At the risk of falling victim to internet outrage…

In the age of financial panic, COVID-19, and riots in the streets, my day to day experiences bear very little resemblance to what I’ve been watching on the nightly news. It’s very much like watching the whole thing unfold like an oddly scripted TV series where facts are made up and the plot is almost entirely nonsensical.

I’m getting up, feeding the animals, going to work, making dinner, and doing those million things a week that keep a household running. I think the so what here is that for every criminal cop, every window smashing rioter, and every grasping politician there are millions of people who are basically like me – focused more on whatever it is they do to get through their own day than whatever it is the news broadcasts and social media channels are spewing.

You’ll never see pictures of that, because people getting on with life isn’t flashy. It’s not newsworthy. It is, though, just about the most common thing in the world.

So if you want to hang your social media in black bunting, go for it. You want to imagine yourself a daring revolutionary standing tall among the barricades, that’s fine. Want to rend your garments because you hate wearing a face mask? It’s your funeral.

Just know that outside the echo chambers of social media and the news outlets there’s a vast swath of America that’s sick to death of fuckery in all the forms 2020 has decided to present to us… and it’s not that we don’t care about what’s happening so much as it is that while everyone else in the country seems to be able to spend weeks on end rallying or marching, a couple of us are still working and trying to manage the day-to-day.

Maybe some people won’t say it for fear of drawing the ire of the interwebs, but I’ve never posted anything for fans, or clout, or praise, but just because it’s what happened to be rattling around my head on any given day. Why should today be any different?

Carnival…

Carnival, the cruise line that I vaguely remember from life in the 80s and 90s as advertising vacations aboard the “fun ship,” is planning to start cruising again on August 1st. I’m sure that some courageous souls will be tempted aboard these plague ships buy unbelievably discounted prices, but I’m not sure you could tempt me to on board with an offer of giving me the actual ship at the end of the cruise.

With at least one of the other large cruise lines already flirting with bankruptcy, it’s not surprising that Carnival is chomping at the bit to get back to business. I’ll be curious to see how many people take them up on the opportunity, though. Are there enough people still holding onto their vacation money in the face of 20% unemployment who also have a wildly under-developed sense of self-preservation to make the effort profitable? Watching the increasing reports of asshattery from around the country, at first blush, the answer is a definite maybe.

I don’t suppose you’ll ever go too far wrong trading on the stupidity of the average person – even, or maybe especially, when the penalties for stupid range from debilitating viral illness on up through death. Go ahead and enjoy the buffet and that sweet, sweet balcony room though.

Quarantine fatigue…

The internet is rife with articles documenting the horrors of “quarantine fatigue.” That malady seems to be typified by people going out more frequently, governors rushing to open other-than-essential businesses, and random protests to open this or that state immediately. People have seen the reports that we “flattened the curve” and are now ready to get back to business as usual and spring sets in… even though those reports certainly don’t reflect the reality of every jurisdiction across the country. Here in Maryland, the rate of infection continues to increase – meaning we haven’t yet hit the peak, let along started down its far side.

Among the list of things I’m not is an infectious disease expert. There are, however, lots of smart people out there who are experts in this field – and they’re largely saying it’s way too soon to start having big groups of people congregated in the same place. I wouldn’t take their advice on logistics or operations so it seems reasonable that I shouldn’t try to second guess them when they’re opining about a topic they’ve spent a lifetime studying.

Ready or not, even if it’s against the best medical advice, people are going to reopen this economy. Even people who don’t need to leave, those who can readily work from home and haven’t had any issues of lost pay, seem on the cusp of giving up and trusting to fate out of the lack of ability to keep themselves entertained. You can already see the signs of it in the weekly statistical tracking of people who are out and moving around.

There’s a catch to quarantine fatigue, though. When, after a month or two of this initial experience when the masses insist on restoring “normal,” the Great Plague will spread at an even faster pace than it is now – the number of deaths will increase and we’ll find ourselves facing an even higher curve that needs mitigating. 1918-19 gives us a blueprint of how ugly a pandemic is once we collectively decide all is well and spend a few months forgetting about containment and mitigation. We’ll end up going into the fall and winter far worse off than we were back in March.

Sometimes human nature is painfully predictable.

My employer will, in all likelihood, force us back into non-socially distanced cubicles sooner rather than later. Being a guy who likes to be able to pay the bills, it’s not likely I can do much about that. Stores, bars, and beaches are going to open sooner rather than later and there’s going to be a monumental temptation for people to treat that moment as our “return to normalcy.” Mercifully, I don’t need Governor Hogan or Dr. Fauci to tell me that it’s best to avoid hanging out in those places for the foreseeable future.

I’ve always had philosophical issues with blanket “stay at home” orders. They reek of government overreach. Then again I’ve never needed the government to tell me I should be my own best advocate and look out for my own interests. So open anything you want to, I guess. It’ll be a good long time before I feel any need to sit down in a restaurant or movie theater, go to a concert, or let people through the front door here at Fortress Jeff. I don’t need Uncle Sam or Mother Maryland to tell me what does or doesn’t pass the common sense test. As for everyone else, I suppose y’all are on your own.

Let’s revisit this in about October and see where we are. Good luck.

Rent strike…

I read an article this morning calling for a 90-day or longer “rent strike,” which seems to be a classed-up way of saying even if someone can afford to pay their rent, they’re not going to do it. The assumption of this movement is that property owners across the country should just absorb the cost of housing for people who can’t or won’t pay.

Until a few months ago I was the smallest of small time landlords – having one condo unit that I rented out. Over the years of owning the place I squirreled away enough operating funds that I was able to make repairs and hold two or three months cash reserve to tide over those months between the departure of one tenant and the arrival of the next. In my very best year, I cleared $1495. Most other years I was lucky to break even or be a few hundred dollars in the black when we did the final accounting. There were more than a few years when I had to augment the rental income with cash infusions from my “day job” to make sure all the bills got paid.

That’s all a long way of saying that expecting landlords across the country to carry the freight of a rent strike indefinitely is absurd. Even assuming the property owner has a “day job” what they’re suggesting would have driven me into the loving embrace of the bankruptcy court at about the ninety day mark. 

The big bad landlord these people want to screw over isn’t only the 10,000-unit holding company or Bank of America, it’s also the retiree who lives down the street or the working man across town who took a step on the property ladder by buying a trashed property and fixing it up. I’m well aware that blood from a stone isn’t a possibility, but the fact that social media is running amok with people who want to portray withholding all rent, especially by those who have the means to keep their obligations, as a heroic act of rebellion is just infuriating. 

Doubts…

Maryland’s governor started out a few weeks ago cautioning residents about the virus. Over the last several weeks, those advisories took on ever increasing urgency as it because clear that politely asking people to stay at home wasn’t working – as they continued to congregate at beaches, parks, and bars. Then he ordered those places shuttered… and people found other ways to gather. This morning he announced a wide reaching “stay at home” order, providing criminal penalties for for doing those things we were previously advised to avoid.

Aside from my own instinctive chafing at government so dramatically curtailing the scope of our collective liberty (even in the name of a good cause), I have serious doubts about the average citizen’s ability or willingness to comply with what are currently open ended orders to stay put. Americans have a long and storied history of going where the government of the day tells them not to go. It’s in no small part the story of our nation’s westward expansion… although I don’t think the desire to move the family west to homestead Nebraska is going to be the issue in the here and now.

I’ve spent a large portion of my adult life being utterly happy staying home. That’s not true for most people. It’s even less true when you can’t tell them how long they’ll be expected to stay put. Many of us are starting week 2 or 3 of this new normal and despite the gallows humor that suffuses social media, there’s a decided undercurrent of fear and worry out there too. How long my fellow citizens are willing to sit in their homes with those two companions remains to be seen. 

I’ve got my doubts that “indefinitely” is going to be an answer some, or even many, will accept as the weeks continue to stretch on, even if that means going about against the best medical advice and in violation of our newly instituted executive orders. 

What I learned this week…

Back when I was a young, still wet behind the years bureaucrat, I thought I wanted to be a professional emergency manager. You may remember me from such natural disasters as Hurricane Katrina, when I spent two months learning more about the bottled water, ice, and refrigerated trucking industry than is strictly reasonable.

You might be wondering what that has to do with what I learned this week… Well, it’s mostly that it seems so very little has changed in that world. Reports will never be on time. No one will read them when they are published. And the numbers being reported will never ever match.

I also learned that emergency management is probably a young man’s game. Things I once would have savored now regularly leave me trying to hold back a disgusted cry of “What is this fuckery?” and “What ignorant sonofabitch thought this was a good idea?”

Maybe that last part hasn’t really changed so much, though. I vaguely remember a whole lot of eye rolling during Katrina too.

The vine and fig…

It occurs to me that part of the reason weekends are so much better than weekdays is I pay virtually no attention to the news on Saturday or Sunday. Of course I catch bits in dribs and drabs from Facebook posts, whatever is trending on Twitter, or what the BBC pushes out in alerts, but I don’t make a conscious effort to seek out news during those 48 hours blocks.

Maybe some would say it makes me a bad citizen, but it makes me a more sane human being. It’s probably worth the trade off. I think I’ll continue trying to keep the shitshow of events entirely outside my own sphere of influence confined to the 5 days of the week that are already dicked up by other factors. Two days of willful disengagement out of seven days in a week don’t feel like an outrageously big ask. 

I’m left to wonder if we might not all be better off if everyone spent more time tending to the things that are within their own span of control and less tuned in to Big Events over which no one has any real control. It’s a pipe dream, of course. There are too many people too tied in who seem like they might just get off on soaking in the drama. 

As for me and mine, we’ll double down and take a page from General Washington to increasingly strive to be the kind of man who seeks mainly to  “sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Panic, correction, and why it doesn’t necessarily suck…

Anyone following the markets this week already knows that they took a beating. Global stock markets are down across the board, a fact mostly attributable to at least some level of panic about what coronavirus will mean to the overall global economy. Markets hate uncertainty and that seems to be what we’ve had from all directions for the last few days.

Because I do want to retire some day, I’m not immune to keeping one eye on the business channels throughout the day. Days when I’m tempted to panic I find it helpful to remember a couple of things: 1) In the short term stock markets always move in two directions; 2) Trading based on emotion is stupid; and 3) Over the long term, the market has never moved in any direction but up.

Sure, when you’re sitting around watching tens of thousands of dollars of savings disappear, there’s an undeniable instinct to try to save whatever you’ve got left. That’s the emotional response. The logical response, of course, is not making those losses permeant by selling into the teeth of such large moves.

I’ve got fifteen years left before I’ll need to touch anything that’s currently subject to the vagaries of the stock market. The sane, rational part of my brain knows full well that fifteen years from now the prices today are going to look like an absolute fire sale compared to where they will be then. I’ll keep plugging my cash into a well balanced mutual fund every two weeks and let history be my guide. If I were planning to retire at close of business today, of course, I’d probably be a bit more wild-eyed in my estimates, but I like to think even then I’d manage to let sanity prevail.

The day I start betting against America and against the long track record of capitalism creating real wealth over time, you might as well put a fork in me. I’ve bought the ticket and I’m taking the ride.

Business decisions are not violations of your rights. Usually…

Most of the Second Amendment advocates on social media are up in arms – no pun intended – about Walmart’s decision to deeply scale back its sales of ammunition. Now, it would be easy enough to pillory Walmart’s press release. “Short barrel rifle ammunition” and “large capacity clips” aren’t really a thing, after all, but getting details right is less important than getting the proper spin on your public relations story.

The short version of what I’m sure will be my unpopular take is that Walmart is, first and foremost, a business. It exists as a money making machine for its shareholders. The end. Somewhere in an Arkansas-based executive suite, they made a business decision that they could afford to lose some percentage of their sales by getting out of a segment of the retail ammunition business. Unless Walmart is being run by certified morons, it was a dispassionate decision made based on dollars and cents… and no, before someone asks, Walmart isn’t infringing on your Second Amendment rights.

It’s been a long time since Walmart was just a simple chain of southern variety stores, but they are still big business in rural communities across the country. They sell a metric shit ton of hunting equipment, outdoor supplies, and yes, ammunition and firearms. Because of their ubiquity in the marketplace, avoiding their reach completely feels unlikely… but a simple check of my last year’s expenses shows me that if I simply change where I get my canned goods, dry foods, and basic groceries, I can deprive them of upwards of $5,000 a year – a bit more if you figure in other household incidentals.

One person’s changed buying habits won’t make a lick of difference to Walmart, of course, but it will funnel money into other businesses, that are, perhaps, less willing to sell out a core demographic element of their business model. A few hundred or a few thousand people determined to do the same can make a tremendous difference in throwing cash towards businesses that support, or at the very least aren’t antagonistic towards their values and priorities.

Walmart has their own business calculus and so do I.

On losing the patience to argue…

I was going to write a bit today about guns and violence or maybe about the Dow taking a 700-ish point stumble. I’ve covered it all before. It’s well trod ground and I’m not sure I have any particularly new insights to offer up for the discussion.

Then again, I don’t suppose having new information or insight is what having an opinion on the internet is about. It seems too be about determining who can shout the loudest and gin up the most favorable ratio. Mercifully I was born into a world where I don’t rise and fall based on my ratio and it’s not what drives my positions. If it were, God knows, I’d tighten up the focus around here instead of letting it just be a free flowing blast of whatever’s knocking around my head four afternoons each week.

I have friends on nearly every side of every policy position. As hard as some might find this to believe, I’m a bit like Switzerland. When it comes to who I choose to be friends with, I’m the soul of indifference about their politics, who else is in their circle of friends, or most any other discriminator that people use to decide who they want to spend time with. It’s historically also why I would never even consider putting more than about three of my friends in the same room at the same time. It feels like a brawl would be just about inevitable.

So here I sit, comfortable in my on positions, but always willing to entertain new evidence and adjust as needed – without feeling any need to jump up and down, screaming about whatever the new issue of the day is. As I’ve gotten older, the need to convince other people of my rightness or their wrongness has diminished considerably. It’s not so much that I’m not passionate about certain issues as it is not being interested in expending the energy necessary to cover the same ground three or four dozen times.

It turns out, in my advancing middle age, I rarely have the patience to argue… but don’t let that fool you into believing I’ve changed my spots or that I won’t rise like a sleeping giant in defense of my principles if needed.