Old friends, and an investing epiphany

Live long enough, and even the somewhat socially awkward will accumulate a network of old friends with decades of experience in various fields. This is great for getting answers. When I have a question about physical science, I can contact a professor of physical science. Question about U.S. military history? I’m fortunate enough to know someone who teaches it at the collegiate level. Want to understand how a given firearm works? I can choose from multiple enthusiasts, none of whom need any encouragement beyond a hint of interest. Need an antique valued? One of the best men at my wedding has been in the business for thirty years. Question about the workings of a suburban police department? How about the deputy commander of a well-respected suburban police force? Real estate? In addition to agents I’ve worked with in three states, I could also call a friend and past client who made his career in the field. My uncle is a civil engineer, one cousin a retired petroleum chemist, another cousin a speech therapist, and so on.

The question is not whether one can locate the expertise, but whether one may fairly impose upon the friend. I’m not unique in this, nor even above the curve. I have this only because I lived to my mid-fifties without spending it all in a shack somewhere out near Glenallen, Alaska. Everyone else my age, except those who live in shacks near Glenallen, has at least as great a network. Those who got out more than I did probably have far greater networks, but I’m very satisfied with my folks. I wouldn’t trade any of you.

For them, it follows, I’m the old friend who edits. When they begin to consider doing some writing, it is quite natural that they ask me about it. I’m glad, because gods know I’ve bugged all of them often enough about this or that. If it comes to an actual project I’ll charge something, but advice is always free to old friends. Truth told, I don’t mind a bit. It’s rather nice that people would think I could help them understand something.

One old friend of mine is named Randy, and with some admitted contact gaps, we’ve known each other since college. Randy retired as a stockbroker with one of the big brokerages, and while in most people that might not mean as much, I’ve always known him as a maverick immune to peer pressure where he knows he is right. That tends to be true of me as well, so I found it easy to believe that he had knowledge and instincts on behalf of his clients that the average full-commission broker might not have had. Put another way, there aren’t very many such brokers I’d have steered anyone toward, but Randy would be the one.

Not long ago, Randy and I had a long conversation about investing. We agree in substance, especially in matters such as that people should remain within their comfort/knowledge zones. I told him I no longer buy separate issue securities, because while it’s possible I could develop the knowledge to do well at it, I know that I will not, and thus shouldn’t fool myself. I received a precious pearl of approval, which I will have set into a suitable mounting in a place of honor.

Maybe it’ll distract everyone from all the little tombstones representing my dumber investing mistakes.

While schooling me, Randy crystallized a realization that explains so very much: winning vs. losing, and the arithmetic. The instinct and habit is to look at an investing choice as one decision, to get right or wrong. It isn’t. Most investing decisions are based on some stated goal, even one as nebulous as “make money.” There are two decisions to make, and for an investment to meet or exceed expectations, both decisions must be right. There is the decision to buy (when/what/how much), and the decision to sell (when/how much) or hold (some or all). That’s a thing to consider: not to sell is also a decision.

If you are wrong 50% of the time, you will probably like your results 25% of the time because that represents the percentage of the time you will do what in hindsight turned out to be the right thing both times. That means that two times out of four you will likely be disappointed, and once out of four, you’ll probably take a straight-on bath.

If you are right 60% of the time, you will get satisfactory results 36% of the time, same reason. You are taking a hosing. About half the time, you will get one decision or the other wrong, with disappointing results. You’ll go splat big time about one time in six.

If you are right 70% of the time, all other factors being equal, you should be happy 49% of the time. You are still losing, though not by much. Slightly less often, one decision or the other will be wrong enough to disappoint. About once in ten, the disappointment will be great.

You have to be right just over 70% of the time just to be pleased more often than not. If you can arrange to be right 75% of the time, you will get a favorable result about 57% of the time. Not many people are that good. I’m not even close.

In the meantime, of course, the overall market does whatever it does. Goals can vary, as can strategies. This is a rabbit hole of exceptions, and I have felt the need to oversimplify this (yes, I am aware I am doing so), but the key takeaway is that there are two opportunities, not one, to screw up a given investment. A mistake in either case will probably cause disappointment.

Thus: even then, even being right three-quarters of the time, you’re pretty happy just slightly more often than not. Enough to matter, of course; enough to be meritorious, and definitely enough to offer a shot at outperformance over time. Your good decisions should outweigh your bad ones. And I guess if you are confident enough to feel you will be right 75% of the time, you probably should carry that through.

The minority of people who can achieve that success is small indeed. I have learned that I am not one. Many of the rest are more or less playing the slots in a different format. Whenever I find myself tempted, nowadays, I remind myself how much I despise gambling, and ask myself whether those glitzy casinos were built with the money people won. I suppose it’s like a former smoker who, when tempted to lapse, looks at graphic images of cancerous lung tissue: if that helps, go ahead.

And how often does one get to make an analogy between casinos and cancerous tissue? You’re very welcome.

For the rest of us, it’s buy and hold index ETFs all the way. We will generally not outperform, but we will get the market return less (very bearable) expenses. Even Jason Kelly, a noteworthy author and manager who has an excellent track record with stocks, has shifted entirely to a mechanistic method involving index ETFs. I’ve been running it in two different portfolios now for a couple of years, and I think it stands a good chance of outperforming because it takes the emotion out of the decision. The only free choice one makes is when to add more cash to the plan. From there, the entire course of events can be handled with a pretty simple spreadsheet and two trades per quarter per portfolio. You can learn more from his book on the topic.

Jason’s writing is entertaining and straightforward. My favorite part is the way he begins by politely butchering out the pundits who bray frequent predictions for which they are never held to account. It’s hard to imagine they can even keep writing, much harder to imagine anyone still wasting time on them, after Jason hits them with the literary equivalent of a fire hose loaded with ice water. He calls them “z-vals,” as in “zero validity,” and when he’s done with them they look like Leroy Brown at the end of the famous song.

You want to hate the media? Don’t hate the ones who are trying to tell you what has happened around the country and world. Start with the mainstream financial media, because they have hate coming. They get to tell you what will happen, be wrong on a consistent basis, and never suffer. They don’t even lose readers. Were you able to confront one, he (most of them are men; for some reason, it appears harder to find intellectually dishonest women) would tell you that doing your own research was your problem, and not to blame him. “If you believed me, it’s not my fault you were that big an idiot.”

Even the salesiest full-commission broker at Merrill Lynch has more accountability than that.

As for me, if I have to be right three-quarters of the time in order to do well, maybe I’d better keep my decisions in the comfort zone.


Durian day

I’ve tried as many strange foods in life as I could arrange. Quite a few I have liked; some, not so much. I do know that my taste mechanism doesn’t work like those of most people. For example:

  • Kimchee: so good. I hate cole slaw, love kimchee.
  • Limburger: not much flavor at all. Smell unpleasant but not that big a deal. Much ado about nothing either way.
  • Nuoc-mam (anchovy sauce): love it and put it hungrily on many things.
  • Raw tomatoes: literally make me nauseous. Don’t like tomato chunks, either, even when cooked. (Puréed is fine when cooked.) Diced tomatoes the worst: too small to pick out. At least the big chunkers I can put to one side.
  • Vegemite: delicious. Smell doesn’t bug me. Great added flavor on ramen noodles, and for an excellent snack with wheat thins and cheese.
  • Cooked spinach by itself: looks like pond bottom muck. Smells worse than pond bottom muck. Tastes about like I’d expect from pond bottom muck. Fine in spanokopita, where it’s puréed to where I can’t really taste it, and the smell is covered.
  • Stilton cheese: absolutely delicious. Yeah, smells like improperly maintained feet, but don’t care.
  • Coconut: can’t even stand the smell, and the texture can ruin anything.
  • Ouzo/Nyquil: I cannot smell or taste one bit of difference. Loved retsina, but anything smelling or tasting of black licorice revolts me. I fear I am ruined for Sazeracs, another thing I’ve meant to try.
  • Pisco sours: a hell of a good drink if you’re ready for a wallop. They’re strong.
  • Anchovies on pizza: absolutely. Any time I’m making it when Deb is not home, that’s automatic. Unless I decide on…
  • Smoked oysters on pizza: fell in love with the combo in, of all places, Raymond, WA.
  • Menudo: such a delicious soup, spoiled only by the chunks of slippery latex (cow stomach) and the acid reflux aftertaste. Which is rather a powerful spoiling combination.
  • Muktuk: traded Dilettante chocolates to some Alaska Natives for it. Pretty sure they got the best deal. Ate it wrong, smelled like fish oil for three days, and committed a felony all in one go–not exactly my most shining moment. Doesn’t have much flavor of its own. Maybe that’s merciful.
  • Asparagus: the smell alone ruins my appetite.
  • Lutefisk: not that big a deal. Gelatinized fish, about what you’d expect if you boiled it in Drano.
  • Head cheese: pretty good on sandwich, but very much a misnomer. It’s not cheese. It’s chunks of abattoir pig leftover in a gelatin semi-binder. Don’t heat the sandwich up; stuff falls to bits.

That’s all I can remember right now. Won’t that do? Remaining on the bucket list are hákarl, balut (that may be the hardest to nerve myself up to), haggis, and surströmming (the videos I’ve seen give me some trepidation; maybe I’ll wait until I am in Sweden, then see if I can get them to ply me with liquor first in return for the spectacle). Fairly sure I can’t handle cazu marzu. I don’t see the attraction of fugu, even granting that the Japanese laws governing the stuff are exacting even by Japanese cultural standards.

Some six months ago, my wife and I were at a local Filipino grocery store gathering ingredients for our annual Christmas dinner ethnic food. We had settled on Pinoy, with olympias and pansit and adobo. We always prepare this meal as a team, and about three times out of four, we get a fiasco. I still feel bad for the friends who joined us for Polish food, at which we failed. I’m glad no one else was around for the Jewish cooking experience etzleinu; that was a big oy gevalt. Pinoy went pretty well; my olympias especially were a hit, though it took me a couple of hours to master the rolling method. Pretty sure the average Pinay grandma could have done it perfectly in forty-six seconds without exerting herself.

While hunting for some exact version of this or that ingredient, I came across a freezer that contained durian. Two of them per package, skin removed, sealed in rugged plastic. Both were the size and color of peeled baking potatoes. I stuck my nose into the freezer to see if anything had leaked, but no. I grabbed a package and put it in our basket.

“What is that?” asked my wife.

“Durian, dear. It’s a fruit that smells so bad it’s banned from airlines in Asia.”

“And therefore you want to eat it.” She has known me over two decades. I ceased to surprise her one of those decades ago. “Don’t do it in the house, or else.”

She had no worries. I may be dumb enough to try stuff like this, but even I am not dumb enough to risk spilling it in our kitchen.

I then mostly forgot about it, as outdoors in Portland in December and January hold limited al fresco dining appeal. You’d need to start thawing it a few days before, counting on a warm spell at just the right time. I’ve been taken hard aback by enough Inaccu-Weather forecasts around here to realize that the local meteorologists have a hard job. They’re wrong often enough that you can’t depend on them. You definitely wouldn’t bet your durians on them. I decided there was no hurry, and that I had all spring to nerve myself up.

In the latter third of June, nearing the summer solstice, nerving leveled up, durian achievement possibility unlocked.

I took the ziplock bag out of the refrigerator and was glad I’d double-bagged these. As all students of physics of course, know, there is no such thing as impermeable; the question is what may permeate what substance. Put another way, I could smell something through the plastic if I huffed with a little effort. It smelled like very bad breath–a person with untended rotting teeth, eating lots of sugar and never drinking enough water.

I began to suspect that this stuff could knock a raccoon on its ass at fifty paces. Maybe even a raven.

Was I stalling? Not really. Well, a little.

I took the package outside on a plate, bringing fork and knives, and did a ginger job of cutting it open. Both durians inside were wrapped in cling wrap, like a package of two peeled, individually wrapped baking potatoes–but a lot mushier. Up from the pierced plastic arose a pretty bad smell: fruit cocktail mixed with life-threatening halitosis. The thaw had completed (maybe not such a wise idea on my part, and the one I opened was mushy with clear liquid spilling out onto the plate. Not enough to spill over and get all over the bottom, thankfully. I hate that.

Next I turned on the hose, so that I didn’t have to handle the thing any more than unavoidable. Once I had laid bare a durian, there was nothing for it but to slice off a piece and eat. Let’s do this.

Definitely fibrous, but not in the tough and persistent way of celery; nothing difficult to cut with a serrated knife, nor difficult to chew. I see what they are talking about concerning the vanilla custard taste, if you can imagine eating vanilla custard with terminal knee-buckling halitosis emanating from it. Stringy vanilla custard, yes, but definitely sweet.

Putting it in my mouth wasn’t as hard as chewing and swallowing, because that takes a bit of time, and that gave the smell time to permeate my senses. This is not the sort of scent with which I would normally permeate those. My snapshot thought as I swallowed: not a bad basic taste at all, but I don’t like the texture, and the problem is that along with the smell hitting one’s nose, one can literally taste the smell in one’s mouth. I don’t think that my nose works the way others’ do, but it reminded me of the fermenting-garbage smell of limburger–only quadruple strength.

Sorry to disappoint all you career sickos (you know who you are), but at no time did I throw up, nor even come close. Perhaps if I’d eaten the whole durian, who knows what could have happened? But the plan wasn’t to gorge on durian; it was to try the stuff. Durians taste like stringy vanilla custard radiating eye-watering halitosis in every direction. If that sounds like something you’d rather not eat, you and I concur.

After two bites, I figured I had done my share. The rest went into the dumpster, brought with commendable foresight to the back yard beforehand. I chose Thursday because Friday is our trash day. Then I went inside to write while all this was fresh in my mind, leaving the plate out in public. When I finished writing, I would see what it might have attracted. I could always hose the plate off, of course.

It hadn’t attracted anything. In Aloverton, we have these enormous fat houseflies. Some are the size of a marble. I expected to return to find the plate covered in loathsome flies. Not a one; not even the flies want this. As I cleaned off the plate and utensils, I reflected that my least favorite aspect was the persistent aftertaste/aftersmell. Half an hour later it lingered in my mouth, a source of vague discomfort. The sweetness had moved along, but the unpleasant aftertaste/aftersmell stayed with me. I ended up going back outside for a cigar just to sear the rest of it out of my mouth.

Bringing the dog outside with me helped me to put my finger on something. I had missed a bit of description, a nuance I could not quite put into words. Our dog, a miniature schnauzer named Leonidas, is a deeply annoying little creature; cat brain, dog body. Imagine a cat that still seeks to coat you with saliva, but wouldn’t know a litterbox from a Tardis, and never feels especially guilty for decorating the floor. For reasons I don’t understand, my wife likes him. For that reason, and for reasons of fundamental humanity, I tolerate him and do what is needed to prevent him from suffering. He represents a marital compromise, one forged after many battles: no, he may not sleep in the bed with us, not if you want me sleeping in it as well; no, he cannot have free run of the house now that he’s got dogabetes; no, he cannot go everywhere with us, because I treasure my vacations away from him; no, we can’t get another one, because I have a hard enough time tolerating a single dog, especially one this insolent and obstinate.

Well, Leo has bad dog breath even by the considerably shocking standards of the canine species. I don’t see why I even bother with weed killer when I have a perfectly organic means of killing all life: let Leo breathe on it. Durian’s smell reminds me of Leo’s breath. And even after a forty-minute cigar and a big slug of iced coffee with non-Nestle creamer (those people are diabolic), I could still tastesmell a bit of the durian smell in my mouth. Eventually I’m going to have to rinse with peroxide to kill this.

The interesting effect there: how excellent the cigar and iced coffee tasted. I don’t smoke very expensive cigars, and they can be hit or miss on taste (and draw, and burn, and wrapper integrity), but this smoke tasted like one of triple the cost. Very, very pleasant, as was the coffee. The durian impact on the mouth, from only two bites, is sufficient that anything else not revolting takes on a very welcome flavor.

I’m not big on bathroom humor, so let me just say that the experience did not improve as my body performed the standard nutrition processing habits. Those who desire may use their imaginations in order to perceive this brief, disagreeable, unforgettable completion to my adventure, confident that they are unlikely to overstate the reality.

I don’t recommend durian, but at least now I know why.

The Depression Americans who went to the USSR

Back in the early 1930s, several thousand Americans packed up and went to work in the Soviet Union. Few ever returned. Few survived to the Cold War era.

When we look back on an historical decision that might seem nuts to us, we should subtract our hindsight and seek to understand what was known at the time before making judgments. In this case:

  • While there was some information about the large-scale suffering and death of the Holodomor and the liquidation of private agriculture, few Americans understood how bad it truly was, and few cared. We’re ass-ignorant of the world today, even though a network connects us with the news sources of our choice via devices held in our hands. Who would expect us to be less ass-ignorant back when the information was pre-selected by a newspaper publisher?
  • In 1933, the USSR was just sixteen years old. It presented itself as the fiery champion of working-class interests. In those days, working-class people were willing to strike, fight, and die for better conditions. It wasn’t insane for a typical American worker to wonder whether those Russians might not have come up with something good, even if at first they’d had a messy civil war. The more educated Americans realized that, to a large degree, our own revolution was a civil war with foreign intervention as much as it was a revolt against a foreign power. If our independence came with a civil war, why not that of other countries?
  • 1933 could be described as the heart of the Great Depression. Unemployment was the norm. Homelessness was commonplace. Workers with skills, such as laid-off Ford automotive employees, wanted only a place to use what they knew. The USSR was playing industrial catch-up, and that made them very receptive to Ford technology and those who understood it.
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had not yet written The Gulag Archipelago. There was no way to foresee the purges of the late 1930s, still less the long-term pathology of penology as an economic and social control mechanism lasting into the 1960s. No one knew, either, that a wildly gesticulating little World War I Austrian corporal would, within six years, launch a war of genocidal conquest, much less who would be on which side. Americans were more concerned about ending Prohibition so that those who could afford to do so could legally escape into alcohol, long a very American habit. Hoover had failed, new leadership was in place, and it was hard to imagine anything worse.
  • There were no nuclear weapons; there was no Cold War; there was only one avowedly communist country in the world; the United States professed non-alignment. Eastern Europe had not been handed off to Stalin, who was relatively new to power. Mao Zedong was holed up in the mountains of northern China figuring out how to get into power against a powerful foe like Chiang Kai-Shek.
  • This country seems always to have had, and even to require, a designated enemy. Sometimes it’s a race, sometimes it’s an ideology, sometimes it’s a country–but this country has rarely if ever not had an enemy and I’m not sure it would know what to do without one. (Some of us think that if it doesn’t have one, one is designated for us, just to keep us marching along, but that’s a personal view.) The specter of world communism was an easy demonization, because: it tied into our own social dissent, it promised to run absolutely counter to the ruling interests, and it had already been seen–at least by those in the know–to bring on convulsion, shortage, repression, and state-sponsored murder. (That not everyone believed those tales is also a factor, but in this case the stories were if anything an understatement.)
  • With any designated enemy, there are two sides, usually both about half wrong. One side will always be making that enemy out to be less than human, meritless, the ultimate enemy of all that is decent, unworthy of the least sympathy. The other side will always be looking for mitigating factors, exceptions, reasons to believe otherwise. It’s still with us today. There are still people, for example, who will try to deny or minimize the Holocaust. But there are also still people who will make any excuse necessary for any people or nation that opposed the Holocaust. In 1930s US society, the side demonizing the USSR was obvious enough, though it also went so far as to view the average Russian (or other Soviet citizen; barely half were Russian) as a half-civilized Asiatic. The side mitigating for the USSR was not too ignorant to realize that the side demonizing the USSR and its constituent peoples had a vested economic interest in avoiding state-planned economics, in breaking organized labor, and in continuing to sit on its pile of inherited wealth. Reality: while some of the Soviet government’s actions were barbaric, a people who produce the cultural landmarks of Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoi, and many more, are certainly not barbarians. And while a massive slave labor camp system and a period of mass starvation almost defying comprehension may fairly be said to overshadow any social advances, social advances there still were; they just were not sufficient for a balanced mind to consider them worth enduring mass starvation. I’m not sure what could be, since the dead are no longer around to enjoy social advances.

Our view of past times will always be more balanced when we remember what the people of the times did not know.

In this timeframe, in this economic situation, several thousand working-class Americans, mostly out-of-work automotive laborers, accepted the Soviets’ open invitation to come and work. A few were communist ideologues who had bought into one extreme of the pro-Soviet narrative, but most were more interested in a better way to provide for their families. The USSR was buying one of Ford’s old plants, and it would need workers familiar with auto manufacture. (The Soviet weakness in this area would persist for many years. During WWII, they considered our Lend-Lease tanks and fighter planes mostly substandard, but without our humble trucks, the Soviet Army would have had a far harder logistical time.)

The US government and industrial leadership generally did not care if a bunch of laid-off laborers wanted to move overseas. If they didn’t want to be at home, great; they were no longer our problem. If they represented useful propaganda for the USSR, oh well; there weren’t very many, and with or without them, domestic conditions were such that it was best not to draw the competing propaganda sword with a country lacking a free press. (Even into the 1970s, the USSR would use old Depression breadline photos and footage as anti-US propaganda. Then again, in the 1970s, I very well remember that we were still talking of the USSR as if the Stalin purges had never abated.)

What most of those Americans did not realize was that the Soviet government automatically granted most Soviet citizenship upon landing, whether or not they applied for it. According to US law, accepting a foreign citizenship meant renunciation of US citizenship. Ah, but what if they never accepted Soviet citizenship? If they were in prison, and the State Department asked about them, and the USSR said “They have become Soviet citizens and are no longer your concern,” there wasn’t much State could do about it unless permitted into prison to verify the situation.

In order to do that, the State Department–seen from its perspective of the time–would have to care about a bunch of lousy commie sympathizers who actually thought it was better to have a job with the commies than to be at home starving in the land of apple pie and baseball. (The Americans in the USSR in fact missed baseball enough to establish a league.) While the USA has rarely done much to prevent anyone from expatriating, it also rarely continues to care about anyone who does so. That went double for anyone who expatriated to a society whose ideology proclaimed capitalism an evil to be torn down, and most Americans felt likewise. They don’t want to be at home? Hope the door hit them in the ass, and they don’t come back.

Americans have never taken especially well to the notion that anyone would voluntarily choose to be anywhere but the United States, given a choice in the matter, because Americans have never taken too well to the notion that there could ever be any better place. Thus, in a case like that of these American expatriates, there would neither be government interest in their cause, nor any public groundswell to pressure it. Just a few isolated relatives writing to the State Department to beg its intervention on behalf of people it fundamentally did not want to assist, let alone get back.

Stalin’s purges began in 1937. They decapitated the Soviet Army, leaving corporals leading platoons (normally led by junior lieutenants) and majors commanding brigades (normally led by brigadier generals). They ripped through every ethnicity and social class, a concept the USSR had done nothing to eliminate. The pattern was arrest, beatings and torture, confession and implication of others, a show trial, and a sentence either of death or a quarter century at labor intended to cause death. Many were shipped to the Kolyma gold fields in eastern Siberia, where they died by the thousands. A good many were sent to mine uranium, with predictable outcomes. They came in waves, and it continued into World War II and after.

Against a sum of arrests reaching mid-eight figures, and eventual deaths estimated around twenty million, a few thousand Americans didn’t even count as an arrest wave. Many of the arrests were by quota in any case, with people picked up simply because this or that region had been estimated to contain 200 Enemies of the People, thus that many must be arrested. Any NKVD officer declining to do this was guaranteed arrest. Anyone who did comply would probably be arrested in turn later. It wasn’t genocidal in that it wasn’t specific or discriminate enough to target a particular class, ethnicity, faith, or whatever. Just because it doesn’t meet the definition of a genocide does not lessen its enormous brutality.

What of the American embassy? There was no help there. Ambassador Davies, a political appointee who had married into a fortune, said and did nothing to upset Stalin or his Soviet hosts. He did spend a lot of time collecting artworks, but he and his staff generally ignored or dismissed the representations of family members concerned for relatives who had vanished. While the record indicates that Davies was a nest-feathering toady and complete invertebrate, we should remember that there was limited effective pressure at our disposal, as there would always be. Americans have the tendency to think of their country as all-powerful, that if we do not do something, it’s because we choose not to rather than we cannot. Let’s imagine an interview with the shade of Ambassador Davies, in which I come ready to blister his bureaucratic ass and have an accounting:

“Ambassador, the charge is simple. Americans went to the Gulag, most died, and you flitted about collecting art. Every one of those Americans deserved less than you to be in a Gulag.”

“That’s a very harsh charge, young man. Would you have had me go to Stalin and demand the handover of Soviet citizens?”

“They were not Soviet citizens by choice. It had been assigned to them.”

“So you say. You may well be correct. The only way for us to know that would be to interview the captives in a setting where it was safe for them to speak the truth, and you can say all you wish that we should have demanded that, but the demand would have been refused. And angrily; we would have been accused of calling them liars. Again, probably they were–but if they were, what then would you have had us do?”

“You’re telling me we had no economic pressure to bring to bear?”

“Not without harming our own country. Our ability to guide the economy through the late Depression depended in part on our ability to buy gold, and the Soviets were selling.”

“Gold often mined by your countrymen until their deaths from starvation, disease, and protracted abuse.”

“My former countrymen, all of whom on some level chose to live under the Communists rather than stay home. Just to put this in perspective.”

“All right; I’ll accept that you had no practical leverage to verify their changes in citizenship. You were appointed a diplomat. Could you not have made at least some representations on behalf of people?”

“I could have done more of that, at the risk of being expelled and the Russians completely cutting off all communication. They weren’t in a very forthcoming mood. As you may recall, they were killing their own people by the millions. But very well; let’s say we did that, and they told us to butt out of their internal affairs. What then? You cannot seriously be proposing that the United States should have gone to war over it. We had little economic leverage. Furthermore, there was the risk of driving them into Hitler’s camp, and with the Molotov/Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 it looked as though that had happened. Do you, my inquisitor from the lands of lumberjacks and cowboys, in your hindsight, believe that US interests would have been well served by forcing a longer and more enduring cooperation between a resource-rich USSR and a resource-poor but technologically advanced Nazi Germany?”

I would not be able to help seeing the old bastard’s points. That is why we put our history in the context of its times, so that we subtract our modern hindsight in the effort to make a reasonably informed evaluation of the past.

Few of the Americans ever saw home again, and those who did typically didn’t get home until the Khrushchyov era (beginning mid-fifties, ending mid-sixties). While the Gulags didn’t go away by magic when Khrushchyov admitted they’d gone way too far, they gradually became less brutal, less prevalent, and less indiscriminate. Make no mistake; a Soviet citizen still had to watch his or her words, and the Lubyanka and Lefortovo would remain dreaded into the 1990s. But there’s no evidence the repression maintained the Stalinist level. As a practical matter, it could not have; lest they run out of people to kill, or to guard those on their way to die.

And what of later inquiries into the fates of Americans, during and after Khrushchyov? In the first place, admitting an embarrassing truth with comfortable ease is not naturally a human trait, and it is especially not a Russian cultural trait. Where records had been kept in full, many had been destroyed by people seeking to cover their own culpability. Many were falsified, as in “died of stomach cancer” could mean “died during gang rape when thrown to criminals” or “starved and fell dead on the spot while mining gold.” Sometimes it helps to ask nicely, rather than make demands; the one making demands may puff up with his or her Great Moral Rightness, but s/he doesn’t get what is desired. A lot of French nationals all went missing, and the evidence indicates that many of their fates were eventually learned. Many of ours’ fates still remain unknown or obscure. It may be that the French weren’t as pushy and rude as our people.

But even then, in the second place, here’s the question that can’t be evaded. Suppose we had become insistent, from the 1950s even to today. Fine; and what if they just said “go to hell”? Would we then move closer to a potential nuclear exchange? Invade? Stop selling them grain (hardly good news for our farming industry)? In the end, if the Soviets or their successors didn’t or don’t want to answer, nothing realistic could compel them. And there’s more, one of the most uncomfortable realities to face, one with implications hard to face even today.

To wit: let’s imagine you are a foreign leader aware of an embarrassing number of carefully sequestered American prisoners your country holds. If proof were released of their survival–that your country had held them all this time just because letting them go would be to release a thousand accounts condemning your country’s deceit and inhumanity–what would you do? At some point, acting in brutal self-interest and national interest, what is there to stop you from doing the most logical but brutal thing? I think it very likely that this occurred in Vietnam, for example, that some of our POWs remained in captivity into the 1980s, and that when it came time for relations to thaw, the Vietnamese government most likely made all traces of them disappear. How much easier would this be in a country whose territory includes the vast expanse of Siberia?

It follows that, if that had occurred, there will never be an admission of it. If proof even exists, it may always be beyond our reach.

So yes: several thousand Americans disappeared into the Gulag system. Most may safely be presumed to have died before Stalin, based upon those fates we do know. A few eventually found their ways home during political thaws. Yes, they were naïve to buy into the bright future offered by Stalin’s USSR, but very few ever renounced US citizenship in a conscious way, nor ever meant harm to the country most still considered theirs. And they were fools indeed if they imagined that FDR would aggravate Stalin by lifting one finger on their behalf, especially (as we now know) with presidential advisor Harry Hopkins either a Soviet agent or near enough to render the difference unimportant. I find it very uncomfortable to face, but some truths are uncomfortable: as much as my evidence about Davies makes me loathe everything the man stood for, I don’t have an answer for the ultimate question in any era: “Okay, smart guy. Tell us how we do that without blowing up the world and screwing our whole country. I’ll wait.”

It doesn’t make Davies a fundamentally decent man who wanted to do the right thing. He wasn’t and didn’t; he didn’t want to do anything for anyone but himself, as it looks to me.

Perhaps you know you are getting near to some historical understanding when you uncover enough nuances to destroy any clear-cut feelgood angels-vs-demons outcome.

Even if you uncover demons, their enemies are not always angels.

There is a thing you can do for immigrants

Now and then, Americans go through a spasm of nativism. It happened when the Irish immigration waves began in the 1840s, it happened again in the World War I era, and it is happening now. The gist of nativism is that immigration is bad, we should reduce it, that ‘those people’ are not like ‘us’ because they look/sound/worship/eat ‘differently.’ And of course, that they will be the death and destruction of us.

Protip: the problem is not when people are waiting in long lines, following years-long processes, and sneaking across borders to get into your country. That is a sign of health. The problem is when they cease coming, and when your own people begin leaving.

We may differ on the definition of ‘immigrant.’ Fine; use your own definition. Myself, I have reached the point where I no longer care whether a person followed the process; I care only that, if I know about a person only his or her immigration/legality status, and his or her level of xenophobia and hatred, I know I’d rather have the xenophobic hatred go somewhere else, and I’d rather the non-native took that spot. Put another way, I like even the illegal aliens better than I like the native-born people who have made it a life’s mission to hate them. I would rather live next to the illegal aliens than those who have made xenophobia a philosophy. I feel that even the illegal aliens are doing more good for my country than people who would turn it to a police state to get rid of them. And thanks both to the stupid, pernicious redefinition of the word ‘immigrant’ to include people who did not actually follow an immigration process, which was a wrapped gift to nativist xenophobia, here’s the reality: everyone who wasn’t born here is feeling scared, hated, rejected, unwanted, disrespected, unvalued, and seriously rethinking the decision to live here. Even those who have become citizens.

I’m not taking this shit.

That is not my country. If it’s war to the knife for the American soul, then it’s time to draw the rhetorical steel. Xenophobia has already drawn and slashed away. It isn’t owed a warning.

If your vision of America is a diverse nation that embraces many accents, races, faiths, cultures, and ideas, then you probably value immigration in some form. If you do, then you could tell them. I have begun to do so. My wife has followed suit.

The method is simple. English is a very difficult language to speak without an accent; take that from someone who has learned a number of foreign languages. Most persons who speak with foreign accents were not born here. If it’s important to you, you can ask the person where he or she is from, or what is his or her native language. The only issue is that you wouldn’t want to do this with anyone born here, so however you ascertain that is up to your good sense. And it should be a person whose positive impact you would like to recognize–hard work, kindness, goodwill, whatever. I’m not here to tell you what moves you.

When you do, take a quiet moment, and say something kind and welcoming. “Thank you for coming to this country. I’m glad you’re here. You’ve made it better.” Whatever expresses your feelings; I’m not here to tell you what those should be, what words to use. Just let that person know that America isn’t entirely the wall of xenophobic hatred it has begun to resemble.

Chances are it’s the first time he or she has heard that. You would not believe the results.

  • My dentist wept openly.
  • My doctor smiled a most unreserved Anglo-Scottish smile.
  • The owner of our favorite Middle Eastern restaurant looked very much as if he would cry.
  • A jewelry salesperson lit up with joy.

In every case, it has made a difference for someone who was feeling confusion, fear, rejection, mixed emotions. In every case, I have been glad I did.

I’m going to keep it up. I’ve had it with this bigoted crap. If I’m going to hate anyone, it’s going to be bigots, not people who came to my country and did something to make it better. This bigotry crap may, deep down, represent what America truly is overall, but I’ve never wanted to belong to very many groups, and it doesn’t represent me. It is not necessary to be tolerant of intolerance; that’s fourth-grade logic meant to clear a space for hate. Tolerance of intolerance eventually destroys all tolerance, which is why the intolerant demand their own tolerance–it’s just a slash in that war to the knife, at a spot they imagine to be vulnerable.

I will not be silent, and thus let membership be assumed of me.

If you, like me, look around at the accentless grandchildren of the Vietnamese boat people and smile at their impact; if you look at the accentless children of the Bosnian refugees and smile at their impact; if you look at the survivors of African violence and smile at their impact…then there are at least some immigrants you like. Good; we can work with it. Feel free to say something to those who came from elsewhere, for your own reasons, in your own words, by your own choice, as the situation moves you.

Every time you do, you slash back against nativist hate.

Does your center point move?

If it does, congratulations. Your mind works the way most people’s do. Your life is easy because everyone else understands you, and your views don’t make anyone uncomfortable.

If it doesn’t, I feel for you. Welcome to my world.

Many areas of opinion and judgment may be viewed as continuums: number lines, if you will. Do elementary schools still use number lines to help teach arithmetic? Mine all had them stuck to the wall above the chalkboard (we still had chalkboards). A number line, as I recall them, began with -10 on the left and counted up to zero, then counted up to 10. Zero was one’s center. In a subtle way, I believe this contributed to the formation of many of our moral and ethical perceptions.

Turning to application, the assumptive logic is that every issue must have two sides, each with extreme and moderate stances, and there must be a center balance point that hybridizes both sides in a sort of compromise. This is a comforting way of looking at the world. It means the other side of an issue is never a demon, except for its extremist minority, of which one’s own side of the issue also has such a thing. It means giving the other side a fair shake, recognizing that one’s opposition is also decently minded and simply sees things from a different perspective. Doesn’t that sound sweet as cane sugar?

It also means one can arrange never to be an extremist…because most people’s center point moves from zero with current events. As long as one’s center also moves, one can feel comfortably within at least one embracing faction on any issue. One never need feel isolated. So let’s say that two million households normally go bankrupt in a given year; in the next year, the number doubles to four million. Most of the people who felt that two million was way too many will now decide that two million wasn’t so bad and that four million is way too many. Last year, two million was horrible. Now, two million is cool. The center point has shifted. Being bankrupt still hurts two million people just as much; that doesn’t register with the mainstream.

Of course, if one side’s former moderate segment goes crazy extreme, and that side’s lunatic fringe goes apocalyptically extreme, the relative center point shifts to remain in between the two extremes. And if the opposing side shifts in the same direction, both shifts will drive the center that direction. Now what was once the midpoint is the mainstream position of one side. The new midpoint represents its opposition’s former moderate stance.

In my view, this means a floating moral compass, a concept I find abhorrent when not well monitored. I do not have a problem with a moral compass that moves for reasons of principled reflection. I have a great problem with a moral compass that moves simply because there is a “new normal” that the majority of the public now assigns to the center of the number line–because it believes there must always be a center, and that center is always the point between the extremes.

Let’s take college tuition costs. In my college days (1981-86), in-state tuition cost about $6000 for a four-year degree at a public university. At the minimum, with an entry-level job meant for college graduates without technical degrees, one could expect about $22,000 in annual compensation. (Unless you were lazy, an ass, or a geranium, it would improve within a few years. It meant a frugal existence in a studio apartment, but it was independence.) Thirty years on, tuition at that same university would cost about $48,000. However, that does not mean that the typical entry-level job will pay about $176,000. In fact, not even the typical technical/professional starting pay will approach that. A relativistic moral compass looks at this situation as the “new normal”: enormous student loan debts, stupidity to major in any subject that doesn’t produce a near-certain high-paying job, actual education as a waste of time for most people.

My “normal” has not moved. My normal is that it’s reasonable for college tuition, managed economically, to work out to about a third of what one can expect to earn in one’s first year of an entry-level position requiring some form of bachelor’s degree. Improvement would be for it to work out to about a fourth or a fifth of what one could earn, though if we took it much farther, a lot of people would be in college who truly have no business there. (This in fact is kind of what has happened, with a whole lot of dim bulbs pressured to attend college–another of my generation’s Great Leaps Forward.) Worse would be for it to bloat up to half of one’s beginning earnings, or unthinkably bad, to cost as much as a full year’s beginning gross earnings.

Most people’s “normal” has moved. Think not? Let’s say tuition were cut in half, to $24,000. Would the typical poli sci major be able to earn about $88,000? She wishes. She is more likely to be working at Chipotle for minimum wage or a little better, living to pay student loans, tutoring in Spanish on the side, living with her parents because in no way can she afford student loan payments and independent life. Even if the cost were cut in half, it still produces untenable economics.

My “normal” is still where it was. Most people’s “normal” has shifted so that tuition is still too expensive, but a cut in half would suddenly make it seem cheap. Their “normal” would shift. Mine has not and will not. Current tuition costs are an obscenity, and even if cut in half, will still be an obscenity. The professors have not gotten sixfold raises. Neither have the custodians, the librarians, or the RAs (shoutout to all of my old colleagues, and others who have done that job). Yet universities still demand that much money, and it goes somewhere. To someone. For something.

Either the cost of education is screwed up, the wage scale and job market are, or perhaps both are.

My “normal” will not simply reset to the current situation, or to a point slightly to the more balanced direction of the current situation. This situation is obscene. This is unpardonable. It is unsustainable. My generation let it happen, and it is one reason I consider my generation the worst in American history. We were the last who got to adventure in childhood before full bubblewrap set in, we were the last who could afford financially sane college education, and we turned around and allowed those things to be taken away from our children. Even those of us who did not have kids, like myself, whose number line centers just kept moving as the trees were cut down and the monkey bars were turned to plastic, as CPS was called for unsupervised play and a third of our kids were drugged into not being childish, as wages stagnated and tuition spiraled out of control, as student loan costs began to look like home loan costs and the purpose of college ceased to be education and simply devolved into job training to produce for a corporatist state, who did not scream bloody murder about it and who came to accept a new normal, were complicit by silence and rationalization.

Rationalization is pernicious. It sneaks up on us. Keep rationalizing away increasingly greater evils, and we will one day wake up with moderate evil as one’s “normal.”

One may apply the number line model to many situations, not all of them measured in economic terms. There are just and sensible reasons for one’s “normal” to shift; let’s take race relations. If our “normal” had not shifted from 1950, we would still be a nation of open Archie Bunkers. A few annual lynchings would be expected, as would segregated separate-and-unequal schools (and cans, and drinking fountains, and neighborhoods, etc.). Stereotypical and denigrating overt depictions of minorities would be the norm. Over time, we came to realize that for the majority to mock, denigrate, and lynch minorities was an unacceptable way for a majority to treat our fellow equally human beings (as which, speaking of that, we ought to recognize said minorities). Did we, the privileged majority, become saints? Not even close; but our “normal” shifted. Some, like me, will argue that it didn’t shift far enough, that the compensating efforts are not adequate. When you can still die for your skin color in a traffic stop, I think it’s hard to argue otherwise. But where a “new normal” is born of the gradual rationalization of progressively greater obscenity, I refuse to shift mine.

If two hundred million people do/accept/tolerate/rationalize a wrong or stupid thing, it will still be a wrong or stupid thing. Majority status does not confer rightness or wisdom. Often it means that a whole bunch of people rationalized their way down the number line, taking their center with them, feeding themselves the comforting porridge of a balanced world with two neatly arranged sides, each possessing more or less equal moral and intellectual merit.

I won’t shift my center. I haven’t yet, and it’s too late to start now even if I suddenly decided I needed the comfort of group approval.

That, I find, is a thing I not only do not expect, but do not even desire.

My Archie Bunker experience

Everyone over forty knows exactly what I mean by that. Many under forty may not.

In 1971, the nation was divided and distressed. The Middle East would probably boil over again. We were losing in Vietnam, trying to tell ourselves it wasn’t really losing if we simply quit and abandoned the RVN government to its fate. Back in those days, there was a left wing, including on the world stage where the Soviet Union worked hard to export its authoritarian-left perspective. It seemed to make inroads everywhere. For our part, we talked big about exporting democracy, but the truth was that we’d throw money and support at any dictator who supported us over the Soviets. We lived in daily fear of global thermonuclear war.

At home, the civil rights movement had won its war but would find that winning the peace was much like the difference between de jure and de facto. The women’s movement was still called ‘Women’s Liberation,’ and it was nowhere near winning its war. Men who had fought in World War II did not understand why their sons not only refused to fight in Vietnam, but did anything possible to avoid it. Cowboys and hippies exchanged insults, and at times punches. In the previous year, Ohio National Guardsmen had opened fire on protesters at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine. The year before that, the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese villagers by a platoon of the Americal Division at My Lai had gone far to shake our sense of ourselves as the good guys.

The Pirates won the World Series in 1971, and I turned eight. That year, the sitcom All in the Family first aired. The show depicted a crabby, selfish, bigoted, working-class, staunchly right-wing World War II veteran, Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor). Jean Stapleton played his wife Edith with great comic genius, keeping a straight face when it was hard imagining anyone could; she was far more tolerant than her husband, but just as old-fashioned. With the Bunkers lived their daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), a somewhat dimwitted partner to her husband Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner). Mike, whom Archie typically addressed as ‘Meathead,’ was attending college while he and Gloria lived with the Bunkers to save money. As Archie was a parody of the day’s right wing and social conservatism, Mike parodied the left wing and social liberalism of the day. He was sexist, condescending, self-righteous, and inconsiderate.

I don’t remember Archie ever saying “nigger”–by 1971, that was the first (and only) racial slur that had become unacceptable on a broad social basis–but I’ve been watching old episodes, and I did hear him say “chink,” “spic,” “Hebe,” “gook,” “bohunk,” “fag,” and “Dago.” In nearly every episode, he called Mike a “Polack.” It must be quite jolting to the younger ear; it jolts mine, and I remember when such talk was just starting to go underground, throughout the seventies. (Some of us thought it had been eradicated, but that was wishful thinking. One can prevent a person from articulating bigotry, but that will not change that person’s beliefs.)

The show was so popular because it held up a mirror to the culture of the day, with nuanced characters and some good comedy. It may have been the catalyst for some self-awareness growth. We all knew at least one Archie Bunker. All in the Family ran for nine years, with a couple of middling spinoffs.

The reasons all this matter, at least to me, are:

  1. If I don’t help to tell the history of my times, people will make up fictitious purpose-driven versions.
  2. It touches my life because I came moderately close to being the son-in-law of an Archie Bunker.

Back in my twenties, I got involved with a young lady–we’ll call her Katie–who was in a mode of post-collegiate-but-still-living-at-home rebellion against her parents. The father, who worked construction, might well have been somewhat grateful that this time his daughter had brought home someone of similar ethnic background to herself. The previous one had not been, and you can imagine what Archie (I think I’ll just call him that) had on his mind about that. He was an ugly flat-faced SOB who looked like he could eat wallpaper off a wall, and not without virtues; unfortunately, among his virtues was not multicultural tolerance and acceptance. He was also a troll, and knew that his racism offended me, so he made the most of that: he’d turn the channel to a boxing match, for example, and talk about how much fun it was to watch a couple of “niggers” beat each other up.

Unlike TV’s Archie Bunker, whose wife Edith had a heart of gold, Katie’s mother was as mean and bigoted as her husband, and considerably more vindictive. On some level, her husband was human; the mother was not. In fact, Katie did not have one single relative I could bear: a brother and cousin, clones of the father; an absurdly dumb sister; a stereotypical drunk, deaf uncle. The price of dating Katie, and of later being engaged to her, was to be required to endure these people most weekends.

Can you believe I tried for five years to make this relationship work? Good lord. I had my flaws, and I contributed my share of mistakes, but in the end it was time to bow to reality. Significantly poorer, I moved on in relationships. We still have a few friends in common, but Katie moved on and married (this time, to a Hispanic man; Archie must have just loved that). We haven’t spoken in nearly a quarter century; both her parents are gone, but I’ll be glad just never to have any reminder too direct of that experience.

I guess the point of this tale is that if you’re young, and you happen to be watching old TVLand reruns of All in the Family, and you simply cannot believe they could get away with talking like that on TV (except maybe on premium movie channels), much less that such views were commonplace, believe it. And they are by no means all gone even today.

I hope your generation sees the final die-off of those attitudes, because with their current remalnaissance*, mine will not live to see it.


*For those of you who are not French speakers, this is my neologism for ‘re-misbegotten.’ ‘Renaissance’ means ‘rebirth’ and ‘mal’ means ‘bad.’ It is not meant to be correct French, but to modify the English term to indicate that the original birth was no good either.

It’s time to start telling them the brutal truth

In the past, this blog has described the steady incoming stream of Amazon review requests. Most are easy to dismiss with a reason that is not the only reason, but is a truthful reason:

  • “I don’t review e-books.”
  • “It’s outside my area of interest.”
  • “I cannot spare the time to devote to such a large volume.”

I’m just being gentle.

I’m not helping them by doing so.

Truth: every time, if I thought the book would be interesting, I’d take a review copy and read and review it. Further truth: my work involves reading a great deal of horrible writing and being nice to its authors, and when I am not being paid real money, I have less mental energy to dance around the truth of “this writing is no good.” I have to save more detailed and tactful replies for paying clients. They are entitled to tactful constructive critique in detail, and review-seekers are not.

So we’re getting to:

  • “The review would very likely be negative, which I’m sure was not your objective.”
  • “You have interesting subject matter, but I cannot get past the choppy writing.”
  • “The writing does not reflect competent editing and proofreading services. These are not optional.”
  • “If the Amazon Look Inside feature is at all reflective of the published work, the typesetting is borderline unreadable.”
  • “The writing does not even reach the fundamental baseline for adequacy in print, sorry to say.”

Or, in some odd cases:

  • “I am not sure what about my body of work caused you to think a children’s book would interest me, but it does not.”
  • “This is the second time you have contacted me to volunteer my time as your marketer. When you receive no reply to your first inquiry, a second is probably going to get you the type of attention you would not want. No, thank you; and let that please be the end of this, all right?”

Do I enjoy this? No. Do I wish people didn’t publish crappy writing? With all my heart. Is it my duty to tell them so? No, but if it will avert further solicitations, that’s all right with me. Do I get a kick out of disappointing writers? If I did, I would not be in the business of helping them succeed.

We’re just going to have to lay it out there.

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