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.

On litter and trashy people…

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.

Any time I’m forced out of the house on such mundane errands as going to work or picking up groceries, I can’t help but notice just about every road I travel is hopelessly trashed with anything small enough to fit through the window of the average passenger car. There are a few predictable spots where a couple times a month you can count on finding a couch, a mattress, tires, or other large items that “feel off the back” of someone’s truck. 

The average person seems to go out of their way to avoid actually using trash cans even where they’re readily available. They’re satisfied with throwing whatever’s at hand directly on the ground in the parking lot, on the sidewalk, or wherever they happen to be when they have something to discard. 

That people can’t collectively be trusted to do something as basic as not throw an entire bag of McDonald’s wrappers out their car window isn’t surprising, but it’s a sad commentary on exactly how low the bar of expectation really is. It would make me wonder what the conditions are in people’s homes. Given that they can’t or won’t keep things clean when they’re in public, I can only assume they live in utter filth in private where there’s no one at all to judge them.

Based on the sheer volume of trash that’s piled up alongside the road over the winter, I can only speculate that it’s the result of a sizable minority of the population who just well and truly doesn’t give one single shit about anyone or anything around them. Since there are already laws that “prevent” littering, I don’t suppose we can legislate our way into making people any less slovenly. We could, however, enforce the hell out of the laws already on the books – fine people into oblivion, throw some of the worst offenders directly into jail, or hey, maybe even seize the vehicles that were used in the commission of the crime.

Until being an absolute shitbird is made prohibitively painful, I don’t see any other means of getting after yet another issue that stems from a complete lack of personal responsibility and non-existent consequences.

An environmentalist…

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 first 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.

In my own way, I’m an environmentalist. I’m not the kind of wackadoodle hippy that ties himself to the high branches of a tree to stop logging or only eats soy because cows fart too much. Still, I believe one of the greatest dangers facing the world today is the almost eight billion of us extracting resources from the planet at an unprecedented rate.

I enjoy nature so much that one of the key points in picking the house I currently live in wasn’t just the structure, but its location adjacent to protected state owned and conservation easement land as well as that the neighborhood covenants and restrictions placing strict limits on the amount of the “natural woodland” on each lot that can be removed for development. I lived in one of those clear cut subdivisions with nothing by lawn and pavement as far as the eye could see once and never will again. 

None of the above is probably controversial, but here’s where I’m going to lose my Republican friends: In addition to generally enjoying the outdoors, I believe global climate change is an existential threat to civilization. 

Like any other large problem we’ve ever faced, the fact is, we can fix this. The catch is, of course, it means that many things have to change – not the least of which is transitioning away from using fossil fuels. Those systems were built up over two centuries and (to agitate my environmentalist friends) I don’t expect we can reasonably expect to simply turn them off over two years or even twenty. The sooner we start implementing real solutions to mitigate climate change the better off we’re going to be – if only because the longer we wait to take it seriously, the larger will be the cost and greater the drag on the economy.

Getting a grip on climate change isn’t just for the benefit of people. If it were, I’d probably shrug it away, because people are the cause I’m least inclined to get behind. I mean have you met people? We’re collectively awful. If I’m inappropriately honest, I’m far more troubled by the impact of our continued behavior on the whales and the fishes and the turtles and the apes and the polar bears and the big cats and the birds and the whole host of small mammals whose habitat we’re systematically destroying, cutting up, and constricting. I’ll take my chances with a mass die off of people, but the animals never did anything to us.

I’m not optimistic that there’s the political or social will to get our arms around the sheer volume of things that need fixing. The more likely course of events in my mind is that the climate will continue to shift and at least some of us will find ourselves living in a world that’s much more violent, far less productive, and considerably less populated by creatures great and small.

Wartime leadership…

If you haven’t seen it, take a few minutes and watch Ukrainian President Zelensky address members of the US Congress. The man displays more leadership in ten minutes than the Congress has shown in the last ten years.

https://www.cnn.com/videos/world/2022/03/16/volodymyr-zelensky-congress-speech-ukraine-video-newsroom-vpx.cnn

The state of nature…

Weekends, especially those that are too snowy, cold, and unpleasant for much else, are good times to ponder. Some, I’m sure, are eager to fill in every moment of the empty hours with active distraction, but I’m happy to spend them reading and thinking over a good brew up.

I had some delightfully long stretches of time to do just that over the past weekend. There was a single thought, though, that kept coming back to me and that’s that whatever we think of as “peace” simply isn’t the natural state of the world.

Europe was lulled into thinking of the “long peace” stretching from the end of World War II to the kickoff of Russia’s most recent misguided adventure in Ukraine. That’s only possible when you forget that Russia has been waging a low-intensity war in Ukraine since 2007. The countries that used to be Yugoslavia fell into brutal genocidal war in the 1990s. Before that, when there was still an Iron Curtain, the whole continent held its breath and armed itself with increasingly powerful tools of war.

The Cold War itself raged, from one degree or another, across South America, Africa, and Asia for half a century. None of that even takes into account the “big wars” of the 20th century, the wars for empire in the Victorian Age, or Napoleon’s setting all of Europe on fire in his wars of expansion in the 19th century. The 18th century could hardly be called peaceful, having birthed revolutionary fervor in both the United States and France. You can carry this line of thought back through the long sweep of history until you run out of written records to consider.

It’s why I chuckle any time someone earnestly tells me that if only there was X, Y, or Z, the people of the world would all live together in peace and harmony. Maybe if they’re the last two people on earth. Maybe. But I see very little evidence to convince me that when societies, cultures, and civilizations bumping up against one another, “peace” isn’t simply a momentary rest between stretches of open, brutal war.

Three word mantras…

If I’m honest, finding something relevant to drop here every day is getting to feel a bit like swimming against the tide. Sure, I’ve got opinions about damned near everything, but I’m not a foreign policy expert. I’m not an Eastern Europe expert. I’m not an economist. Even though I studied political science, most days I even struggle to get my arms around what American domestic politics has turned into in this stupid century of ours. The way I learned to understand the world is often enough no longer the case or impolite to say out loud.

The best I can manage is trying to take in information from people who are experts in a wide array of fields and try to filter those through my own philosophical and, yes, ethical, lens. I like to think I hit more right notes than not, but the only real way of telling will be looking back here in 20 or 30 years and seeing how it all turned out.

All I feel particularly competent to guarantee at this point is that I intend to keep grappling with events in a legitimate effort to understand the world around me. Here, if nowhere else, it will never devolve into grand over-simplifications like “Orange man bad,” or “Let’s go Brandon.” The world is entirely too complex to be distilled down into three word mantras. I’ll call the balls and strikes as I see them based on as much intelligent commentary and information as I can get my hands on at the time.

Funding both sides…

Europe gets a metric shit ton of its oil and natural gas from Russia. It’s a simple, unfortunate truth.  No matter how bad the Russian attack on Ukraine gets in the short term, convincing the European Union to embargo their own fuel supply is probably too heavy a lift. That doesn’t mean as spring arrives, they shouldn’t be putting plans in place to cut out Russian oil for next heating season. It’s in their collective best interest to disentangle from Russia as quickly as possible. Either they do it on their own terms or it can be forced on them whenever Vlad the Invader decides to choke off their supply of his own accord.

Sources I’ve seen indicate that only somewhere between 1 and 8% of the petroleum products we consume here in the United States originate in Russia. I’m sure there’s a reason for that wide a variance in the numbers, but the bottom line doesn’t really change – there’s absolutely no reason the US needs to import oil products from Russia. Other, more reliable trading partners – I’m looking at you, Canada and Mexico – would probably be thrilled to pick up the slack.

The game we’re playing now, of airlifting arms and armaments to the Ukrainian resistance while simultaneously providing hard dollars to Russia by way of payments for petroleum, needs to stop. Funding both sides of the war is just plain stupid. Every lever of economic power we can throw to bring pain to the Russian economy is an effort worth making… and more importantly, once we’re off Russian oil we can focus on helping Europe get themselves clean, too. 

If we’re serious about not wanting to get into a shooting war with Russia ourselves, tightening the economic stranglehold we’ve got them in as quickly as possible feels like the last, best option. Otherwise, we’re just giving Putin more time and funding to hold on in hopes that the currently unified world begins to show some cracks at the margins. Our historically short attention span is working against us here, but this is important and it needs to get done.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Sanctions. There’s a small chorus out there arguing that the fairly dramatic sanctions regime imposed on Russia is only hurting Russian civilians, that it’s somehow “unfair,” or that it’s somehow an escalation of this conflict. I tend to come at it from a much different perspective. Russia’s wholesale invasion of Ukraine is a clear and present threat to the post-World War II free and democratic order in Europe. Under the circumstances, marshalling the full economic might of Western Civilization and arming the Ukrainian resistance with as much material as they can carry feels like the very least America and western Europe can do in response. I can assure you, a President Tharp would be far less ginger in how he approached the whole damned mess.

2. Saber rattling. The nuclear option. Vlad the Invader has put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert. Feels like the good old days of the Cold War when Soviet leaders threatened nuclear apocalypse any time world events didn’t go their way. If you didn’t live through those times, it happened a lot. Like all the time. If we caved in to Russian nuclear threats every time they stomped their feet in a fit of not getting their way, there would still be a wall in Berlin and an Iron Curtain across continental Europe. As the poet said, there are worse things in life than being dead.

3. Propaganda value. I’ve loaded down my social media feeds with images, memes, videos, and commentary on Russia’s war-making over the last week. One thing I’ve refrained and will continue to refrain from doing is posting any of the images of surrendered Russian soldiers. I instinctively recoil every time I’ve ever seen pictures posted of American troops in the hands of the enemy… and seeing what are almost inevitably young conscripts on what must be the absolute worst day of their life being put on display, while it may have a certain propaganda value, doesn’t sit well with me. Better to just march them off to confinement and confirm through the Red Cross that Ukraine is committed to treating its POWs with dignity and in accordance with the Geneva Convention.