By any other name…

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, we studied something then called the Age of Discovery, or if you were feeling a bit more militant, the Age of Conquest. This was the period in history from the 15th through the 17th centuries when Europeans set out on a global search for faster trade routes, wealth, personal glory, and to extend the reach of their national flag. Not coincidentally, It’s also a period that corresponds with a then unprecedented explosion in knowledge about the natural world. 

Hundreds of millions of people lived and died during the three centuries of the Age of Discovery. Aside from kings and princes, we remember very few of them by name… and for those few, we don’t remember them because they spent their often-short lifetimes wringing their hands about the world around them, but because they dared to do what was hard and dangerous. They’re derided in the modern world, I suspect, because so many now live lives that are unfathomably easy and safe based on any measure of historical precedent.

During the Age of Conquest, some nations and civilizations did the conquering and others were vanquished. It’s happened since the dawn of recorded time and was happening long before written language existed to keep records. As often happens with the vanquished, we don’t hear much about their history. There’s a movement now to tell those stories. That’s a fine thing to do and certainly adds perspective to the proceedings. Increasing the sum total of human knowledge is almost never a bad thing… although that doesn’t mean I’ll be here rending my garments when told the tales of woe and sadness. 

At a time with no accurate maps, no global positioning systems, and no way to even accurately establish longitude, men went down to the sea in ships, and occupied their business in great waters. They had names like da Gama, Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, Magellan, and Drake. The set out in fragile wooden ships, pointing their bows west into a world more unknown than known, and opened two continents to further exploration and conquest. They were hard men living in a hard world. Our modern, gentler world would want them hauled to The Hague and tried for crimes against humanity – but that’s the same modern world that wouldn’t exist without them. 

Columbus and the rest were unquestionably part heroic and part villainous, which makes them very much men of their age. Perhaps it makes them men of any age, as it’s impossible to be all one or all the other in this or any other time. Even if it leaves me squarely in the minority, today I’ll honor them.

A look back, fondly…

I miss the early days of the Great Plague. Chalk that up to yet another unpopular opinion, but I said what I said.

I miss the complete lack of traffic on the roads during those moments when I couldn’t avoid leaving the house. I miss the wide berth that everyone gave one another as they scurried through the grocery store, masked, and avoiding eye contact. I miss living my best life “safer at home.”

For a guy who has never had much use for people at the very best of times, those days were a glimpse into a world I never imagined could exist. Despite the lingering threat of sudden and unexpected death lurking on the breath of every passerby, my blood pressure went down and my general level of annoyance became almost entirely manageable. You might even be forgiven for taking the impression that I enjoyed it.

Look, I’m not sociopathic enough to advocate for having ongoing, continuous waves of deadly virus spreading around the world just to make me more comfortable, but it has painted me a picture of a world that could be. The lately departed plague season feels increasingly like a preview of the world I’d want to build myself once I get past the stage of life that involves trading time for money. After that it’s venture out for food, venture out for books, and to hell with most everything else.

I wouldn’t have suspected it at the time, but it seems that those first, uncertain days of the plague will be the ones I look back on most fondly.

Salute to the unknown bureaucrat…

Somewhere in London right now is a nameless, faceless bureaucrat punching tons above his weight class as he struggles mightily to corral monarchs, heads of state, and plenipotentiaries. Each of them is a petty king or queen in their own realm and unaccustomed to going second to anyone. But our bureaucrat will be responsible for ensuring their good behavior if only for an hour or two.

No one will ever know who he is or what he’s done… unless the wheels fall off and blame must find a home. Tomorrow the world will watch the spectacle of Britain honoring one of its most favored daughters. The watching world won’t know or care how the show was made or anything at all about the bureaucrat.

It’s cold comfort, but I’ll know. Or at least I’ll have the barest inkling of what’s gone into making sure the spectacle looks effortless. I’ll marvel at the effort, the sleepless nights, and the frenetic pace. Though you’ll remain forever unknown, I’ll salute you.

The queue…

I had the chance, many years ago, to queue up and pass under the dome of the U.S. Capitol while Ronald Reagan lay in state. That line stretched through switchbacks down the Mall from the foot of the West Front stairs down towards the Washington Monument. The wait lasted 8 or 9 hours through the night. Coming out of the darkened and muted Capitol just as the sun was rising will be something I remember for the rest of my life.

That long ago queue was nothing compared to the lines now formed for those waiting to file into Westminster Hall and past the coffin of Queen Elizabeth II. It’s the queue to end all queues. As I write this, the line stands somewhere around five miles long and has as estimated 14 hour through time from end to end. The Government attempted to pause new entries on Friday morning, but people kept coming on in a volume that almost implies there will need to a queue for those waiting to join the queue. It will certainly grow even longer as the weekend gets properly underway.

The queue, in all of its absurdist five mile glory, is almost the apotheosis of Britishness. It’s a sight to see, something to behold in its own right – the last mark of tribute to the late Sovereign from the people she served so long and so well.

I don’t tend to be someone who lives in regret, but I already know not jumping on a flight to London earlier this week and sorting out the rest of the details in transit will be a lingering regret of a lifetime. Timing, finances, and assorted personal responsibilities conspired to make that an impossible lift. Although my body remains firmly here in Cecil County today, my heart is most assuredly in the queue. 

The road not taken…

Early this morning I watched the House of Lords and the House of Commons presenting their condolences to King Charles III. Later I watched the solemn pomp and ceremony that carried the mortal remains of Queen Elizabeth II from Holyroodhouse to St. Giles.

I’m struck, more than anything else, with a sense of regret – of the road not taken. When the American colonies careened towards independence in the 1760s and ’70s, there was something greater in our grasp. With negotiation, we could have had American Members of Parliament, American Peers, and unity of the English speaking peoples throughout an Imperial Commonwealth. In the fullness of time, I like to speculate that America could have emerged as a center of gravity to rival the mother country within the Empire. 

But we didn’t. A few men in Boston didn’t want to pay three pence a pound on their tea. The rabble roused, a minority of the population set us off inexorably on the road to independence.  More fool us.

We say Americans have no interest in royalty. Our rapt attention during their great occasions – their births, weddings, and now their funerals – says differently. We’re still very much invested in ebbs and flows of the family of King George III. 

We could have been part of that great stream of history stretching back beyond the Conqueror, beyond Alfred, but here we are, simple spectators despite our ongoing and profound interest. I’m not advocating we turn back the clock. That particular ship has, sadly, sailed. But, God did we miss an opportunity.

Right here, right now…

Due to there being a lot of other stuff in the queue, I’m a little late off the blocks on this one. Still, I just want to take at least one post and say without reservation that the James Webb Space Telescope is absolutely amazing. I haven’t even asked how much we spent on it, but regardless of how many billions of dollars it cost, Webb would have been a bargain at twice the price.

Webb has enabled us to peer back through the evolution of the universe, now seeing so deeply into the past to find a point only 300 million years after the beginning. In a 14-billion-year-old universe, it’s a fraction that’s incredibly hard to imagine – almost impossible to fathom set against a human lifetime that may range to 80 years if one happens to be both lucky and healthy.

We’re just now at the very beginning of Webb’s discoveries. It’s this I think of any time someone declares we’re living in “the worst timeline.” The oldest evidence for man’s creation of primitive stone tools is about 2.6 million years old. Human’s first constructive use of fire happened, maybe, 2.3 million years ago. We didn’t get around to inventing shoes until 45,000 years ago. It took 20,000 years after that to domesticate the dog. Fixed settlements, towns, arrived about 11,000 years ago. Wine came 7,500 years after that – and then we were off to the races with the pace of technical and scientific invention cracking along ever faster. 

It took 6,400 years to go from the invention of the wheel to the first modern car. It took 66 years to go from the first flight at Kitty Hawk to landing men safely on the Moon. The pace of discovery and invention isn’t linear. It only seems gradual right up until the moment when it doesn’t. 

Webb has opened up a new era for exploration and discovery. It’s impossible to know what still lays unseen over the horizon, but I’m so very glad to be here for it… rather than waiting for the guy living in the next cave over to figure out how to cook a mammoth steak without burning his face off. There’s really nowhere I’d rather be than right here, right now.

This time it’s different…

History doesn’t repeat. Sometimes it doesn’t even rhyme. There are, however, in my estimation, any number of trends we see again and again. Often, though, those trends flow across such long sweeps of time that there’s little or no “generational memory” of the last time they happened. 

COVID-19 was a great example. Confronting widespread plague or communicable disease isn’t something that was fresh and new for 2020. Humans have been dealing with pandemics since the rise of civilization. The last time we faced a pandemic of such scope and scale was a hundred years previously with the Great Influenza of 1918. Given the hundred-year interval, it was an event that had nearly passed out of living memory. Although civilization had seen pandemic many times before, “this time is different.”

The major stock market indexes are down 20% from their highs in 2021. Business reporters and talking heads are wringing their hands about wealth destruction, there being no floor, and the end of capitalism. They’re obviously ignoring the fact that bear markets are a normal part of the economic cycle. In fact, we’ve seen 14 bear markets since 1945. It generally takes about two years for markets to regain their previous high-water mark. We’ve been there and done that, but “this time is different.”

Currently, the United Sates is experiencing a year over year rate of inflation of 8.6%. It’s driving prices of all manner of goods and services higher at the fastest pace we’ve seen since 1981. Many of us are too young to remember anything from 1981, but there it is, right there in the recent history books. In all likelihood the Federal Reserve will crank up interest rates to and a little beyond the pain threshold, pull money out of circulation, and inflation will cool to a manageable level. You can already hear the cries that “this time is different.”

I hate to throw cold water on the almost gleeful panic, but the only thing different this time is that we’re the grown ass adults who happen to be the ones experiencing these events rather than our parents or grandparents. Nothing that’s currently dominating the news is new. It’s the same shit different day that people have been dealing with as best they can for hundreds of years – it’s just that our lifespan is too short to effectively pull back and see the whole board. It’s far easier to believe we’re living through special and unique circumstances that could happen only to us.

Let’s all come back in about 30 months and check my work. 

Idiocracy…

It’s primary election day for seven states. I’m sure I should be paying more attention than I am, but other than next-door Pennsylvania I don’t think I could reliably name any of the other six states who went to the polls today. I won’t say that I don’t care, but I’ll confess to being disinterested. 

Even without knowing details or specifics I can surmise what’s going to happen. The Republicans will end up with seven candidates who move forward to the general election and fall somewhere along the political spectrum between January 6th apologists and Benito Mussolini. The Democrats will advance their general election candidates who land somewhere between Uncle Fluffy and Chairman Mao. The Republicans will be horrified by the Democrat’s candidates. The Democrats will revile the Republican’s candidates. All the while, the vast sea of voters who fall between the extremes will look at the candidates, yawn, and wonder how the hell these are the best, most qualified candidates we could find.

Look, I’m engaged in the process and informed about the issues… and I’m struggling when I look at the whole field of potential candidates. Across the board it’s hard to see one I’d want to spend an hour talking to, let alone one I’d feel comfortable elevating to high public office.

So it goes, on and on, election after election into the future as we all slide increasingly closer to living in a live-action version of Idiocracy. 

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.