Back in the summer of 2003, I spent the better part of three months living in a motel in the high desert of Oregon. The Dalles sits in the shadow of Mount Hood, along the Columbia River, about 90 miles east of Portland on I-84. It was like this east coast native, at the ripe old age of 25 had been dumped not just in a foreign country, but on a different planet. Everyone spoke English, but my brain refused to comprehend the mountains, the big river, and the gorge itself. Looking at those landscapes was a lot like how it feels looking at the graphics generated by a virtual reality headset for the first time – simultaneously real and surreal.
I recalled enough from my American history classes to know driving back and forth to the dam that I was following along a small portion of the route covered by Lewis and Clark. That was about as far as my academic curiosity reached on that point. Even when I was studying, I wasn’t much of a student of the American west. What I, at the time, considered my temporary exile to Oregon, was an utterly wasted opportunity to follow the steps of what I know now to be one of the greatest overland explorations in recorded history.
I spent four days a week working at a mind-bendingly enormous hydro-electric dam that our rich uncle had thrown across the Columbia in the 1950s. The other three days, I spent mostly just dicking around – driving up to Seattle, over to Mount Saint Helens, or sampling as many of the micro- breweries between Hood River and Portland as my paltry GS-7 pay checks would support.
In those three months, I could have been all over the western end of the trail Lewis and Clark blazed through the wilderness. It’s an opportunity I pissed away because at the time, being “out west” was just the thing standing between me and starting my real job back in DC… where my life as a cube-dweller really began.
If you’ve ever wondered what I regret most from the last twenty years, I just told you about it.
Back in April, Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon and Maggie Hassan of New asked the GAO to launch a study on “risks that fossil fuel stocks currently present” to those invested in the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan (TSP). The distinguished senators then go on to imply that the TSP should create funds that “incorporate climate change risk” as part of the 401-k style program’s offerings.
Part of the allure of the TSP is its remarkably small fee structure – it’s very cheap in comparison to many other funds. Fees are low, in part, because TSP is simple. It’s got five basic index funds and five “lifecycle funds” that automatically reallocate participant’s money based on target dates. It’s got an elegant simplicity that’s historically effective at creating wealth for its participants over their long careers.
Look, I accept that climate change is a real thing. I also don’t have any particular love of the energy sector – many leaders in the area are losing value. That’s my real issue with them, though. If we’re going to drop energy companies from a portfolio, do it because they’re not making us money – not because some holier-than-thou senator wants to score a few political points.
Congress never saw a big pot of money sitting around that it didn’t want to stick its whole hand into. With $500 billion in assets under management I can understand why the TSP is an awfully tempting target. That said, the very last thing I want to see is a good thing turned on its ear by driving TSP to respond to whatever political views happen to hold sway at any given moment. Treating retirement funds as just another political football is almost a guaranteed way to manage to take another slug of cash out of my pocket.
There are already fund options out there for just about any special interest that wants to play in the market – whether your “thing” is gender diversity, sustainable energy, human rights, or a laundry list of other causes. TSP should remain a broad-based set of fund options targeted at replicating the market overall and building wealth over time for the wide swath of federal employees. Catering to the few individuals who can’t seem to be satisfied with that just doesn’t make senses… unless of course you’re more interested in enforcing ideological purity than in making good financial decisions. Surely no member in the United States Senate could ever be accused of that.
One of my first jobs after signing on with Uncle’s big green machine took me to a 200 foot tall, 8,835 foot long hydroelectric dam in the Pacific Northwest. If you’re wondering what in the hell, the Army has to do with hydropower, rest assured I was every bit as confused as you are when I showed up. Suffice for now to say it has less to do with power generation than it does with navigable waterways, infrastructure development, and having a ready pool of trained engineers available when we went on a national building spree during the Great Depression.
Some dams, I’m thinking about you Grand Coulee and Hoover, are things of beauty in their own right. “My” dam wasn’t what anyone would call pretty. The hulking, squared off mass of concrete, squatted astride the river like the world’s largest cinderblock. It’s real beauty is in the machine itself – it’s 14 General Electric turbines spinning out almost 2 megawatts when they crank the penstocks wide open, the lock that lifts 650 feet worth of barges almost 90 vertical feet , the way the building hums that rises from your feet straight through the top of your head, and the subtle but definite sound of steadily running water when you climb down into the depths of the foundation.
So what’s the point of all this recollection from the Columbia River? Well, as it turns out enough time has passed now that I’m starting to feel just a little bit nostalgic about my time spent on the edge of the high desert. For this son of the east, the Cascades, the Gorge, Portland, it was all a time of being a stranger in a strange land. It was good times, though I was in too much of a hurry to get back east and start my life as a big city DC bureaucrat to realize it then.
I know that still frontier feeling stretch of river is too far from the banks of the Chesapeake for me to ever call it home, but I sure wouldn’t mind passing that way again sometime.
I like to think that somewhere beneath my polo shirt clad exterior lies a rebel heart. I want to imagine that if I were forced into making a choice between running the machine and tearing it down, I’d opt into the later group.
When I look at a few dozen western ranchers who decided to make their stand over issues of cheap grazing on federal lands, I realize I really don’t have much sympathy for rebellion – at least not as they have packaged and sold it. As much as I bitch and complain about the way things are, serving the machine has done well by me. Decent enough pay. Plenty of vacation time. Even a respectable, if not gold plated, retirement plan. There’s money to be made in rebellion, of course, but they tend to offer precious little by way of security.
I can certainly imagine circumstances where I might be tempted to take up arms in order to uphold my long ago oath to support and defend the Constitution, but those scenarios are exceptional. I enjoy rousing the rabble as much or more than the next guy, but rising up against lawfully constituted authority, it seems, is against my nature in except all but the most fractious of circumstances.
Hitching your star largely to issues of western range land management feels like grievances best redressed by the courts and doesn’t do much to inspire my inner revolutionary spirit. Bring me a cause with some real meat on the bone and I could be persuaded to get behind it with my life, fortune, and sacred honor. Going to the mat over a couple of convicted felons just seems like wasting good powder.