An utterly cotton headed loss for words…

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been far better at expressing myself in writing than in words spoken aloud. Something about the slowing down and crafting the words on the page versus simply opening my mouth and letting them fall out as unorganized or partial thoughts, I suppose.

Even though writing is supposed to be my strong suit, it’s all a dry well tonight. I’m lucky to string together a coherent thought about not being able to put more than half a dozen words together without my eyes crossing and my brain going into vapor lock.

I’m going to go mix a very tall gin and tonic, get a night’s sleep, and expect the cotton in my head to be a bit less dense tomorrow and the day after that and the one after that. Before long, I’ll be back to full throated raging against annoyances, wry observations, and occasional bad takes on current events. For now, I’m just going to let coming down from forgoing a lot of sleep and mainlining a single story for the last eleven days take as long as it takes.

I know a lot of people keep saying they wish they weren’t living in such interesting times… but I wouldn’t miss it for the world, even if it does occasionally leave me bleary eyed and nonsensical.

Nothing gold can stay…

The Great Plague era, for me at least, will always be remembered as a golden age. 

I estimate that I avoided driving about 40,000 miles over the last two and a half years – saving on fuel, maintenance, and general wear and tear both on the vehicles and on me too if we’re being honest. 

It was perhaps the first time in my life when being an introvert positioned me uniquely to thrive in a world that is normally built to service and reward extroversion. Staying home, hanging out with the animals, reading as many books as I could get my hands on, and doing almost all of my own cooking is almost entirely the life I was really built for. 

Most weeks for the last 30 months, I got to spend four workdays out of every five working from home. No commute, no small talk or interruptions, and not listening to the guy two cubicles over hack up a lung while suffering from “just allergies.” It was a chance to knock down whatever work was thrown my way using a brave, new approach. It feels like, for a while there, we almost embraced it. 

I’m enough of a student of history to know that no golden age ever lasts. Eventually the conditions that fuel them gives out and the world then tends to revert to the mean. I’m told that my own personal golden age now has an official expiration date… so now all that’s left is to take a few weeks and mourn the future that almost was. 

The world has been and continues to be in a rush to “get back to normal.” You’ll have to forgive me, because I just don’t see the appeal. 

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. 

It’s like a penis…

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.

I was raised Methodist, but as an adult the only interest I’ve really had in religion is an academic one. It’s hard, after all, to study any aspect of European (and by extension, American) history since the Romans pulled out without at least tangentially touching on the premise of Christianity and how it has been practiced and applied during the centuries.

My take is pretty consistently that religion, in spite of whatever uplifting and comforting elements it may have, has mostly been used as a cudgel against anyone who refused to live and die by its tenants. The Crusades, the European wars of religion, witch hunts, orthodoxy tests, and more laws based on “church teachings” than you could shake a forest of sticks at are just the most obvious examples. And that’s only including the violence-in-the-name-of-God delivered up under the auspices of Christianity. The rest of the pantheon is hardly less bloodthirsty.

Despite what the Moral Majority or whatever the religious right wants to call themselves these days says, the United States was not founded as a Christian country. I’m sorry. It just wasn’t. Saying that it was is simply presenting facts not in evidence. Actually, it’s flat out lying. The Founding Fathers went out of their way to codify the prohibition against establishing a state religion right there in the Bill of Rights. It follows directly from that prohibition that “because it’s what Jesus would want” is a singularly problematic reason to pass a law – it’s every bit as invalid as justifying your laws in the name of Allah, Vishnu, Zeus, or Ra. 

I know it’s a hard pill for the seriously religious to swallow, but it’s entirely possible to be an upright and honorable man without the threat of eternal punishment hanging over your head. In fact, if the only reason you’re “doing the right thing” is because you fear eternal hellfire, one might say you’re responding only to fear rather than any actual personal commitment to being morally upright. Being a decent person only because you’re under duress means you’re not, by definition, a decent person to begin with. 

I’m sure organized religion has many virtues for its practitioners. That’s fine. I don’t want to take any of those virtues away from them. They can rule their homes by the precepts of whatever God or gods they see fit. If they’re really feeling froggy, they can probably even gaggle up some like-minded folks and live their theocratic dream in a community setting. I am, however, going to insist that they don’t expect me to subscribe to and live quietly under some evangelical theocratic nightmare government they want to inflict on everyone else. I presume only the same liberty of conscience I extend to them. In fact, I insist on it… because otherwise, I’ll raise up and army myself and strike their tract-quoting, puritanical asses down.

As the poet said, “Religion is like a penis. It’s nice to have one and fine to be proud of, but don’t whip it out in public or shove it down someone else’s throat.” When you choose to ignore such wisdom, it makes it awfully difficult to see any significant difference between Christian extremists and the goddamned Taliban. The lesson, probably, is maybe try not to be some kind of asshole extremist and try some of that peace and tolerance that your God was so fond of talking about.

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.

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.

A needed pause…

I’ve been swallowing news in big gulps since Vlad the Invader sent his wanna-be Red Army across the Ukrainian boarder. Cable, streaming, social media, and blogs, I’ve been trolling all of them for snippets of new and interesting information. 

That’s one of the dangers of being a history guy… and one that’s spent a fair amount of his time concentrating on a combination of general war in Europe and the cold war. Throw in a hefty dollop of defense policy and global strategy and, well, it can be downright hard to tear your eyes away, for fear of missing whatever news happens to break while you’re looking somewhere else.

I won’t deny being keyed up by the flow of information available in the open-source environment. I’ve lost track of the number of “holy shit” moments. It would be entirely too easy to follow the rabbit hole down into something not entirely healthy. 

Knowing that about myself, I’m going to try to step away a bit – even if it’s just for tonight. I’ll be doing my best to stay the hell off Facebook and Twitter and all the other sites and slip into a comfy chair with a good book. It’s 100% an effort to blow out a week’s worth of accumulated gunk from the darker corners of my head. 

Taking a night off from the war is a luxury our friends in Ukraine don’t have. I might be tuning out the news for a few hours, but I’m sure it, and the overall state of this old, beshitted world of ours, won’t be out of my thoughts for very long. 

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.

Back to the future…

I grew up in the 80s… not so very long ago in geo-political terms. Back there and back then, the Soviet Union was an Evil Empire run by faceless party bosses and apparatchiks in far off, shadowy Moscow. As a cold war kid, having Russia back as the Big Bad feels like the most natural thing in the world. It’s the way things ought to be.

Russia, in the guise of “first among equals” in the USSR, had a long history of intimidating, invading, and occupying its neighbor states if they strayed too far from the edicts issued from Moscow. The old countries of the Warsaw Pact and former Soviet republics, spent half a century or more under the heel of or at least under threat from the Red Army.

My Point? It’s mostly just a way of saying that the ongoing invasion of Ukraine doesn’t represent anything new under the sun. It’s Russia being true to form and returning to old patterns from the 20th century. The difference now is that the Warsaw Pact is long dead and the former Soviet republics have been independent for decades – many joining NATO as they are well aware the threat that an expansionist Russia represents,

Even as the United States and the USSR postured across the German plains, the post World War II global order kept the peace in Europe for the better part of three generations. Since the end of the Second World War, Europe has known an almost unprecedented period of peace. If history is a guide, that’s not necessarily the natural state of things in the region. Today, it seems, we’re closer to a general war in Europe than at any time since 1945… driven almost entirely by one man’s obsession to restore an empire that hasn’t existed in over thirty years.

It seems that we’ve gone back to the future in the worst possible way.