Category Archives: Social comment

A way of examining religion and its aspects

One of the blindest, most irritating bicker-fest categories I see is that over what constitutes religion. A good example involves Judaism, where some people who do not embrace the religious principles still identify as Jewish. I know people who don’t follow the LDS faith, and who even identify as jack (or jill) Mormons, but the point is they still consider themselves Mormon on some level. We have people who actively pray for spiritual beings to do their will, yet are careful to toss in the caveat that they hope their own will to be that of their spiritual being.

None of it would entail bickering if it were not for people trying to exclude one another from a given religious tent. I think these are akin to the “no true Scotsman” fallacy, typically an appeal to purity. It does matter to writers, and not only from a philosophic or cosmological standpoint. If a writer is going to incorporate any form of religion or spirituality into fiction, that writer must surely have a sense of the components of faith and practice that combine to form what we refer to as a religion. The subject has fascinated me ever since taking Sociology 349 at UW with Prof. Rodney Stark, one of the foremost scholars in the field of sociology of religion.

Let’s look at the various components of a belief system, some of which not all belief systems may address. As I see it, it is possible for a given individual to embrace some aspects but not others. Does that make that person not of that religion? That’s where the bicker-fests come in. Rather than have another such fest, we can take steps at least to create a belief system parfait of sorts:

Cosmology: Most religions propose to explain origins. Where did the universe come from? Where did people come from? Some embrace scientific explanations but venerate specific mythos. Some will insist that their own mythos constitute science.

Divinity: If there are divine beings, what is their nature? How many might there be? Do we know? Can we ever know? Or is it all a creation of the human mind? Faiths run this gamut, but whether or how a belief system addresses divinity is key to understanding it. The question of afterlife, if any, seems to straddle the worlds of cosmology and divinity. If there is an afterlife, it seems, a cosmology defines it and a divinity performs triage.

Magic: Most religions teach that people can influence their environments and outcomes. Some teach that this is done through appeals to divine beings (prayer, ultimatums, etc.); others teach that the power is within ourselves. Some would wet themselves over the application of this label to some forms of prayer, but to my eye those are simply another form of magic: the statement that one’s own judgment or desire should prevail.

Such are the perpetually unprovable factors. Their unprovability has never stopped people from fighting about them, naturally. Agnosticism doesn’t know whether or not there’s anything to any of those. Atheism asserts that there isn’t. But there are more:

Philosophy: How should we live our lives? What acts and perspectives are morally acceptable? Which are abhorrent? Into this category falls all definition of what Judaism calls a mitzvah (good deed) or what many religions call a sin (bad deed, ranging from minor to unpardonable). This one came into focus for me because most of us at times will face ethical dilemmas. I asked myself: “If my religion doesn’t help me figure out a right and valuable handling of these situations, what the hell good is it?” I might not be the only person who ever asked him/herself that.

Ethnicity: In many cases religion defines ethnicity to a degree. In the Serbo-Croatian-speaking world, Bosnians, Croats, and Serbs share a slightly varied common language in which one’s religious identification is part and parcel of one’s ethnic identity. Judaism considers Jewish anyone born to a Jewish mother. There are those professing Asatru who allege that only those of Germanic heritage may be Asatru. (There are Asatruar such as myself who reject this notion as bigoted and ridiculous.) This matters because it’s one thing to profess a faith; it is quite another to join an ethnicity, and in some cases problematic.

Culture: If religion is not necessarily an ethnicity, I find that it always develops a culture and a sense of cultural identity. Let’s take the Latter-Day Saint movement as mentioned earlier. Someone raised in the LDS church will surely gain some cultural overlay from it; same is true of Wicca, or the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, or Chasidic Judaism. Someone not raised in a religious culture may seek to embrace it as an aspect of embracing that faith.

Evolutionism: No, not that. By this I mean a sense of whether religion should evolve or remain unchanged. How conservative (in the philosophic meaning of the term, not the faction label) should religion be? Must today’s Lutheranism be precisely the same as that of Martin Luther? (Evidently there are several different notions of that, or where it should go. Having been raised in a branch of the Lutheran faith, I have some personal experience with this.) We might examine Islam and its varying views on the subject, and we would find that the two largest branches differ on the rightful mantle of leadership post-Muhammad, so they differ not just on evolution of the belief system, but the departure point for any such evolution. It is akin to racers who do not concur on the starting line and stance.

I find that this compartmentalization helps me to look at any belief system by removing the conflation tendency that runs rife through most such discussions. If one person is arguing philosophy, and another is arguing cosmology, and both are insisting that philosophy and cosmology cannot be separated, they can’t even agree on what they are discussing. Of course they will never find common ground, nor even understand each other. One is talking about soil chemistry and the other is talking about marketing harvested crops.

In editing, I use this outlook to develop perspective on clients’ religious presentations in fiction. While I can imagine it playing a part in non-fiction, I’m most likely to encounter it in fiction because most religious authors aren’t terribly comfortable with an editor not of their faith.

This perspective is evolving. I may feel differently two years from now.

As this is the last blog post of the 2020 Dumpster Fire of a Year, I want to thank everyone who has been a reader and commenter during this time. May you all have an excellent 2021.

Doing what we are told–or not

While this won’t see publication until mid-December 2020, and I admit it doesn’t have much to do with editing services, I wonder if there are others out there who think as I do. I write on November 30, at the height of what we are told is Cyber Monday.

For the US readership, and those of any other country with a lot of Christmas gift-giving, did you buy anything online today? I did not. Were you tempted? But how could I resist the bargains, bargains, bargains? I was not even tempted.

I’d be interested in knowing if anyone else is as cynical about commerce. My starting presumption was/is that the designation of this as A Very Special Commercial Day was an attempt to manipulate the herd into overspending. The logic goes: “Better hurry, or other people will get all our Very Great Deals.” I assume it’s all smoke and mirrors; that they just raised prices and then marked them down, like our grocery stores do; that it’s a con job.

Black Friday, as it has been designated in order to make it Another Very Special Commercial Day, held even less attraction for me–and had done so in the many years before the pandemic turned large gatherings into superspreader events full of maskholes. “But you won’t get all the good deals!” Oh, I bet most of them aren’t so good. I don’t resent the marketing industry for presuming that the public is stupid, because for the most part the industry is correct when the public is taken as a mass. I probably should, but I do not. After cracking a couple of Black Fridays Matter jokes with my wife–and reflecting on the unfortunate impact of language choices on perceptions–I stayed home and watched college football.

The point, I guess, is that the Designation of the Very Special Commercial Days by itself was enough to turn me off. It triggered automatic assumptions that following a large crowd would lead to me spending money I should not, spending more money than necessary for anything I might want, and jostling around arterial streets and stores or the online ordering platforms.

It was that way with Amazon Prime as well. Remember when that came out? To me, it seemed obvious that Amazon would not do this unless they expected it would draw people to spend money with them more often than they should, just to “take advantage.” I took one look and said: “What is to your advantage will occur at my expense. No thanks.” Am I the only person who sees it this way? I just saw an American corporation pitching a gimmick, assumed it was screwery, and moved along.

The same applies to investing. On any given day, one can read a ton of articles about Some Intensely Important Indicator having made a critical shift: a Death Cross, an Inverted Yield Curve, a 50-Day Moving Average, or some other bit of technical talk. About half the time it warns us that we should sell, sell, sell, in order to avoid losing money. The other half is spent telling us now is the time to buy, buy, buy or miss the boat. Each side is right about 50% of the time, which poses a greater problem than people generally realize because in order to achieve an outperforming capital gain, one generally has to be right twice (timing of buying and selling). No wonder people just buy index ETFs.

Speaking of which, if you want a very effective strategy for cutting out all that racket and ignoring the Cassandras and Candides of our precious financial media, seriously consider subscribing to Jason Kelly’s financial newsletter. It is not cheap, but if you are managing five figures or more of assets, you should earn enough on dividends alone to wipe out the cost. It is entertaining, consistent, and often supplemented with midweek issues that comment on major movements. I can also verify from our business dealings and contacts that Jason maintains the highest possible standards of integrity and value. Time and again I have seen him lean to the side of making sure people are fully informed, well updated, and well supported. That’s not true of every financial newsletter out there, something I paid a lot of tuition (in the form of dumb investing decisions) to learn. Jason takes care of his people.

Unlike most of the money wonks on MarketWatch, Jason can write entertaining English with a dry wit. I go back to the time of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and Jason (who lives in Japan), decided to seek sock donations to give to refugees. There’s always some negatory type who could find fault with free beer or a form of cheesecake that causes weight loss, and sure enough, one of them wrote in to question Jason’s qualifications to operate this process. With elaborate tact and patience, Jason reviewed what was required: use platform to request socks from community, assemble socks once arrived, load in van, take to refugee centers. Approximate quote: ‘Do I think I’m qualified to put socks in a van and give them to people? Yes, I think I’m qualified to do that.’ One of the highlights of my week is watching him point out what’s wrong with what the financial media are currently saying.

Of course, Jason’s guidance doesn’t tell people to do what most of the media are stirring them to do. That might be the greatest part of its early appeal to me. His method radiates indifference toward mass manipulation efforts.

Good holidays to all you who are observing holidays. Good fun to those who are just having fun. And great fun to all my fellow nonconformists; you aren’t the only ones.

Recent read: The Devil Drives, by Fawn Brodie

Having spent our Pageant of Democracy at the coast (in Oregon, that’s how we say “the beach”), I needed a good read. If I had been doing the ideal thing, I’d have finished reading the book about marketing editing services. Instead I brought along this book, a biography of Sir Richard Burton.

Introductions are in order. Brodie was a UCLA history professor who wrote several biographies, notably one of Joseph Smith. I had read that one and thought it rather good, though the LDS Church doesn’t seem to have shared my opinion. In my estimation, she is credible. As for Burton, he was an 1800s English philologist, foreign service officer, explorer, and researcher of human sexuality. Some called him a cad, but no one called him dull.

Burton had a great natural flair for learning languages, eventually mastering about twenty-five with another fifteen dialects. He spoke Arabic well enough to infiltrate Mecca despite not being a Muslim, which would have gotten him a messy punishment in case of discovery. He quarreled with the British Foreign Office, fellow explorers, other researchers, and anyone who tried to boss him around. He visited Utah in the early 1860s, and Brodie (a native of Ogden) calls his book on the LDS community the best study of its time. I’d think she should know.

As for human sexuality, Burton picked an unreceptive time and place to discuss it. Wherever he went, he studied sexual practices and beliefs. Much of his work in that area scandalized much of his home country (in which he lived very little of his actual life), and much of it we will never see, because his fanatically religious wife incinerated a large amount of his unpublished work and diaries after his death. The effect was to attach to Burton an air of amorality, but his real sin was not to study sexuality and publish his findings. His real sin was not to appear properly ashamed and embarrassed about doing so. For that, the court of public opinion crucified him.

Brodie didn’t write nearly as many biographies as I wish she would have, probably thanks to her thoroughness and urgent need for a passionate interest in her subject. This one’s a winner. Recommended.

Print media aren’t being killed; they’re taking slow poison

At least, that’s how it looks and feels to me.

We used to take Portland Monthly, a print magazine of the titular subject matter and frequency. While it was very kombucha-Portlandy, with minimal relevance to us out in Burberton and especially to those of us who avoid downtown (and were doing so years before protests began), enough of its content had enough value that we enjoyed it. We’d learn about a few new places to eat, or local history, or something else fun. It was worth what we paid for it.

One fine day, my issue came with a flyer. It began by thanking us for our support of independent journalism and told us how wonderful we were. That’s when a thinking person begins to expect at least a four-joint bohica.* It then informed me that there would be a change to my subscription. In order to better meet subscribers’ needs, I’d now only get four mailed print issues per year. The rest would be available online. They urged me to give them my e-mail address, so that I would not miss an issue. There was nothing about a refund, either partial or full.

Now let’s examine this. Here’s my takeaway: “Hi. We heart you big time. However, we’re now quartering the amount of content we offer you under the terms of your original subscription. Why? Because fuck you, we think you are enough of an idiot to go along with getting 1/4 of what you paid for, and we really like cutting our costs.”

Canceling my subscription felt almost like a moral duty. I don’t want to read magazines on my computer or my flip phone (can’t anyway). If I had a more advanced phone, I wouldn’t want to read them on that either. However, they could have avoided this by offering me some form of refund, offering a subscription extension, just about anything–anything, that is, except what they did: “Because we think you’re an idiot, we will be giving you less content and no compensation; suck it.” They could even have begged: “We understand this is a major change in the terms for which you paid, and we hope you will consider that a small but valuable contribution to the cause of local journalism.”

It came down not to money (the $15-odd refund isn’t exactly enough to retire on), nor to questions about content and value. It came down to my recoiling from the tactic of first kissing subscribers’ asses, then insulting our intelligence.

They’re committing suicide. Deep down, these magazines don’t ever want to print another paper copy again, so they’re doing their best to drive away anyone who wants a physical magazine in their mailboxes.

It’s working.

Sometimes it feels like I’m the only one who stands up and objects to the constant messaging trend: “In order to serve you better, we are cutting staff, reducing hours, eliminating services, raising prices, decreasing portions, and trimming options. We want you to believe this is for your benefit. We think you’re enough of an idiot to buy this.”

 

* Slang of military origin, an articulated acronym for “bend over, here it comes again.” We used to measure them by joints involved, with three for example meaning the finger, four meaning the whole hand, and six meaning up to the shoulder. Up to twelve was a double bohica, and after that one counted vertebrae for the dreaded super bohica.

Current read: _Union Now with Britain_, Clarence Streit, 1941

One way to study history is through the writings of the times, including those writings that faded quickly from public notice. An old used bookstore is a wonderful source for these, and I found this one at an antique mall. I gather it’s at least a bit rare.

Streit was an interesting guy. From Montana, he had a passion for democracy as a concept. Might sound a little odd, since until recently the US hasn’t exactly had a large contingent of open fascists, but it’ll begin to make sense later in this post. After serving in WWI and observing the way the League of Nations floundered (usually attributed to us snubbing it), he developed strong feelings about the forward progress of human government. The start of World War II brought those views into urgent focus, and Streit wrote this book in an effort to awaken his countrypeople to a Federal Union of the primarily Anglophone countries: the US, UK, Canada, Union of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand.

Context is everything, and let’s establish it for this book. It was early 1941. Germany had absorbed Austria and half of Czechoslovakia (the remaining half becoming a puppet state). It had conquered Poland, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France (puppeting part of it, occupying the rest outright). Of all those, Norway had taken longest. The USSR and Nazi Germany seemed allied, or at least friendly. Nazi warplanes were bombing the UK on a regular basis, and Kriegsmarine submarines threatened to strangle British connections to the Empire’s resources. Italian forces contended with a British Imperial force in Libya. The US was not at war, but had become something of a non-belligerent ally. Japan occupied a substantial chunk of China and was going to have to find petroleum somewhere, or else.

Dark times indeed.

Streit felt he had the solution, which was to escalate the US system up one level. Just as the thirteen original US states had more or less put aside their plentiful quarrels to form a Federal government, Streit felt that a Federal Union of mankind could begin by associating the Anglophone countries as member “states” of a greater whole. If the Germans took Britain and got the Royal Navy, he reasoned, the danger to the rest of the free world would move from severe to mortal. But if all these countries united with the pledge of never quitting until all were free and at peace, Hitler would either have to exit the war or face the mobilizing industrial might of the United States. Membership could then be offered to other non-Anglophone states, including those occupied by the Nazis, with the pledge of “we won’t quit until you’re free.”

Having advocated this solution for years well before the war broke out in Europe, Streit had thought through most of the issues and ramifications. Some he more or less glossed over as “to be dealt with later: A majority of the population governed by these states, perhaps, were not masters in their own houses; he did not propose to end apartheid and the British Raj immediately, and the colonialist chauvinism of the times is present in his outlook. He acknowledges that black Americans were not even nearly on an equal basis with whites, but doesn’t address changing that situation. He felt it quite possible that Hitler would back down rather than face such a Union (not an alliance, which Streit deprecated as temporary and fragile) alone. Japan’s intent was not known at the time, but I think he doubted Japan would square off with a united UK, US, Australia, and New Zealand. And if it came to blows, the Union would combine the best of all its sciences, locations, and populations to create a military juggernaut Japan could never overcome.

Was it viable? Perhaps, if one could get people to put aside all their comparatively minor conflicts and some major ones. With Britain standing to benefit most immediately from Union, I think Streit figured that a union with Britain looked attractive to our friendly former colonial overlords, and that the rest of the Empire would follow. He might have been right. In France’s darkest hour, Churchill offered them a political union, but the French rejected it. Churchill was still Prime Minister. Might he have advocated this, in order to assure the survival of the United Kingdom?

That telegraphs the basis of my own doubt: my cynicism about people’s willingness to put aside relatively small matters for the greater good. Every time I go to the grocery store and see a maskhole wearing it below his or her nose, or crowding me in the checkout line, I am reminded just how many people simply do not care about others. I felt that way before the pandemic and I feel more so now. Are some peoples better about it than the ones among whom I must buy food? Perhaps; perhaps not so much. I resist the tendency to imagine that people really differ at heart. Take former Yugoslavia, where not only have the former member peoples broken the country into a half dozen pieces–inflicting enormous damage and death upon each other before the matters became settled–but none of the underlying resentments and angers are gone. In fact, all have obtained new chapters of resentment and grudge. And all could join in shouting me down about it, that I misunderstand how their own people’s grudges are all legitimate and those of all the others so much noise, that I know nothing of their region and the Horrible Things Done Centuries Ago that remain unavenged. Maybe I don’t, but I do know they weren’t killing each other under Tito, and when he left, killing started. I think less killing tends to be a good thing. Prove me wrong.

The most essential key to understanding Streit’s perspective is remembering what had not happened when he wrote the book.

  • Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor, the Philippines, or Singapore.
  • Neither the Soviet Union nor the United States were at war.
  • The public had not the faintest idea of the potential in nuclear weapons.
  • No nation had delivered the Nazi military any meaningful defeat.

A year after its publication, three of four of those ceased to be true. That’s how fast things were moving. No wonder Streit felt such urgency.

With outdated books, hindsight is an easy temptation; we have touched on some of it. Streit’s adoration of the US system as the perfect fundamental basis for Federal Union reads chauvinistic. Dismissing nearly 400 million Indians as unready to govern themselves was not calculated to please them, and glossed over the legitimate grievances of an aggregation of peoples who had done just fine until they became a “crown jewel” in someone else’s empire. We know that the war situation was about to change, and that Britain would survive the Blitz, but Streit did not. If one seeks to pick him apart, he’s no longer around to defend his proposal; he passed in 1986.

In any case, it’s worth the read not only for Streit’s take on the political and geopolitical study of it all, but for the view it provides of the way the world looked through one Montana son’s eyes in early 1941.

Shopping cart semi-abandonment

In recent months I have learned of a cruel, mean, horrible activity, never-to-be-done by right-thinking, community-minded folk. These persons have realized that if they load up an online shopping cart, then abandon it, they will be part of statistics over which the whole online vending world is weeping and gnashing its teeth.

Evidently the #1 cause of cart abandonment is that people on some level decide they don’t like the deal, so they bag out. Second commonest cause is they don’t want to have to set up an account. If you read down the list, though, nowhere on that list is the most devastating (and of course naturally discouraged with every fiber of my being) form of abandonment: wrathful, targeted semi-abandonment.

How’s that work? The awful, corporation-hating big meanies who do this terrible thing, who obviously don’t return their shopping carts and always flick their cigarette butts on the ground after smoking them only eight feet away from a window (in Washington, 25′), use a browser that will remember its past sessions. They do not close the shopping session tab before closing the browser, so when it wakes up the next day, the cart is still full. That full cart is still affecting the vendor’s inventory and sales, which is just dastardly. It’s the fundamental equivalent of going to the grocery store, filling your cart, and walking out without it–except that a) the online stuff won’t spoil, and b) with no existing login or password, the online vendor has no way to identify the culprit and punish him or her. It’s cruel and unusual, on a par with cat juggling and overdone steak.

That of course is bad enough, but at some point I believe most online merchants could get past that by dumping the abandoned cart themselves if it had no changes for some time. What if there were daily changes? That would be the most detrimental. Someone piles up, say, $300K of crap in the cart, then on a daily basis adds a votive candle or a $5 bar of soap or somesuch? Never checks out? Awful, I tell you. If someone does that, the cart never dumps, and keeps getting bigger. It could be very harmful to inventory control and their rightful profits. And worst of all, they have no real way to address it. It’s their worst nightmare.

I could never encourage anyone to be so unkind to an online vendor who means only to make honest profit by being truthful with consumers and treating employees well, while adhering to the corporate vision of ramping up actionable items and solutioning problems to create maximum shareholder value. And branding. Much branding. More branding than a cattle pen in springtime.

Remember: wealthy people’s increased wealth depends upon you never being mean to them, no matter how their companies treat you, the public, the land, the economy, and kittens.

lighting a financial candle rather than cursing the financial darkness

Now and then, I have to give credit to a complete idiot.

Dirty laundry: I sometimes have trouble coming up with good topics to maintain a twice-monthly blog posting schedule. In this case, a friend’s friend said something so blithering that I had to contradict. Not harshly, of course. You never know when it’s someone’s wonderful Aunt Edna who, while dumber than a bag of wet nickels, has devoted her whole life to helping her nephew and about two hundred other kids from broken homes. I’d rather not find out the hard way. But the facts, at least, needed a saying.

This brought me to the realization that I have a substantial financial reading list, if I would but share it, to help people self-educate. Self-education is good. Why take my word for this stuff? Better to read people who know more about it than I do. And another of my beliefs is the old saying about lighting candles and cursing darkness. If I don’t feel good, I try to make myself do things that will make me feel more positive.

Before I go into the reading list, I ought to disclose my basic investing outlook and methods. I am not a fan of corporate America. I begin with the presumption that it is impossible to find a publicly traded American company not operated by criminals, at least as I define the term. The harder a company puts on the PR to tell me how wonderful it is, the more I assume the reality is opposite.

I am more an income investor than a growth investor. I don’t like CEO promises and predictions; my basic outlook is “Fuck you; pay up.” I like income because they can’t take it back. I own very few separate issue stocks. I go mostly for index ETFs (exchange-traded funds) and closed-end bond funds (CEFs). I can wring 2-5% payouts from the bond index ETFs, 12-15% from the CEFs (with capital loss potential), and results from the stock ETFs vary but are more volatile than most of the market (this works to my advantage). My primary objective, naturally, is to make money. The secondary objective, which leads to the primary but has to come first, is to keep emotion out of my investing.

It follows, therefore, that I don’t much believe in ethical investing. If you want to get all ethical, buy Satan Inc.’s stock (DEVL), donate the dividends to their enemies, and vote against all management’s recommendations. That is the action on your part that they fear most–but don’t confuse it with investing for gain.

I do believe that financial innumeracy is one of the leading causes of youth poverty in this country. The schools and parents didn’t teach them. The young made the naive assumption that opportunities would be the same for them as they were for their parents, a myth their parents knew was bullshit, but did not puncture. The parents should have.

With that, I offer you a list of excellent reads about money management, investing behaviors, strategies, and suchlike. I hope it will help you beat the rigged game that is our market, even if your method doesn’t even involve buying any stocks.

  • Financially Stupid People Are Everywhere; Don’t Be One of Them, by Jason Kelly. You’ll be seeing his name a couple more times, for good reason: Jason combines a very readable style with an iconoclastic, no-bullshit approach. We’re friends, but I was a fan of his writing years before we became personally acquainted. If adulting classes existed, this could be the textbook. If you’re in your twenties and you have debt and/or no savings, start here. It’s the icewater bath you need.
  • Warren Buffett Invests Like a Girl, and Why You Should, Too, by Louann Lofton. It turns out that women have investing tendencies that work to their advantage, and Lofton has taken time to observe and quantify these. It’s an excellent read, and likely to promote confidence on the part of women navigating what has historically been a male-dominated industry. Bottom line: if you’re beating their numbers, it doesn’t matter whether you do it through newsletter picks, tarot, Sacred Vagina Meditations, research, or free association. It means you’re better.
  • The Motley Fool Investment Guide, by David & Tom Gardner. While I’m out of the business of researching and picking separate issue securities (that would include common stocks), others might not be. Either way, this is a fun read full of helpful education.
  • Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It), by William Poundstone. Poundstone is the guy you have never read that you should be reading: author of the Secrets books, who then turned to studies of human psychology. Distilled essence: marketers use our instincts to lead us to decisions that work to their advantage and against ours. Understanding this is worth your while.
  • The 3% Signal: The Investing Technique that will Change Your Life, by Jason Kelly. Jason publishes The Kelly Letter, an outstanding investment newsletter. He used to pick stocks. He stopped, and his life got better. This book tells what he does now, and how anyone with an investment account can do the same. Five stars without a moment’s hesitation.
  • Your Money & Your Brain: How the New Science of Neuroeconomics Can Help Make You Rich, by Jason Zweig. Another good entry in the field of investing and money psychology. I don’t believe you can go too far wrong applying critical thinking to an understanding of how our minds work.
  • The Neatest Little Guide to Stock Market Investing, by Jason Kelly. There is some overlap here between more recent versions of this book and The 3% Signal. That said, if you want to go stock hunting, I’d take this book in addition to the Gardners’ treatise.

Because I feel in a sharing mode, I’m going to make a number of statements that I wish more people could absorb:

  • Any stock index report that goes by points rather than percentage change just makes you dumber.
  • Any person reporting a stock index result that reports points rather than percentage is either too uneducated to know how dumb this is, or is deliberately using the big number to draw attention.
  • Conventional open-end mutual funds are usually a bad deal. They’re great investments for 1975, if you’re currently living then.
  • About 90-95% of investors should just buy and accumulate index ETFs (exchange-traded funds).
  • Financial media suck. You get stupider every time you watch or read them.
  • Bonds don’t automatically mean you get your money back. Bond funds especially don’t mean this.
  • If investing a very small amount, you can afford to shoot high. Only when you pile up a big heap o’ money do you have to think about holding onto it.
  • Emotion is your investing enemy.
  • You don’t know who you are as an investor until you see a crash. Who you are is what you do during and after that crash. A fern could make money in a bull market.
  • The Dow is worse than useless; it is distortive. Any time someone cites it as meaningful, my opinion of that person’s investing savvy drops.
  • It follows, from the above and previous commentary, that any time anyone says “Dow drops 300 [or whatever number],” without including the percentage change, I conclude that the individual doesn’t understand the markets at all. I may heart them big time, but they said a dumb thing.
  • Most people throw away about half their lifetime returns just by playing with themselves all through their twenties, only getting serious come their thirties.
  • If you buy an investment you don’t understand, you do a stupid thing.
  • Any time someone starts by saying “If you had bought XX back in X month, year Y,” this person is sharing irrelevancy. Why? Because you didn’t. You wouldn’t. Next time, you won’t either. If only that defensive end had gotten to the passer on that third down play in the first quarter, the whole game would have been different–but he did not.
  • Always buy the stocks my wife says to buy. Unless, of course, I helped pick them, in which case they’ll tank.
  • The choice of a traditional vs. Roth IRA comes down to the tax benefit. If you don’t make enough money to need the writeoff, the Roth is probably more advantageous. However, the Roth means trusting the government to honor a promise years in the future. I never have. Your call.
  • Rich traders get to cheat in ways you and I do not.
  • For IPOs, if they’re worth getting into, you probably aren’t getting in unless you’re with a big full-commission brokerage. That’s one advantage for full-commission brokers, set against an ocean of disadvantages.

Project Hamilton

This isn’t about editing or writing.

This is Project Hamilton.

This is about current US society and economics. It may apply to others in other societies, but I am speaking to the only one I know and in which I participate.

This is me summoning the haves. If you’re doing rather well, I’ve got a suggestion for you.

Because of the disease, which it seems highly likely will soon enter its second phase and do multiple times more harm, there are two economic categories: the haves and the have-nots. The haves either have plenty of money or are still earning enough to live and save a little. Most of them are currently spending less money than they usually do, so they have some extra. The have-nots are chronically underemployed, working at risk, or deprived of all income. Few of them asked for those situations.

The reason the haves can still buy groceries and live through this in relative comfort is in large part because some of the have-nots go to work. The have-even-lesses can’t even do that. My answer is Project Hamilton.

The concept is simple. You probably don’t shop locally as often as you did before. When you do, kick in an extra $10. If buying groceries, give the extra bill to the checker, and ask her please to hang onto it until someone comes along who is obviously in serious distress, then contribute it to that person’s payment. If you are going to get takeout or drive-through from a restaurant, add $10 in tip. The drive-through people never get anything normally; the takeout people are probably waitstaff who normally rely on tips. Wherever you go, give them an extra ten bucks. If you need to, do like at the grocery store and have them share it with a person in need.

At some point the nail salons and barbers will reopen, and you can take it for gospel they are all financially blasted (and sick of driving Uber or Grubhub). First couple times you go back, tack on an extra $10 above your normal gratuity, to help them catch up and rebuild.

If you cannot afford this, I’m not asking it of you.

If you can, I am. Share. Show people that you value them. Sustain this through the recovery. Right now the economic reality is that the dollars aren’t turning over. It is in your power to turn over some more dollars, which will help people have work and make money and stay somewhat afloat. It will also give people heart, which has its own value.

We have become a dystopian society, but this initiative has nothing to do with nationalism or politics. This has to do with whether we choose to share, or not to share. This has to do with how we each define ourselves. Are we really this dystopia, or are we better than that? Talk is cheap (including blog posts). What you do is who you are.

I have made my choice. Yours is up to you.

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Addendum: in the early response to this post, shared in a number of places, I have seen many method variations on its basic theme. All of those variations are great. Better still, many people were already doing them before I got around to this post.

I salute all of you who participate in any way, whether you were already doing so or have now just begun. Any generous way one chooses to do this is a correct way.

COVID’s metamorphosis

If you see what I did there, I tip my cap.

Living in a region with some early cases and a few fatalities from the Wuhan COVID-19 virus, my perspective might be more immediate than some. My reactions, however, were unlike and yet like those of others. Based upon the data, I began with the following assumptions:

  • Since COVID could be contracted from an Amazon packer’s paws seven days before, while hand washing and other basic hygienic precautions might slow it down, it would erupt in surprise locations with a payload soon to hit.
  • My wife and I would ultimately contract this virus, with some chance of mortality. We would be fools to ignore it.
  • Whatever government might say would be targeted at manipulating behavior, not keeping people healthy. True of any government at times; truest of all of this one now.
  • People would expect the government to save them, and would discover that it cannot.
  • Most people would react irrationally to that realization.
  • People who did not believe in science were not about to start now.
  • People who believed in thoughts and prayers were going to find out just how well such things worked.
  • Financial media would immediately attribute any stock market faceplant to coronavirus. Any stock market recovery, somehow, would not. Few would question the fundamental association between high markets and sudden selling behavior.

Most of the above has come to pass so far, except for us catching the virus. In addition, people have been:

  • Cleaning out supplies of staples such as toilet paper. Costco is making bank.
  • Avoiding crowds: crowded stores, big public events, anything with many people.

Around here, we haven’t changed anything except for better hand washing and adding a couple of supplements aimed at immune boosting. Compared to many, I seemed to be under-reacting. Everyone else seemed more affected than me. And then I realized some things all at once.

I always keep on hand excellent stocks of basics. Maybe once a year I take my pickup to Costco, and I come back with the bed mostly full. I have no shame about buying five big bundles of paper towels, four tubs of dishwasher pods, twelve cans of coffee. I grew up in a household that constantly ran out of the basics and did everything cheap cheap cheap cheep cheep cheep cheep. I refuse to maintain a similar household.

I don’t like crowds; my normal life is based on avoiding them where possible. When I can’t avoid them, I exfiltrate from them as quickly as I can manage.

America, welcome to my regular life.

Bad reasons to move to the Portland area

Please do notice: I didn’t say “Oregon.” I said “the Portland area.” All Oregon is not Portland.

Oh, wait, but surely Portland is the only part of Oregon that’s relevant to any other place in the world?

If that’s your perception, definitely don’t move to Portland. There’s enough of that thinking here already, much of it home-grown. That entire attitude has a great deal to do with the urban/rural divide, in which two different-thinking populations that cannot function without looking for reasons to other each other.

With the Bay Area and Seattle costs of living sky-high, and Vancouver (B.C.) requiring that sticky bit about landed immigrant status, many eyes are on Portland as The Next Big Destination. I’m braced for it.

Unlike some (fewer than reputed) transplants and natives, I am glad to welcome newcomers who are willing to make some effort to adapt. For one thing, I am one. I’ve only been here five years, though I lived a quarter century within an hour’s drive of Oregon. That made adaptation rather easier. For another, sometimes the newcomers are better citizens than the natives. I recently had a situation in which two Oregon State Police cars and two county deputies completely ignored my post-accident situation (I could have been seriously hurt) while a river of vehicles with Oregon tags rolled past me. Who stopped to see if I was okay, to offer witness contact information, etc.? An SUV with California tags.

I got more kindness from an out-of-state SUV than from four local police cars (one of whom had in fact initiated the high-speed chase in which I was rammed by the suspect; thanks for the protection and service). So no, I’m not joining the xenophobic wing. There are good reasons to move here. I don’t really like any big cities at all, but as a person with fundamentally rural outlooks and orientation, I put it this way: if you have to pick a city of three million, this’d be the one.

That all noted, there are numerous terrible reasons to decide to move to the Portland area. (Not all of the Portland area is the city of Portland. Hereafter, I’ll just call it Portland, but what I mean is the metropolitan area from Forest Grove east to Gresham, from the Columbia to Oregon City and Wilsonville. It spans three counties and houses some three million people. I live in the western suburbs. I don’t feel like saying “the Portland/Vancouver/Hillsboro SMSA minus Vancouver” over and over.)

Here are the lousy reasons:

You watched Stumptown and Portlandia and it seemed so cool. It’s not that there aren’t elements of those shows to be found here; it’s that they in no way dominate the mindset. What does? Traffic, some of the nation’s worst.

You’ve heard that the food is excellent. Some is indeed excellent. Some is pretty good. Some is crappy, especially in Beaverton and Hillsboro. I’ve been astonished how much bad Thai, Mexican, and Chinese food can be found out here. For that matter, I have been astonished how much truly lousy American food one can find here.

You’ve heard that the food trucks are wondrous. Some are. Many are mediocrities. Anyway, what’s the the big deal? So it’s a food truck. There is no reason to believe ours are vast improvements over anyone else’s. It just means you eat your food out in public with flimsy plastic forks.

The minimum wage is really high. And it’s not nearly high enough to live on without roommates. $1500/month rent isn’t terribly high by local standards. $12.50 is better than $7.50, but as an annual income, it totals $26K (before taxes and whatever your employer takes out for health insurance). $1500 rent per month is $18K.

You’ve heard that Oregon is a “liberal paradise” and you want to be surrounded only with people who share your views. In the first place, I see opposing decorations on vehicles here all the time, so you will not escape them. In the second, you might find that you can’t pass the purity test. They change it every year, so you have to retake it continually.

You like college football and the Ducks are a Big Thing. They are also in Eugene, about two and a half hours south, not here. Portland cares relatively little for the Zeroes; they don’t even much care for the local I-AA team, Portland State. You’ll see a fair number of Zero stickers on cars, but not a whole lot of giving of damns.

You want to get a dime each for your cans and bottles. You do realize, right, that this is just getting back the dime you paid when you bought it? And that you do this in noisy back rooms after standing in line behind someone who pretends not to speak English and has twice the daily legal limit (144)?

You want a physician-assisted suicide. Hold on there, bucko or bucka. You’ll have to jump through a number of hoops. Not every doctor will prescribe the lethal medication. It’s not like you can just get it at Walgreens. Notably, you can’t get it unless you are terminal within six months. If that is not the situation, and especially if you are not terminal at all, please seek other options wherever you go or are.

You know Oregon was founded as a Whitopia, that Portland remains overwhelmingly white, and that’s what you want, a Whitopia with good coffee. Don’t come. We already have enough homegrown bigoted, idiotic scumbags and don’t need any more.

You think this is the land of the free. Nope. Oregon is the most authoritarian state I have experienced. You shouldn’t be here unless you love rules, even rules that don’t help any situation, and enjoy obeying them. Oregon is excellent at closing every loophole and checking up, and it does well at doing something for the sake of doing something, anything, useful or not. The something is nearly always a more restrictive law, or a more draconian penalty, etc.

You’re homeless, and you’ve heard that Portland treats ’em right. Well, maybe better than Boise. Still, there are homeless tent camps and trash piles all along freeway green spaces. Shelters? Overloaded. Hoping for shelter under overpasses? Mostly fenced out. Public sympathy? Some, not much. Might be more if there weren’t so much litter.

You’ve heard that Portland is the bike-friendliest place in the world and you can’t wait to take to the sharrows with your moral peers. Bad news: Boise actually has bike-friendlier laws. Portland motorists are not especially worse than others, but they maneuver with great abruptness, and they hate cyclists plenty. Don’t take my word; ask some. That battle goes on here as it does anywhere else, with bad behavers on both sides.

You’re coming for the schools. That’s like going to Wyoming for the beaches. Oregon is a terrible state for education. There are lots of job openings for teachers because they don’t stay. Higher ed is about middle of the pack; primary and secondary education is near or in the bottom 20% relative to other states. One of the spendiest private schools in Portland ($30K/year per pupil) is reeling from a decades-long molestation scandal. Portland Public Schools seem unlikely ever to emerge from an ongoing management crisis.

You find the lack of sales tax enchanting. You’ll make up for it with high property taxes and a rather high state income tax. I’ve lived in a state that had sales tax only, one that had both, and one with just income tax. The sales tax screwed me far less, I felt, plus I didn’t have to send my Federal tax return to the state.

You want to be around fellow Ecotopians. While we do have some, including many who will sign onto any environmental idea whether or not it will solve anything, you’d be amazed at the crap that just gets left out on the sidewalk. In my area, the normal way of disposing of furniture is to (illegally) set it on the curb until someone “steals” it or someone complains and the county comes to get it. For an Ecotopia, we have plenty of litter. Just because one shops at Whole Paycheck (the local slang for Whole Foods) doesn’t make one an environmentalist.

You think you’ll get a state job with benefits rivaling Sweden’s. Yeah, that was before the population screwed things up by living too long. They’ve been cutting pensions and benefits ever since, and you should expect more such cuts. Now the benefits are marginally better than those of a decently run corporation.

You heard it’s where millennials go to retire. While that’s an amusing joke, the millennials I know are working their youthful butts off trying to make a living. They don’t have anything easy except the competition for underemployed jobs, and there is no competition there because so many underemployed people care so little about the job that any underemployed person who actually does care will stand out (and be the supervisor in three months). I don’t see any millennial “retirement” happening. I see young adults not getting paid what they deserve.

You dream of never having to pump your own gas. While I’ll give you that one to a degree–the other such alternative being New Jersey, which is a decided contrast to Oregon–this means you can experience lazy service in a new and fun sector. And keep an eye on your gas cap. I drive a pickup, and even then, they put my gas cap on top of the pump, not the wheelwell. After the first time they forgot to replace it, I learned to watch where the cap was. And sure enough, a few times when they brought the credit card slip: “How would it be if I asked you to go ahead and put my gas cap back on before I leave?” A higher minimum wage is not getting us higher standards of service. In fact, much of Portland’s service economy is sullen and apathetic. Considering the cost of living and how underpaid they are, I don’t find that surprising.

If you do come, at least come for reasons other than the above perceptions. The great light rail system? Yes, please. A general relaxed friendliness for a city this size? Got it. Proximity to mountains, great rivers, and an ocean? Yo. Good airport? Yes. Massive outcries against replacing quirky outdated (and ass-ugly) airport carpet? We got your outcries right here. Real estate with room to appreciate? Likely.

Regular news pieces on Antifa clashes with police-abetted racists? How can you resist? Lots of vegan artisanal cruelty-free fair trade farm-to-table organic eco-food? More than you can sample in years and years. Gigantic book store? Even has two outlying branches, both also very large. Want easy voting registration and vote-by-mail? Not only do you have to opt out of registration rather than in, the whole state is vote-by-mail. You can’t go to the polling place because we don’t have one of them.

Hop addiction? Oregon IPAs are often basically fermented hop juice with a little barley for flavor (and quite often some fruit juice, or veggie juice, or something else the gods did not intend to be put into beer). Wine enthusiast? We have this very grapey place called the Willamette Valley, and we are, like, in it. Soccer enthusiasm? They bring it for both genders. Basketball enthusiasm? Try and take their Trailblazers away; just try. Could you live on blueberries and strawberries? Here, it wouldn’t even be that expensive, and you could probably add artisanal free-range goat’s milk for some protein. Gay-friendly churches? Where I live, many display rainbows just in case the marquee didn’t get the message across. Libraries? Numerous, beautiful, and thriving.

Come for these, not those.