Global wealth, exceptionalism, and mediocrity… 

According to an article in The Guardian, in 2021 the number of millionaires in the United States increased by 2.5 million, bringing the total of millionaires in the US to 24.5 million. Put another way, approximately 7% of the people living in this country have a net worth of at least one million dollars. That number is so high compared to historical levels that according to the article “the number of millionaires was becoming so large that it was becoming ‘an increasingly irrelevant measure of wealth.’” 

In my mind, having 39% of the world’s millionaires knocking around the country is a good news story. It speaks to the unprecedented level of wealth creation the American economy and global trade have fostered. We’re creating wealth in greater amounts and more quickly than ever before in history and it’s a testament to what’s still possible with brains, effort, and a bit of luck.

The Guardian, of course, takes pains to point out that the largess of the global economy hasn’t been fairly distributed. As if anything in the world has ever been distributed fairly. Natural resources aren’t sprinkled evenly across the world. Intellect isn’t awarded equally at birth. Gnashing your teeth over issues of equity is, of course, the trendy take, but it’s not how the universe works. 

Personally, I’m far happier knowing it’s possible to be exceptional, somewhere towards the right end of the bell curve, than knowing for a certainty that we can all look forward to an equal share of mediocrity.

That was predictable…

Back at the beginning of the Great Plague many animal shelters and rescues couldn’t meet the demand of people wanting to bring a dog, cart, or other small animal into their homes. That’s a great problem to have if you’re in the business of trying to get animals off the street or out of hoarding situations. Even as it was happening, I imagined what the inevitable downstream consequences would look like. Based on a couple of online reports I’ve read, we have now arrived “downstream.”

The animals adopted en mass over the last few years are now being abandoned to shelters at growing rate. It was perfectly predictable if you operate from the assumption that human beings are the literal worst. Sure, people will want to blame going back to their in-person jobs and not having time. Others will blame inflation. Others will dream up whatever excuse allows them to sleep better at night after abandoning a creature that was entirely dependent on them for food, shelter, and protection.

Look, no one knows better than I do that situations change. Eleven years ago, I was hurtling towards Maryland one day ahead of my belongings with two dogs in the back seat and no housing locked in because most landlords didn’t want to rent to someone with pets. It was damned stressful, but putting Maggie and Winston out on the side of the road was never going to be an option. If that meant I had to drive further or pay more, that was just the price of doing business. 

I’m damned if I’m going to be lectured by anyone about vet bills being expensive. More than once I had to take out a loan to pay for treatment I couldn’t afford out of pocket. Conservatively, I’d estimate I’ve paid out $30,000 in vet bills and medication over the last decade. That’s before even figuring in the day-to-day costs like food, toys, and treats. I didn’t always pay the bill with a song in my heart, but I found a way to get it done even if that mean sacrificing other things I wanted or needed. 

I struggle mightily to think of a situation where I’d hand over one of these animals or where I wouldn’t go without or change my living situation if that’s what it took to make sure I was able to look after them. Hell, if I drop dead tomorrow there are provisions in place to make sure Jorah, Hershel, and George can live out their days in comfort and get whatever care they need for the rest of their natural lives. That’s the unspoken compact I made with them when I brought them home.

If you’re the kind of person who would just dump them off on the local shelter or rescue, hope someone else will do the hard work for you, and then wash your hands of the whole sorry state of affairs, well then Jesus… I don’t even want to know you.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Conflicting reports. I watched back-to-back news report earlier this week that focused on aspects of the current economy. The first story railed about inflation, average pay being too low, and mulling the idea of eternal bailouts for everyone/universal basic income. The very next story went on to report that Maryland’s casinos had their most profitable month ever. I’m not saying those stories are mutually exclusive, but I’m going to need a bit more in depth analysis before I accept that the economy is collapsing while the citizens of our fair state have allocated so much of their disposable income to packing the local casinos to the rafters.

2. Door-to-door sales. Does anyone really hire a pest service on their front stoop at 7 PM on Wednesday evening? I just can’t believe it’s the kind of thing that’s an effective business model in 2022. And yet they keep on coming, so I guess someone must be buying. I honestly can’t remember anything I’ve ever bought based on random people showing up at my front door, with the possible exception of Girl Scouts pushing cookies. I truly believe the world would be a better place if we all agreed that it’s time to end the era of door-to-door peddlers. The only thing they’ve ever done for me is drive the resident animals into a high state of agitation and that’s not a good look for someone who wants me to give them money.

3. Florida. This week a Florida court decided that a 16-year-old girl was not “sufficiently mature to decide whether to terminate her pregnancy.” The logical extension of that argument, therefore, is that the court believes the teen is sufficiently mature to have and raise a baby, which strikes me as a complete inversion of basic common sense. I’ve, fortunately, never needed to raise a baby into a functional human, but it seems to me that it’s the kind of activity that would benefit from an over-abundance of maturity and responsibility to be done properly. I might go so far as to posit that the state has a vested interest in encouraging the most responsible and mature of their citizens to have children rather than the other way around. Here’s the State of Florida, though, cleaving to the lesser, ass-backward standard. I won’t even pretend to be surprised.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Busses. I spent more of the week than I want to admit thinking about busses. One of the “other duties as assigned” that landed on my desk years ago for reasons that still defy logic, is facilitating a couple of charter busses to haul people from the office down to DC for an annual trade show every fall. It’s a boondoggle that was happily suspended due to the Great Plague for the last two years. It’s back with a vengeance for 2022, though, so now I’m in a great paper chase to figure out what hoops must be cleared to reserve, pay for, and fill up a couple of busses for people who are mostly interested in walking the exhibit floor and filling their bags up with cheap giveaway swag. 

2. Duplicate names. I do my best when it comes to naming posts not to repeat myself. After 3,715 posts, though, some dupes slip through. It makes me absolutely buggy when I catch the site address reading something like jeffreytharp.com/duplicate-name-2. If I’d have had any idea that I’d be almost 4,000 posts deep all these years later, I’d have probably kept better track of titles as I went along, but it seems that ship has probably sailed. I’m certainly not going to go back and try to track it all at this late date. Just know, when you see a duplicate name it’s just a small thing that makes me want to burn down the whole internet. 

3. Reality avoidance. So, we have stubbornly high inflation, two quarter decline in gross domestic product, and a midterm election barely three months away. The president has released a statement saying, in part “we are on the right path.” It’s hard to imagine a more tone-deaf thing to say minutes after the Bureau of Economic Analysis releases their quarterly report indicating that we’re now in an economic environment that’s commonly called recessionary. In 1988, George H.W. Bush got throttled at the polls because he was out of touch with the domestic economy. In 1980, Jimmy Carter was turned out of office largely on the back of high inflation and negligible economic growth. I get that most people like to forget history, but if I’m a Democrat running in a competitive race in 2022, I’m scared to death that my party’s leaders are determined to avoid reality.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Blame and credit. OK, it’s fashionable to blame Joe Biden for interest rates and inflation and gas prices and whatever else anyone believes is going off the rails at any given time. Fine. Taking the blame is an occupational hazard of being president. I think, though, we’re missing some of the up side of the current economic environment – namely that gas prices and generationally high inflation levels have apparently made backyard fireworks a budget line item that was ripe to dramatically decrease or be cut out completely for people in 2022. With only a few individual outliers, personal fireworks displays within earshot of the homestead were constrained almost exclusively to between 9:00 PM and 10:00 PM on Independence Day and were dramatically smaller and less intrusive to the general peace and tranquility of the evening than they have been in previous years… so, thanks, Biden. I mean if we’re going to blame him for global economic forces at work, he might as well get some credit for the good stuff he doesn’t have any control over.

2. Time. The standard work week lasts approximately 375 hours. A week of vacation time wraps up in just short of one hour and 26 minutes. I know here are psychological reasons why we perceive the passage of time differently under various conditions, but that doesn’t make the fact any less annoying – particularly when your most recent batch of days off is quickly diminishing. It this case, perception is stupid and I hate it.

3. Religion. I’ve covered it before, but it bears repeating: I’m under no moral, ethical, or legal obligation to follow the tenants of your religion. I don’t care if you follow the old gods, the new gods, the Greek pantheon, Sol Invictus, Vishnu, Buddha, or Jesus Christ himself. Your beliefs govern the way you live your life. The minute you turn your faith into a belaying pin to cudgel others about the head and neck, no matter what peace and love you preach, I’ll oppose you loudly, at length, and with whatever force is necessary to get you to cease pummeling others with your interpretation of faith and goodness. You’d think in the year of our lord two thousand and twenty-two we might have left some of this medieval fuckery in the rear view, and yet here we are. 

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. 

Joe…

Let me say it straight from the shoulder… I’m not a big fan of Joe Biden as president. From spearheading America’s flight from Afghanistan to the current conflicted economic environment the administration is determined to cheer as rosy, while simultaneously decrying as hard times and painfully inflationary, it feels like the presidency is his in name, but that the hard work of the office remains, somehow, out of his grasp. 

I’ve never met him, but maybe he’s a nice enough old man. I’d be willing to go so far as to say he’s probably well intentioned. He might even be successful his role as head of state (à la Elizabeth II) where the main function is unveiling plaques, making proclamations, and waiving at crowds. I have to believe that even those who supported him during the election have found him wanting when exercising his awesome constitutional role as head of government. His performance when it comes to the hard stuff could, charitably, be called something between mixed and abysmal.

I’m certainly not advocating for a return to the batshit crazy administration of Donald Trump and his band of merry insurrectionists, but the fact that Joe was popularly recognized as the best available option really should concern every one of us. The best thing he could possible do would be to, as soon as the midterms are over, go on television and announce that he won’t seek a second term. I’m sure I’ll still hate the next contender’s policies, but the job deserves someone more engaged and energetic. 

Mother Russia…

Russia rattling its nuclear saber and its foibles being the butt of jokes is honestly just more fuel for the way back machine. If you didn’t listen too carefully to the news over the last few days, I think you could be forgiven for wondering if you woke up sometime in 1985. New faces, new flag, but the same old, worn playbook of threats played out against the backdrop of an economy teetering on the brink of collapse. The only difference this time is in the internet age, the entire world can see the rot and dysfunction in Russia when back then it was largely hidden behind the iron curtain and a wall of silence.

For all his bluster, Mr. Putin can’t hide that his country is a shambles if not an outright sham. Seventy years of Soviet policies followed by 30 years of kleptocracy apparently don’t build up a productive and vibrant system. Who would have guessed, right? I, of course, mean aside from anyone who was alive to watch the Soviet Union collapse under the weight of its misguided and misbegotten policies.

I don’t in any way intend for this to sound triumphant, because I know well enough that even a tired, sick, and old elephant hurts if it happens to fall on you. The takeaway, though, is that we need a full reevaluation of how we think about Russia and Russian power in the future. We should also use this brief period of western democratic ascendency and unity to put as much of our own house in order as we can while it lasts. Putin or no Putin the world is a dangerous place that’s markedly more well ordered when its great democracies aren’t busy bickering among themselves.

Be not afraid…

It’s hard to miss all the current reporting on the growing impact of inflation on the overall economy. Even without the reporting, rapidly rising prices for petrol, food, and other consumer goods, the impact of our inflationary economy would be hard to miss. 

Most of the major news outlets paint a worrying picture – particularly for retirees, anyone sitting on a lot of cash (in a savings account or in certificates of deposit, for instance), or those who loaded up on variable rate debt (like your average credit card). That’s a fair concern, but it’s only part of the bigger picture.

If you happen to be a homeowner – especially one who locked in a mortgage when fixed interest rates drifted down under 3% – inflation gives you the bonus of paying back your loan on an appreciating asset with devalued dollars. If you happen to be holding equities as opposed to cash (including things like 401k, IRA, and other retirement savings vehicles), values should largely increase as the cash value of the underlying companies is inflated. All of that, of course, presupposes that your income also paces the rate of inflation, or at least doesn’t entirely stagnate during a period of sustained inflationary pressure.

I’m obviously not calling for a return to the bad old days of inflation, sky high interest rates, and 10% unemployment… but by read is that there are things out there a hell of a lot more frightening than a little pop of inflation every now and then, so for the time being my motto is “be not afraid.”

Honoring the public debt…

It feels like only yesterday that we were last arguing about whether or not the government was going to (or should) raise or suspend the debt ceiling – the legislatively applied limit to the amount the US Government is allowed to borrow in order to keep on conducting business as usual. I’m the first to tell you that Uncle Sam’s hallways and offices are filled to the brim with wasteful spending… but trying to get after that waste by passing a law that says we can only borrow $X unless Congress passes another law to say we can spend $Y more isn’t a recipe to actual limit or reduce government spending. At best, the debt ceiling creates political theater. Now that it’s a thing we have, however, failure to raise the self-imposed limit and drive the federal government into default would result in all manner of catastrophic outcomes. 

I see today that we’re now in the period where the Treasury has begin exercising “extraordinary measures” that should be sufficient to keep us out of default for the time being. The congressional office responsible for making such projections says it’ll probably be October or November before we actually run out of wiggle room. Based on recent history, that will be about the time Congress gets around to doing something. 

Before we go into default and our bond rating collapses, though, we have to get through what’s supposed to be the federal budget season. Given the current state of our politics, I’m not in any way expecting there to be an actual approved operating budget when Fiscal Year 2022 kicks off on the October 1st. Who knows, maybe we’ll end up with a perfect storm of impending default and no functioning bureaucracy simultaneously. That feels like a recipe for good times. 

If anyone needs me, I’ll be over here restocking my supply of beans and spam in case we need to ride out a post-plague economic apocalypse. Given the kind of leadership we have in all quarters it feels like the only reasonable course of action. I mean I’m due for some extra time off… with eventual back pay, of course.