Impolitic priorities…

I spent some time this weekend updating the financial tracking software I use. It’s not quite the elegant solution I’d like but it does give me real time, at a glance visibility of everything from credit cards to mortgage debt to retirement accounts. If you know where you’re trying to get, I’ve found it helpful to also know where you’re currently standing. It’s been a years-in-the-making process to find something that would work close to the way I wanted. With the exception of a few loose ends, I’m reasonably happy with how it’s all working.

I try to make a habit of doing monthly review of where things are, how they’re doing, and what could be better allocated elsewhere. What my last half dozen reviews have told me is that despite my friends being sharply divided on the presidency of Donald Trump, the markets are more than happy to have him in the big chair. It’s probably impolitic to say, but with all other considerations being equal, I’m going to generally fall in on the side of whatever is putting dollars in the bank.

Don’t mistake that to mean that I’ve developed a deep, abiding love of Donald Trump. I know this administration has issues, I know the country is wide open to political debate about what we should and shouldn’t be doing, and while I love all of you, regardless of political affiliation, I’m not about to argue with anything that racks up double digit returns on investment and improves my chances of punching out of my cubicle for the last time somewhere close to on time and near target.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Bossing. I don’t like being a supervisor – even when it’s only a temporary expedient. I didn’t like it when I was one and I don’t like it when I get to pretend to be one now. I like it even less when top cover is nowhere to be found. And while I don’t like it, don;t think for a minute that I’ll shy away from making decisions. They might not always (or even often) be the right one, but we won’t flail around blindly in the name of indecision. Mercifully nothing I touch is life or death so the consequences of straying outside some unknown left or right boundary marker are pretty minimal. I suppose they could always throw the job to someone – anyone – who might be more interested or more qualified, but that’s most likely wishful thinking on my part.

2. Email. If you send me an email there’s a better than average chance that it arrived. You don’t need to call me 15 seconds after hitting send to ask if I got it and then ask me to opine on the topic of your inquiry. The fact is, I wasn’t sitting at my desk staring blankly waiting for your email. I know some people are a bit ADD about checking their email as it arrives. I’m not. I’ll work in whatever issue you have after I’ve reached a suitable stopping point with whatever it is I was working on while your message was winging its way across the network. Even then, sadly, you may not be the most important thing in my inbox. Priority of effort goes (not necessarily in order) to the boss, the uber-boss, echelons higher than the uber-boss, and then, lastly, everyone else. It’s not personal, but I feel like tending to people who have some authority over my yearly performance appraisal first is a pretty good system. Believe me, I will get to your message, even if I don’t consider it as much of a crisis as you do.

3. Millennials who bitch about the stock market. If you have 20, 30, or more years before you plan to retire, a down market is the very least of your worries. In fact, it’s kind of a gift. You’re getting the opportunity to by your shares at crazy deep discount price compared to what you would have paid a year ago. It must be hard to believe, but more shares bought cheap compounded out over the next 30 years is in all likelihood a thing of financial beauty. Sure, it looks like you’re taking a beating on paper right now, but you’re supposed to be playing the long game here. No one loses actual money until the cash out their chips and make the loss “real.” That’s not you, kids. Let your parents bitch about that down market because they’re the ones who are getting taken to the woodshed if they planned on retiring any time soon. For you, my millennial friends, this whole thing could shape up to be a once in a decade or once in a generation buying opportunity, so play your hands accordingly.

Capitalism doesn’t work…

I’m never quite sure how to respond when someone tells me “capitalism doesn’t work” or that it only works for the uber-wealthy. I generally deflect the issue, because even in a well-reasoned discussion there’s virtually no chance of them changing their position – and there’s absolutely no chance of me changing mine. I’m not a philosopher and I’m not an economist. I’m just a guy from coal country who got a decent public school education and has had some life experience. I accept that my experiences are different than others, but I don’t consider them particularly unique to me in any way.

Growing up I was never in danger of being described as ultra-wealthy. I’m not in that position now, either. Thirty-seven years hence, that still doesn’t seem likely to be the case – though I do still buy a weekly Powerball ticket in case the fates have declared otherwise. At best I’m part of that vast swath of people who consider themselves middle class. I’m somewhere in the middle part of the curve of income distribution.

I made about $30,000 as a first year teacher. That first year I put $25 every two weeks into my IRA. That’s $50 a month towards what was then a very distant idea of retirement. Some months that $50 was painful – and in that first year as a “professional” I still ate a hell of a lot of ramen and lived in an efficiency apartment way off the beaten path because that’s what I could afford. Still, over that year I was able to scrape together a very modest downpayment. I found a mortgage company who was willing to take a risk on someone with little real credit history and bought a condo for $72,000. It was a 742 square foot, ground floor bunker of a place, but it was mine. Instead of paying rent I was building equity and paying 5.25% (which at the time was a real sweetheart deal) interest for the privilege.

A few years later I took another job (another risk), and rented out my little condo for $200 more a month than I was paying on the mortgage. Some months got awfully lean while I was waiting for a new tenant or the refrigerator needed repair, but you see, that’s capitalism. I used my own money to build value over time. I still have that little place and today it’s renting out for more than twice the mortgage payment. That’s capitalism… and I hardly feel like I’m taking advantage of the person who’s paying the rent. I’m still the one taking the risk that the air conditioner won’t conk out or the building won’t burn down.

I’m still making twice a month deposits into my retirement accounts. Planning for that part of my future is my responsibility. Despite the “correction” of the last few weeks, all told those accounts are still doing well over time. The growth of those early deposits, driven by overall increase in stock prices and the beauty of compounding interest is simply staggering. Some months are obviously better than others. Risk is a real mother like that. Sometimes she gives and sometimes she takes away. Even so, I don’t blame JP Morgan, or Citibank, or GM for doing what they do. There’s a reason we have the phrase “it’s just business.” They all seek to maximize profits at the macro level the same way I do on the micro level with my small rental property.

Populism and distrust of big business and big banks has a long history in this country stretching back to well before William Jennings Bryan’s cross of gold. Socialism hasn’t had it’s roots here quite as long, but it’s no spring chicken in America either. I’ve done the reading. I’m not sold on either model.

I choose to believe in my own experiences – of every time Amazon sends me a check for selling a short story and every time the rent is deposited into my account and every time a stock pays out a dividend. So I have no idea how to respond to someone who says capitalism doesn’t work. I’m seeing it work every single day.

Tinfoil hat society…

Let’s take a minute and look at the headlines tonight: Ebola is loose in the United States for the first time in recorded history, they’re protesting for democratic reforms in China, Europe’s economy appears to be at stall speed, and it wouldn’t take much more than a stiff wind to push ours in the same direction, the Secret Service is letting armed felons within arms reach of a sitting president. In general, civilization seems to be beset and besotted at every turn.

300px-Tin_foil_hat_2I’ve never been a dues-paying member of the Tinfoil Hat Society, but I do think the world we live in bears a closer look. Two things immediately jump to mind: 1) It doesn’t matter if it’s the local station, the cable networks or the internet, bad news makes people want to look and generates revenue from advertising sales; 2) Most of the asshattery I see in the world more or less confirms my preconceived notions about people as a group; and 3) Just by virtue of the law of large numbers, even paranoid people have to be right occasionally.

I could probably get a thousand new views a day if I gave this site over to ranting and raving about global conspiracies. The fact is, after having spent my adult life in public service I have my doubts about any organization being able to pull together a grand scheme to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids. More importantly, I throughly doubt their ability to do it in anything approaching secrecy. I mean I’m not allowed to build a 10 slide PowerPoint briefing without soliciting input from at least 14 other people, so you can understand how I might doubt the ability of an unknown global organization to rig the economy, unleashing a pandemic, and engineer a catastrophic war between East and West in complete secrecy.

I tend to think the long laundry list of things that go wrong are attributable to not much more than our collective bad decision making catching up with us. It feels like a simpler and more rational explanation than a transcontinental conspiracy bent on controlling everything everywhere. I’m pretty sure I’m right about that.

Then again, my assumption of being right won’t keep me from picking up a box of latex gloves, a few bottles of alcohol, and some surgical masks. Just in case.

Two days…

I’m back at work. Have been since last week. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped paying attention to the grand game of “How Many Asshats can We Fit in One Building?” that our political “leaders” are playing on the Hill. As bad as it is that Republicans and Democrats seem physiological incapable of talking to one another, that’s nothing compared to the truly remarkable feat of House Republicans apparently not even being able to talk amongst themselves. That takes political incompetence to a whole new level. Impressive work, Congressmen.

From my reading of the tea leaves, we’re inside the 48 hour mark now. Either these jackasses will get around to doing the hard work of governing or they’ll crank the throttle wide open and let it all fly off the rails. I’m a reasonable close watcher of politics and a betting man by nature, but even if I wasn’t owed back pay and had a fist full of cash, I wouldn’t lay a bet on which way this shitshow is going to break.

Universal wisdom is that careening headlong into the debt ceiling would be bad. The fun part? Absolutely no one knows how bad it might be. My reading pegs it somewhere along the scale of Accidental Nuclear Detonation in Times Square Bad. Even if it’s less bad than that, it’s going to be bad. Defaulting on the sovereign debt and/or other financial obligations of the United States is simply unimaginable from any sane, reasonable perspective. To do it over an issue of personal pride or to make cheap political points is damned near treasonous.

We have 536 “leaders” in Washington and there’s apparently not one damned statesman in the bunch.

Skipped out…

So yeah, I skipped yesterday. It doesn’t happen very often and while I make no apologies for taking a day off now and then, I like to think I’m delivering you some great old posts this morning by way of making up for being a lazy sod yesterday.

This week’s archive posts include one of my favorite rants – one about economics, freeloaders, and expectations. You might be able to imagine that it’s a topic about which I feel rather passionate. The good news is that while so much of the world has changed since May 2008, my own opinions have remained remarkably stable. There’s just something to be said about consistency over time.

The other four posts are entertaining in their own right, of course, but the rant on May 6th is the one you’re going to want to read if you don’t have time to look them all over this Sunday morning. So go forth, enjoy, and be back tomorrow evening when we once again go live with fresh material and I do my part to be a voice of sanity in a world gone mad.

The abyss…

With 24 days left for POTUS and the collective membership United States Congress to start acting like statesmen instead of maladjusted teenagers, it seems like as good a time as any to ponder what falling off the edge of the fiscal cliff might actually look like. Spending would continue to increase more or less unchecked. Taxes would increase across the board. The national credit rating would plummet. The defense budget would get gutted right along with a host of domestic programs that up until now were considered too important to do without. Those are some of the big ticket, first order effects. I’m not sure I even want to speculate about what the 3rd and 4th order effects would entail. I’m not confident that any economist in the country legitimately knows what the end result of fiscal cliff diving would be. Most seem to agree, though, that it would result in a situation that is less than good.

Thoughtful people can honestly disagree about good policy and the right course of action, but intuitively I can’t believe that higher taxes are the solution. Because I’m OCD about certain things, I have a spreadsheet that keeps track of my income, taxes, and other deductions going back a decade. Without getting into detail, trust me when I tell you that Caesar is getting his fair share from me. The Imperial Governor of Maryland is getting his pound of flesh too, even though he insists that I’m rich and should be happy to pay even more. St. Mary’s County, the City of Memphis, and Shelby County are all still getting a nice healthy check every year. Every time I turn around, it seems some taxing authority is digging their hand just a little deeper into my pocket… and if I don’t smile and thank them for it, I’m labeled a racist, a bad citizen, greedy, or heartless. Occasionally, I’ve been called all of them at once.

Like it or not, believe it or not, it’s going to be people like me (and most of you reading this), who end up paying the bill because our elected leaders want to play chicken with a trillion dollar economy. No matter what they tell you now, it’s our taxes – local, state, and federal –are going to go up. We’re the ones who are going to lose our jobs, some for the second and third time in a decade. We’re the ones who should be most outraged by the personal damage being inflicted on us and the inestimable damage being inflicted on the country… but hey, it’s Christmas time, and we wouldn’t want to let a calamity of historic proportions get in the way of our national shopping spree.

If we get to the 1st of the year and don’t see fewer dollars in our paychecks, if we don’t see massive cuts to important programs, if we don’t see an economy tipped back into the abyss, I’ll happily apologize and publicly eat my words right here in my own house. I’m just a guy sitting here paying attention and I hope beyond hope that I’m reading the tealeaves wrong… but I don’t think I am. And I think the worst is yet to come.