight. I’ll keep plugging away, of course, because more than anything else, this blog exists as a platform to vent my spleen before I get a chance to bottle it up. Past that, the added views are just kind of nice to have. I’d still be doing it even if no on were reading. Which at the rate these views are dropping could be sometime early next week.

3. Politicians. I’ve been looking, among other things, at the varied responses to the draft Supreme Court opinion on abortion, the continued agitation for free money handouts to those who took out student loans, the thus-far lackluster efforts of the January 6th committee, and clear disconnect between what Republican “leaders” said about Trump in private versus what they say for public consumption. The conclusion at which I’ve arrived is that it doesn’t appear that there is one single national-level politician anywhere in the country that I have any interest in voting for… for anything. Except maybe for expulsion to a desolate island in the South Pacific. They’re collectively just about the most uninspiring bunch I can imagine. I’d be hard pressed to think of anything they’ve done that makes me more likely to vote for a single one of them than I am to just throw my damned vote in the sea. They are, to a man and woman, about as useless a bunch as we’ve ever had the misfortune to seat at the highest levels of government.

Aging and other inconveniences…

This week, I’ve had an appointment with my dermatologist and two physical therapy sessions. Next week I’m back at PT for two more rounds. The week after that it’s an appointment with my primary care doc. Three weeks from now it’s a follow-up with the dermatologist. Then, four weeks from now, I’ll turn 44. 

I’m not saying all those things are in any way related, but I can’t help but feel like there is, perhaps, a vague connection between the never-ending parade of doctor’s appointments and the increasing number of times I’ve been around the sun. None of these appointments are for critical care issues. Just a bevy of regular appointments, follow-ups, and treating some minor issues.

My inner historian can’t help but note that our caveman ancestors right up through our dark age predecessors had a life expectancy of about 35 years. From the Tudor era right through the dawn of the industrial age, expectancy creeped up to almost 40 years. Over the last 200 years, expectancy has raced upward into the low to middle 70s. So yeah, we’ve managed to eliminate or at least mostly control many of the common causes of early death – ranging from accidents to disease – but we’re still walking around in meat suits that evolved over millennia with the expectation to get no more than 35-40 years of service.

From that perspective, it’s not hard to understand why there are occasionally bits and bobs that aren’t working quite right or how waking up in the morning so often reveals a new and unexpected pain somewhere. Sitting here looking at 44, I’m well past my warrantee date and from here on out will apparently need increasingly skilled mechanics to keep the whole thing cobbled together and running tolerably well.

If anyone needs me, I’ll be over here reading reviews on hyperbaric chambers and researching gene therapy.

Buy and hodl, buy and hodl…

For a stretch there from April 2020 until January of this year, any schmuck with an E-Trade account could make money in the stock market. It was very easy for people to get the impression that they were an investing genius thanks to what was probably the hottest market in my lifetime carrying the freight. Since January, though, there seems to be a whole lot of people who are confounded that the market can move down as well as up. 

I’ve got my own records going back to 2003. Looking at the charts, I can see clearly at least three other “big” down periods – 2008, 2015, and early 2020. The rest is slow, steady, upwards progress. Something about time in the market versus timing the market, I suppose. Looking at my May report, I can see I’m down a little more than 12% year to date. Sure, I’d be happier if it were 12% up for the year so far, but nothing I’m seeing feels like cause for panic. Pulling the charts back to look at the 5-, 10-, or 20-year trends tells me the important part of the tale.

Before long, I expect we’ll increasingly see stories about people bailing out – “fleeing to safety” – in some alternative investment. From where I’m sitting, panic decisions are just about the worst thing anyone could do to themselves. Over a long enough horizon, despite every historic crash, dip, and period of stagnation, U.S. markets have never gone down and stayed down. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, of course, so maybe “this time it really is different.” I doubt it. 

So, yeah, I’m 12% down. From where I’m sitting, it’s mostly a shrug and a so what. With at least 13 years to run before I could need a nickel of those funds, why wouldn’t I want to buy today at a solid discount to what I was spending on January 1st? If I were planning to retire on May 31st 2022 instead of 2035, I’d probably be more worried. If I had pulled the trigger and gone off into retirement at the beginning of the year, I’d probably be horrified at what it means for my sequence of returns… but I also wouldn’t have started that adventure all in on index funds instead of shepherding my lot into dividend payers, bonds, and allocations designed to preserve capital rather than chase growth.

The wider universe is going to do whatever it’s going to do. Our politics will swing between the extremes. Climate will continue to shift. There will be great breakthroughs and horrendous failures. Through it all, I’ll be over here quietly buying a little every week, planning for the best case and not-so-best-case future, and doing my level best to make Fortress Jeff my own haven in a turbulent world. As far as I’m concerned, reports of the end of history and impending financial doomsday have been greatly exaggerated. Through it all, there’s very little new under the sun.

Hunting season…

I haven’t done any proper book hunting since a few days after Christmas. Even that was more of an excuse to drop off a couple of boxes of my own discards than an effort to bring any more books into the house. The fact that I didn’t take more time then to pillage the shelves was probably the first, unheeded sign of the non-COVID sickness that struck me down a few days later. Since then, it’s been an occasional online order and walking through a couple of the local thrift shops while I was out to do other things. 

With our collective decision to operate as if the Great Plague is over, I suppose it’s time to get back into the habit. Subject to weather, my personal return to normal should be kicking off this weekend with a trip down to Anne Arundel County. The local historical association’s spring sale has been good to me over the last few years. The only thing that would keep me away is the steady rain currently in the forecast. My obsession with books doesn’t, as of yet, extend to waiting in line getting rained on for the opportunity to fight through low-roofs and narrow aisles of boxes for the opportunity to pick through items constantly being dripped on. A that point, better to spend an hour or two in a proper shop even at the risk of paying full retail. Either will likely scratch this particular itch until my annual birthday week buying binge.

On a related note, I’ve recently learned one of my favorite local used book sales – a fundraiser for Wilmington-based scholarship fund – has decided to throw in the towel. Until this spring it was held twice a year and consistently produced amazing books for pennies on the dollar of their retail value. According to their Facebook post, they’re facing a dearth of volunteers to keep the event running. It’s not surprising, but it is disappointing. I’ll miss their run-down storefront that opened into an Aladdin’s cave of the printed word once you got through the front door.

I’ve been feeding this addiction long enough to see a lot of these sales and shops disappear. It’s awfully rare to see one pop up unexpectedly. In fact, I don’t remember ever seeing that happen. In a world that didn’t have bills to pay, retirement to plan for, and in which I was slightly more insane, I’d lease a storefront or maybe a little warehouse space and offer to buy any book that came through the door for $1 a box or a $10 charitable donation receipt – Yes, yes, I know, I’d have to set up a legitimate charitable organization before offering to take tax-deductible donations… and then run a store and deal with people. That last bit alone ensures it’ll never happen. I’d never have the patience for it.

All these books that use to end up at sales and shops are going somewhere… probably directly to the nearest landfill or pulp paper buyer… I’d just like to get a fraction of them to pass through my hands and skim off the cream before they meet their otherwise ignominious fate. Wonder Book has a brilliant business model for this, but I’m hard pressed to figure out how to do it without it being a full time “day job,” needing to hire a staff, or it becoming a 30-hour a week side hustle. 

It’s a dream – a happy dream to be sure – but still, just a dream. Better to keep focusing on my niche and let the sellers and scouts keep doing their thing. It’s going to be one of those ideas that festers, though. As the shops and sales continue to disappear from the landscape, finding the good stuff outside the full retail or auction environment is going to go from rare to impossible. If I come up with a way to game that system that doesn’t involve opening my own business, I’ll be sure to let you know.