Monday, January 31, 2022

"He could have overturned the election!"

Trump said the quiet part out loud. He wanted to overthrow the 2020 election.

Trump is more "Trump" than ever.  Lucky Democrats.

Donald Trump gives Democrats a path to victory in 2022 and 2024.

We are still in the era of Trump. Biden is president, but Trump commands center stage and sets the agenda for the public mood. Polls show a majority of Americans accept Trump's take on Biden's economy (a disaster), Biden's foreign policy (mishandled), Biden's border and immigration policies (invasion), and Biden's COVID response (ineffective, tiresome tyranny.)  A majority say America is on the wrong track. People are sick and tired of COVID and want to blame someone. Pew.

Biden means well. He is not the evil socialist tyrant that critics on the right claim. He does not have the majority he needs to do the job Democrats expected. That disappoints them. Republicans revel in obstructing him and he is easy to obstruct. That makes him look weak. Public health hawks--and still-overflowing hospitals--won't let Biden declare victory over COVID. The economy is so strong that inflation is a threat. A significant job of the president is to embody and voice a narrative that describes the state of our union. Biden cannot transform into a vigorous leader inspiring a nation with a tone of new energy and purpose, even though the story he could tell is a good one. We knew Biden's limitations from day one. Biden being president means no other Democrat can play that role. Trump takes the opposite side and sells it.

There is one big opportunity for Democrats: Trump himself. 

Trump announced in Texas that if he returned to office he expected to pardon the January 6 rioters. He urged more protest violence if prosecutors in Georgia, New York, and D.C. brought charges against him. He isn't hiding from being a provocateur; he is doubling down. He is openly signaling to people who might testify against him that he is ready to pardon them the way he pardoned Steve Bannon, Michael Flynn, Roger Stone and others. Trump is planting a flag. January 6 and his efforts to overthrow the election were good and proper. Trump isn't about being good. He is about beating the rap.

This is a kind of "Swift Boat" approach. George W. Bush took the worst comparison between himself and John Kerry--Bush's irregular service in the Air National Guard vs. Kerry's medal-winning Vietnam service--and reversed the polarity. Don't hide a weakness. Make it an unapologetic strength. Attack the opponent's strength. Bush's campaign attacked Kerry for being a shirking coward, dodging incoming bullets on the Mekong River. Vietnam was far away and long ago. Bush got away with this re-frame. 

Trump's behavior is current. Prosecutions on the January 6 insurrection and Trump's plan to overthrow the election are front and center now. We see the forged electoral votes, the invented Justice Department claim of vote fraud, Trump's plea to Georgia to "find votes," and the plan for Pence to discard votes. In New York and Georgia we see state crimes prosecuted. Even Trump-loyal Republicans want to avert their eyes. Let's look at the good things Trump did, not this, they say. There is political space there for a Republican and people are trying to claim it. 

Trump is being Trump. He won't let them take that space. To be a Republican and not be a "Wacky Susan Collins," one needs to eat the whole Trump meal. January 6 rioters were patriots and the 2020 election should have been overturned. He said it aloud in Texas and he posted it:
Trump had the political room to "clean up" and mellow. GOP voters would still go along. Instead, Trump says openly that he wanted to overthrow the 2020 election.

A great many Americans will go along with Trump. Americans' commitment to democratic process is fragile. They want the win, not the democracy. But Trump is taking away the fig leaf allowing Republicans to pretend they support both Trump and the democratic process.
"He could have overturned the Election!"
GOP candidates cannot hide from this. Trump isn't moving on. Trump is making this part of the GOP brand and message. That gives Democrats a huge opportunity. Sweet are the uses of adversity.

Sunday, January 30, 2022

Socially responsible investing

ESG investing is an aesthetic.

Please yourself, but don't fool yourself. 

ESG stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance investing. It is a marketing tool. I approve of it. It makes investors happy and I want people to be happy. But I don't harbor illusions about ESG. It is a feel-good pointless gesture.

Calvert Funds brochure photo
In yesterday's blog post I said people who wanted to protect the planet by doing something to reduce use of fossil fuels should buy an electric car powered by a home rooftop electric system. Then, readers should destroy their former gas-powered car. If a person sold or gave it away, it would still be on the road. 

It is the same with stocks. Harvard is divesting from fossil fuels. Avoiding those companies is a near-universal part of ESG screens. When Harvard sells its shares they are shifting their ownership to someone else. That changes nothing. At least Harvard might choose to cast its proxy votes for oil company directors who wanted to steer their companies toward alternative fuels. Who knows what the new owners of the stock will do?

"Socially conscious investing" went from a tiny niche with the Calvert Funds in the mid-1980s into a mainstream investment option for 401k providers. Each ESG investment manager addresses slightly different investor concerns: Fossil fuels, defense contractors, tobacco, or alcohol. Investment managers have big positions in Alphabet (i.e. Google), Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft. We all know something to dislike about each of them. Google sucks up advertising dollars and has destroyed newspapers. Apple assembles its phones in Chinese sweatshops and discards toxic waste there. Amazon has destroyed specialty retail stores that gave communities character, and it works their warehouse employees to exhaustion. Microsoft is a monopoly that squashed competitors and now forces consumers to pay renewing fees. 

In the financial sector, both Moody's and Standard and Poor's meet the ethical screen and are included in many portfolios. Both companies enabled the financial crisis. The ratings agencies dashed off AAA ratings for pools of junk mortgages, happy to collect the fees for their imprimatur. The AAA rating allowed banks to borrow against them as if they were risk-free. Had either rating agency done their duty to give an honest assessment of quality and risk, banks could not have packaged and sold toxic investments to pension funds, defrauding their customers. Neither could banks have destroyed themselves by carrying on their books junk bonds rated AAA. 

In the consumer discretionary sector, Nike is a big ESG component. I like Nike out of local Oregon pride, although I hear their products are made in Asian sweatshops. Oh, well. Home Depot is the single biggest component of that sector in ESG portfolios. I try not to shop at Home Depot personally because the co-founder, Ken Langone, became notable for his campaign contributions and active support for Donald Trump throughout his term of office. I shop elsewhere, even though the Home Depot store is convenient to me. Trump supporters, though, have reason to be unhappy, too. Following the January 6 Capitol riot, Langone told NBC news “Last Wednesday was a disgrace and should never have happened in this country, and if it doesn’t break every American’s heart, something’s wrong, It breaks my heart. I didn’t sign up for that.” 

I am left with mixed feelings. Home Depot isn't good, but maybe it isn't all bad--like every other company.

Not this Oshkosh
Boeing, the company that makes the passenger jets that connect the world, is a major defense contractor. General Electric, whose medical imaging technology saves lives, is one. Health insurer Humana is another. Even that most innocent of companies, Oshkosh Defense, sometimes confused with the creator of young children's clothing, is one, the 15th largest. Aeroweb. Once one looks closely, ethical investing gets complicated.

If a person just looks at the image and ad copy on the prospectus wrapper, being assured that the investments are "ones you can feel good about while aligning your investments with your values," then ESG investments are great. Investors can be comfortable in their ignorance. But the moment one looks into a prospectus to see what companies are in the portfolio one sees nuance and problems. What one is mostly getting is another index fund that is light on oil, tobacco, and aerospace. There is nothing wrong with that. If it pleases a reader to own an "ethical investment," it is harmless to do so. Just skip the details. It will just make you feel you aren't really changing anything, and you aren't.

The way to make a difference in fossil fuels takes sacrifice. Selling something changes nothing. We make a difference by using less.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

I own stock in Exxon and Chevron

People tell me I should feel guilty about owning stocks in Big Oil.

I don't. 

Stocks in companies that find, extract, refine, and sell petroleum products are a pretty good inflation hedge. They also have a good dividend. I own them and feel good about it.

Harvard divests from fossil fuels

The Harvard faculty voted a resolution to divest. Alumni voted pro-divestment candidates onto its Board of Overseers. The pressure was immense. Harvard is divesting from fossil fuels. 

I am not. Harvard is blaming the wrong target. They heat their buildings, thank goodness. It gets cold there. Harvard should look in a mirror.

Yes, fossil fuels are putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and I agree it is dangerous for the planet. Humans repeatedly change the environment with unintended bad consequences. We destroyed a cod fishery by overfishing; we destroyed salmon runs by killing beavers and building dams; we nearly killed off the bison; and we succeeded in killing off passenger pigeons. The earth is a big place but we are changing it and we don't know the implications.

Miami and Miami Beach flood zones in maroon. 

A change from fossil fuels won't be made by people selling Exxon. It will happen when people find alternative fuels to be more convenient and less expensive. We humans create the demand. Harvard uses oil. I use oil. Every reader of this blog uses oil.  

Want to save the planet? Use less fossil fuel. Support development of alternative fuels. Support taxes on fossil fuels to compensate for its externalities. If you own oil stocks, vote proxies urging the company to diversify into hydrogen and other technologies.

Investment advice. Feels like old times. I studied investments and gave investment advice for 30 years, I have been retired for six years. I might be wrong. Unexpected stuff happens. You could lose money doing anything, including nothing 

1. In the long run owning a diversified stock portfolio is an inflation hedge because as inflation raises nominal prices, those prices are reflected in the higher nominal earnings. Those earnings are eventually reflected in higher stock values. The problem is that in the short run--maybe years or decades--stock prices dance to their own drummer. They might be totally disconnected from the overall price level. Moreover, inflation likely means that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates, which traditionally risks a decline in stock prices. The result is a double whammy, not a hedge.

2. Refined oil is both a consumer item and an input into the manufacture and transport of nearly everything. The price of oil in the U.S. should generally reflect the cost of production of new oil to replace the oil that was consumed the day prior. There is enough competition in the industry that the price of oil reflects a market, not an artificial, rigged price. That means the price of oil generally eventually reflects the real-world costs of oil leases, oilfield employees, refining costs, capital costs, marketing costs--everything. The goal is to have an investment thoroughly linked to the real world, with a product that is ubiquitous and essential. Such a product might track inflation. It usually does. See "Energy" there in the upper right of this chart. 

Hartford Funds

3. Oil companies are a "mature" industry. Some people would say it is a dying, dinosaur industry. Why own it when the future is elsewhere? I consider Big Oil's maturity to be a benefit. Mature companies pay dividends (Exxon 4.7%; Chevron 4.4%) because they are rewarding their owners in the here and now, not reinvesting profits toward some open-ended future. The dividend means that they are less likely to be repriced downward by the Fed raising interest rates to deal with inflation. (When interest rates go up, investors discount future potential cash flows at a higher rate, driving down the current price. Companies with dividends in the here and now are less affected.)  

4. Warning. Things can go wrongWhen market sentiment changes nearly everything can go down, even oil stocks. Oil stocks have their own potential problems. Oil is a world commodity and it is transportable. Therefore, what happens with prices in the USA is important, but not determinative. There are other oil producing countries with the power to set volumes and prices, especially Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia can produce oil for next to nothing. They could flood the world with cheap oil for a few years to try to put U.S. production out of business--or at least to send us some blunt message about our relations with Israel. They probably won't do it. It isn't in their economic interest. But they could. Bottom line, the thing that makes oil a good inflation hedge--its centrality in world commerce and the price of everything--makes it a potential weapon. There are no perfect hedges. There are no perfect investments.

Advice for readers: If you want to do something to reduce carbon emissions, install solar power on your house. Don't sell your current vehicle to someone else. They would continue to use fossil fuels. Destroy it. Replace it with an electric one, especially if your electricity comes from solar from your roof. Vote for higher taxes on fossil fuels. Get the money to do all this from your dividends on oil company stocks. It isn't hypocritical and it would do some good.

Friday, January 28, 2022

Climate versus Democracy

I like high gasoline prices. I wish they were higher.

Some things are hard to do in a democracy.

A lot of my friends think Big Oil is the problem. I don't. I think my fellow Americans are the problem.

Gasoline prices are visible in-your-face reminders of inflation. High gasoline prices are bad politics. 

California gas prices
Politicians have a problem taking actions to raise gasoline prices to address climate change. Republicans oppose taxes; Democrats oppose regressive ones. Families of low or moderate income spend a higher percentage of income on transportation fuel than do wealthy people. That concerns Democrats. Higher gasoline prices generally favor people in cities and disfavor people in the countryside. That concerns Republicans.

I like high gasoline prices because they are a persuasive price signal telling people to use cheaper alternatives. When it is cheaper for people to fuel electric vehicles with solar panels on the roof of their homes than it is to buy gasoline, then the whole economic system will adjust. Solar companies will install collectors, financial firms will finance them, and car companies will have the vehicles to buy. It is starting to happen.

I have written before that I don't blame Big Oil for drilling, refining, and selling us gasoline. We use fossil fuels because they were available and cheap, and 19th century technology made it work. Fossil fuels are still cheap. We still flair off natural gas at many wells because it doesn't pay to collect and sell it. We don't buy fossil fuels because we are talked into it by some con man. We want them. Oil companies supply what we demand. 

Americans have every power to regulate how oil is drilled, refined and sold. When people in Oklahoma get tired of the mini-earthquakes they will elect politicians who will create new fracking rules. If drilling and fracking causes methane leaks--and they do--then it is up to the American political system to stop it. We won't do that? Whose fault is that?  

Businesses offload their externalities onto the public, or the future, or into oceans, or onto foreigners. We know that. We see it. We know that conscience and good will is an unreliable brake on selfishness. There must be mechanisms to shape self-interest. That is what democratic government is supposed to do. 

Trump: 69%--Biden: 30%
Democrats are probably correct in thinking that a majority of people favor "saving the planet from climate change." What is not correct is that a majority of people are willing to sacrifice very much to achieve that goal. What is my evidence for such a claim? The politics we experience right now. Coal mining has tortured and scarred West Virginia; surely people there hate what it has done to their state. No. If a majority of people hated coal mining no amount of money in campaign contributions could keep coal-supporters in office. Politicians support coal because the voters do. Wyoming, Texas, Oklahoma, and North Dakota are all coal or oil states. They are the most Republican states in the country. 

I don't praise selfishness. I describe our political reality. We-the-people make choices. We are the enablers of Big Oil. We distract ourselves when we blame the wrong target. There is reason for Democrats, environmentalists, and climate activists to want to deflect blame onto Big Oil. Their real complaint is with a sacred target: Democracy itself. People are reluctant to sacrifice for the common good, especially for a distant and remote purpose. Democrats think that surely the problem must be campaign finance corruption, or mass delusions created by Fox News, or gerrymandering, or too many senators from the wrong states. Anything but us, selfish humans, using the energy source that is cheapest and most convenient.

China might lead the U.S. in addressing climate. The air in some cities there is bad enough to motivate their political process. If their leadership decides to transition from coal to nuclear, solar, and wind they need not worry about pesky voters in coal country.

In a democracy, the way to put Big Oil out of business is to create cheaper and better alternatives to oil. That needs to be the focus for Democrats. We cannot force change on people, but when fossil fuels cost more than alternatives we won't need to. 

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Where your food comes from.

I am proud to grow melons. They are delicious and healthy.

It takes fossil fuels to grow them.

Most of the work I do to prepare a field to plant in melons is done with a big green John Deere tractor. It uses diesel fuel. I sit on a tractor seat to operate it, and it feels like driving a truck. 

The work with small equipment is a very different experience. Melons are planted in spaced "hills" about 30 inches apart, positioned in rows. The solid-looking rows in the June photos below are plants that have grown together. 

I switch from using a large tractor to a small tiller to get in between the plants to control weeds and keep the soil loose. Melons grow fast. There is a lot of change in a short time. Notice the size of the plants and the color of the adjacent barley field in less than a month.

May 31

June 23

June 29

The machine in the photo below is just like mine, except that it is new and shiny. Mine is well-used. Notice the tilling attachment at the back. Eighteen tines rotate rapidly when the gear is engaged, clearing a 20 inch path. The tiller grinds the ground, making it easy for the shallow and delicate melon roots to spread out. Melons are not good competitors against weeds, so the farmer needs to control weeds. The tiller does a faster and better job than hand hoeing. The Honda motor starts on the second or third pull at the beginning of the year and the first pull thereafter. I don't baby the tiller, but I only use ethanol-free gasoline. Ethanol gums up carburetors in small engines.

The machine teaches me something. It sends an unmistakable, wordless message that gasoline is very, very concentrated energy. The power imbedded in gasoline is normally invisible in the everyday life of Americans. Gasoline flows unseen from filling station underground tank to the pump through the hose into one's car tank. Our attention is on the transaction; less on the reality that we are putting chemical energy into a machine. The power it takes to move a two-ton vehicle 70 miles an hour is reduced to a simple awareness that the car uses gasoline and it travels a certain number of miles per gallon. When driving, our minds are on the destination and traffic, not on the fact that thousands of explosions are happening in the engine compartment.

Operating this tiller is entirely different. One sees the gasoline one puts into the half-gallon tank as one pours it. The machine is loud. One hears the cylinders firing: rata-rata-rata-rata, faster than one can say it. When one engages the gears for the tilling blades, one sees grinding right at one's feet. The handlebars vibrate. The rear of the machine bounces if one hits a rock. One imagines fury when the throttle is turned up and the blades turn and relentlessly grind. It kicks up dust if the top of the soil is dry. Sometimes dirt clods fly off to the sides. One sees, feels, and hears work being done, work that would be so hard and tedious to do with a spade or hoe. Gasoline made all that happen. So much work for so little gasoline.

There is a political point to this. I respect gasoline. I respect fossil fuels. I see up close and firsthand what they can do. Long term, I understand they fit into a bigger narrative. They are changing the earth's atmosphere, which is a huge big-picture problem. Another narrative is that fossil fuels are being phased out as people look for new energy sources. I participate in that. I have converted my chain saw and leaf blower to battery power. I drive a hybrid car. I put in a reservation for an electric Ford pickup truck. 

There is another narrative in the here-and-now that I want to share: Diesel and gasoline will be around a long time because they are really useful.

People I generally agree with on politics criticize fossil fuels and the companies that sell it. I have an unpopular point of view on this. I decided that it will take four blog posts to make my point.

This post is the first of the four: If people are going to eat healthy food then they ought to know what makes it possible--fossil fuels. 

Tomorrow: Who is more guilty? Me for wanting Chevron's ethanol-free gasoline or them for selling it?

The day after:  I discuss the investment merit of owning fossil fuel companies, both for income and as an inflation hedge.

The day after that: Socially responsible investing. Let's identify some good-conscience investments.

Wednesday, January 26, 2022

People of Color

"People of Color" is a category error. 

Democrats need to wise up about identity politics or they will put Trump back into office.

Democrats hope to form an electoral majority with a coalition of people who feel aggrieved over having gotten a raw deal.  Groups that are targets of prejudice are part of the coalition: Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, Muslims, women. Every one of them has a legitimate raw deal.

GOP opposition helped define Democrats in a way that preserved the White working class as part of that coalition. The party of Goldwater, Reagan and Romney was a libertarian pro-business party. It was the party of the Chamber of Commerce. GOP messaging said that trickle down would work if taxes on the richest were low enough. It said that regulations protecting workers or the environment were burdensome. The GOP opposed labor unions. They opposed raising the minimum wage. The GOP message kept the White working class on board with Democrats.

The Democratic coalition is falling apart. Frustrations over COVID, the optics on Afghanistan, and Biden's inability to cheerlead our economy are setting up Democrats to lose big in 2022 and 2024. Democrats cannot count on Republicans self-destructing by keeping as party leader an unhinged Trump. Trump might continue to insist the election was stolen and praise insurrection rioters as patriots and still might not lose.

Led by thought leaders in nonprofits and universities and the elite media, Democrats have concluded that identity is destiny. They concluded Martin Luther King's dream, that his children should be judged by the content of their character not the color of their skin was naive and wrong. King's dream was an aspiration. Most Americans acknowledge racism, but their aspiration is a better future of equal opportunity. Democratic thought leaders may think they are realists doing the work of racial justice. They are counterproductive. They are understood as pessimists, as racists themselves, and as oppressive accusers. It is a loser of a message.

In perceiving identity-oppression as central, Democrats are slow to respond to the reality that too many of their supposed beneficiaries disagree. The college admissions lawsuits make clear that the interests of ambitious Asian immigrants is very different from the interests of native-born Blacks. They aren't team-mates. The erosion of votes in predominately Hispanic counties in Texas demonstrate Hispanic team identity is an illusion. Cubans aren't Mexicans aren't Puerto Ricans.  Hispanics aren't bonded by common interests. Citizen Hispanics have different interests than newcomers. 

Native-born Black Americans have a powerful shaping experiences and memories: Slavery, segregation, back-of-the-bus stigmatization, mortgage red lining, and "driving while Black." Immigrants to America, including ones with dark skin, have a different experience and orientation. America represents opportunity for them. Their glass is half full. They expect hard work and achievements to be rewarded, not resented or confiscated. Immigrant success does not upset the social order.

Democrats are getting the worst of both worlds. Their focus on identity and oppression is failing to unify their coalition because their coalition is not unified. Identity politics does serve to unify opposition. White Americans have heard the message that they are the bad guys. 

I expect 2022 to be a disaster for Democrats. It is too late to change their message and leadership. It likely will embolden Trump. Trump may frighten Republicans into even tighter conformity with him, and therefore frighten 2024 voters back into the arms of anyone-but-Trump. Democrats could win by losing.

There is a better future for Democrats, though, than being the party that survives by not being Trump. That would be a Democratic candidate in an open primary who pushes reset by openly saying he or she disagrees with the identity notion of Democrats and substitutes an optimistic opportunity message. Such a candidate does not need to create something brand new. It could be a return to the politics of aspiration. It would say that Martin Luther King was right. Race and identity are not central. Equality and economic opportunity are.

Such a spokesperson will hurt some feelings. Democratic thought leaders want desperately to believe that Blacks, Asians, Jews, LGBTQ, Hispanics, women, and every other group wants diversity, inclusion, and equity. There is something condescending and glass-half-empty about particularizing victimhood and doing overt government action to adjust for equity. I suspect that voters desire a different message. If Democrats don't offer it, a Republican will. Black South Carolina Democrats pointed the way. A majority of people in those groups want to be treated like free, capable Americans. That is their identity.

A Democrat could win with that message.

Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Oregon and Utah

Vote by mail should be a bipartisan issue. 

It needs bipartisan advocates. 

We have them: Oregon and Utah.

Everyone understands that Oregon is blue. Portland was the subject of parody for its over-the-top cultural blueness in the TV show Portlandia. Fox News spread Oregon's reputation, using it as a poster child of presumed Democratic disfunction. Oregon's reputation is a caricature. No matter. Oregon's reputation is securely blue.  

Everyone understands Utah is red. Utah is the strait-laced, LDS-dominated, corny, Eagle Scout, all-American archetype of family-values Republican red. It is red without irony or apology. It is old-school red, small town red. Utah's reputation for redness is secure.

The reputations of these two states are a national asset. They offer credibility and reassurance to partisans of both parties. Both states use vote by mail. Elected officials with knowledge and experience know it works. They say so publicly.  

Vote by mail resolves the problems of long lines on election days. It allows better vote security than in-person voting because bar-coded envelopes and signature matching mean ballots are trackable and linked to identifiable people. It spreads out what is otherwise a crush of people in one day, a workday. Mail voting lets people read ballot titles and arguments at their own pace, sitting at a kitchen table, not standing in a booth. Mail balloting creates an auditable paper trail. 

Oregon now has a Democrat as our chief election official, the Secretary of State, elected in 2020. The 2020 election was overseen by Republican Beverly Clarno, who filled the unexpired term of Republican Dennis Richardson. Oregon's 2020 election went off without problems. In April, 2021, after reviewing the referrals from county clerks and the questions raised by skeptics, Secretary of State Shemia Fagan wrote, "To be clear, there is no reason to doubt the security and results of the 2020 election. In fact, there is every reason to trust their accuracy and security." 

However, she said she realized mail voting is under attack. "We are not immune to the poison of misinformation. Despite becoming the nation's first all vote by mail state over 20 years ago, and where Republicans and Democrats alike have served as Secretaries of State," there remains distrust of vote-by-mail, she said. It is due to "misinformation and disinformation" in an echo chamber of social media and "some media outlets."

Democrat Fagan from Oregon has little credibility to change minds within that echo chamber. Republican voters have heard from better-trusted voices that mail voting is irredeemably corrupt. Fagan is on team blue. Why trust her?

Utah's election went smoothly, too. Their chief election office is their Lieutenant Governor. In 2020 their Lt. Governor was Spencer Cox, a Republican. He was on the ballot for governor and he won. He said there was "no evidence of mass voter fraud" either in Utah or nationally. The new Lt. Governor, Deidre Henderson, also a Republican, vouched for the safety and quality of the Utah vote-by-mail system. "I'm confident in the integrity of our elections." 

Utah election officials have credibility with Republicans. Oregon election officials have credibility with Democrats. That is the opportunity. Together, the election officials of the two states could meet to declare mail voting to be a safe, indeed superior, system. The joint message demonstrates with body language that there is no hidden, secret advantage to one party or another. It isn't a devious plot. Mail ballots elect people of both parties. 

Governor Cox took time in his State of the State address this week to bemoan the "unsubstantiated claims and flat-out lies" that have undermined faith in elections. Governor Cox is sending a message Oregon should welcome:

As a conservative, I believe that we should always work to make constitutional rights more accessible, not less. I am very proud that voter participation has increased since I became lieutenant governor and now governor. We can have safe and secure elections without making it harder to exercise our constitutional right to vote.”

Oregon's Fagan and Brown could say the same thing, changing only the opening words to "As a Democrat." The time is ripe. The nation is debating voting access. There is misinformation shaping the debate. Republicans are distrustful. Oregon and Utah, standing together with the same message, makes a powerful statement.

Oregon, pick up the phone. Call Utah.  

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Monday, January 24, 2022

Culture shock

Another look back: 
Oregon boys encounter the Jim Crow South

Oregon entered the Union in 1859 as a free state. Its pioneer residents primarily came from northern states along the Oregon Trail to the fertile Willamette Valley. Oregonians opposed slavery. They also opposed Black residents, writing exclusionary laws that prohibited Blacks from owning property, voting, or remaining in Oregon. 

A hundred years later the exclusionary laws were gone, but the reality on the ground was a state with few Black residents, even in the Portland area. Tam Moore and Larry Slessler are members of the Silent Generation, boys who grew up and went to school in the small cities of Medford and Corvallis, each of which then had about 18,000 people. Moore remembers one Black girl in junior high school, who moved away before high school. Larry Slessler remembers no Blacks at Medford High School in the 1950s.

1957 Ford Thunderbird
Moore and Slessler each graduated from college, entered the military service, and were sent to Vietnam. Each had military training in the American South which brought them into contact with the pre-Civil Rights culture. 

My fellow Baby Boomers came of age as the Civil Rights era  was underway. Our vivid early memories were of demonstrations, police dogs, fire hoses, and Martin Luther King. It was a period of change. Moore and Slessler were outsiders, witnessing with fresh eyes what came before the change. 

Tam Moore:
My own life in the South during military times reflected similar distain for the Jim Crow culture. 

Lt. Moore, in Vietnam
I sold my car in early 1957 before my Corvallis High buddy Jack Young and I drove east to Columbus, GA for second lieutenant school at Fort Benning. It was a red Olds 88, a great car. And sure enough in late spring I found a used Ford Thunderbird for sale at a Fort Lauderdale service station. Of course I bought it.
The tires were worn, the only thing wrong. So on a day off from the Infantry School, I drove the T-Bird into a Columbus, Georgia tire shop for a new set of really-good tires. A White guy who literally had a red neck took my order for what was probably the shop's biggest single order of the day -- five new tires. What I watched, while those tires went on, was the "redneck" verbally abusing the sweating Black men who did all of the work in the bays. The boss man never put a hand on a tire, just talked, sometimes condescendingly. It left a lasting impression. 

That memory lingered again, and I shared it with Medford lawyer Tom Parks, a former Peace Corps volunteer, who sadly just died this month. I shared it after he told me the story of two White college kids (he was one of them) riding bicycles across the South to join the 1963 Freedom March. He told me they experienced culture shock. Repeatedly.

Larry Slessler: 

Slessler, 1961

In 1962, I was a young Lt. stationed in South Carolina. In late September 1962; my wife Kathie, 5 month old daughter Jennifer and I moved to a different rental. Our landlord and his wife, Mr. and Mrs. “P” were a middle aged couple living next door. They could not have been kinder to us.

Both Mr. and Mrs. P treated Kathie and me like a son and daughter and Jennifer like a granddaughter. Mr. P took me fishing and taught me the fine art of southern lake fishing. Spending time with him was a pleasure.

Things went a bit “South” for us after a few months into 1963. I had made friends with a fellow Lt and Kathie liked his wife. We invited them over for dinner and social time. Quintin and Edna were a well-educated black couple from the northeast. We four had a grand evening and I looked forward to seeing Quinten at work. We both were huge sports fans and had a lot in common.
The next evening Mr. P called on me. He said; “I told the boys you are just a dumb northerner and don’t know any better. If you ever repeat last night I can’t keep them off you.” That threat was delivered with a real edge that left no doubt about what would happen. From that moment on Quinton and our wives could socialize only on a military installation. Jim Crow and the KKK were alive and well in 1963 South Carolina.

Later that year Mr. and Mrs. P came to us for a favor. Mrs. P had been diagnosed with cancer. The nearest place for the treatment she required was at Duke Hospital in North Carolina. Mr. P ask us to take care of their place as they would be gone for at least 10 days-two weeks. We agreed to care take.

To my surprise, Mr. and Mrs. P were back in two or three days. I asked them why they were back so soon. I was hoping for good news like a false diagnoses. Mrs. P looked me in the eye and said; “There were “N’s” in the hospital and she would die first before she would be in a hospital with “N’s.” And she did--die of cancer.

To this day I cannot grasp the kind of inner racial hatred that consumed Mrs. P. She was so kind and loving on one hand and so full of venomous hate on the other based solely on skin color. I didn’t understand in 1963 and I still don’t in 2022.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

1962: Back of the Bus

A look back. We've come a long way.

     "We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice."

            Martin Luther King, Jr. 1968

Republican myth-making imagines an earlier period of national greatness, a Golden Age of MAGA prosperity. There was social order. Traditions were observed. Blacks and Women knew their places. One nation under God.  Democratic thought leaders have been sharing another mythic past, one that posits that unequal power between the races is a central force in American culture and politics, there from the beginning. The myth understands racism and injustice to be better hidden now, but they persist. They are systemic, hard wired into American laws and institutions.

It helps to look back. Like other Americans in their early 80s, Larry Slessler has direct personal memories of the transformation in America. Things have changed. He lived it and saw it. 

Larry graduated from Medford, Oregon's one public high school in 1957. There were no Black students then, nor were there any in 1967 when I graduated as part of a class of 800. Larry's life experience widened after college and his entry into the military. 

Guest Post by Larry Slessler

In early 1962, two years before the Beatles' U.S. musical invasion, before segregation was repealed, and 6 years before Martin Luther King was assassinated, I was a brand new 2nd Lieutenant assigned to a duty posting in the Jim Crow state of South Carolina. I was 21 and my wife, Kathie, was 19. Both of us were naive “kids” from Medford, Oregon. South Carolinian culture felt like being in a foreign land.

Money was tight for us. Even adjusting for inflation, my monthly military pay of $305 did not allow for frills. My wife was pregnant with my first daughter, Jennifer, later born in May, 1962. We were lucky because the bus line ran a block from our newly rented house. Kathie could take the bus to and from appointments.

In late March Kathie waited at the bus stop for her first South Carolina bus ride and appointment with a military doctor. Kathie lived in the country growing up and school buses were her norm. Kathie climbed aboard the bus and went directly to her favorite spot, the bench seat at the very back of the bus. She paid no attention to her surroundings. After a short time the bus driver walked back to her and suggested she would be much more comfortable up front. Kathie politely replied that she preferred the back and didn’t move. 

At this point there was a culture and legal problem. South Carolina buses were segregated, and this 19 year old blond, fair skinned and obvious mother-to-be was sitting in the “Colored” section of the bus. She was oblivious.

The driver, by now in a mild panic, insisted that the ride up front would be so much better. Again Kathie said she liked the back. Finally the driver said, “You can’t ride back here, it is the law.” Sunrise dawned in my wife’s mind. She noticed there were only Black folks in the back area and all of them were avoiding eye contact with the bus driver and that dumb blond girl from some other planet besides earth.
The driver finally realized this crazy White girl was not going to budge. He knew what to do if a Black tried to sit in the White section. He likely had never considered what to do if a White tried to sit in the Black section. 

Kathie told me that night over dinner that the bus driver rushed to the driver’s seat and attempted to break the land speed record before depositing “Crazy White girl” at the military stop. Today there would be a dozen camera phone recordings on a dozen news channels of the event. I suspect there were a number of dinner table discussions that night in 1962, in both White and Black homes, about the crazy girl.

A few weeks later Kathie went into labor. Adventures continued. About 20 minutes after my daughter Jennifer was born, another mother on the ward came down with Chicken Pox. All the moms and newborns were sent home.

 A few weeks later I was assigned to a three month Intelligence School in Texas. Lt. Slessler, Kathie, and five-week-old daughter Jennifer headed to Texas. I would return to South Carolina in October, 1962 in time to deploy to Florida and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I served in South Carolina, Texas, Florida and Alabama from late 1961 to August 1964. I got to live in and observe the segregated South, the laws, the upheaval of de-segregation, and the chaos of that early de-segregation. My early world was segregation in my civilian life and integration when on my military duty stations. I could socialize with blacks on any place that was military, but could not in the town I lived in.

I am proud that Kathie defied the color barrier in 1962. In July of 1964 Kathie, Jennifer, and I visited the closest national park to witness the desegregation in action. The park was deserted. Blacks and Whites stayed home. The next month, August 1964, came the Gulf of Tonkin event and escalation of the war in Vietnam. I was on tour in Vietnam for a year. I saw Black and White blood flow in an equality not yet achieved back home.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

"Help Wanted"

The Baby Boom busted. 

Americans stopped having three kids. Now it's fewer than two. 

Of course there's a labor shortage. It will get worse.

Between 2000 and 2010, the population under the age of 18 grew at a rate of 2.6 percent. The growth rate was even slower for those aged 18 to 44 (0.6 percent). . ..
The population aged 65 and over also grew at a faster rate (15.1 percent) than the population under age 45.

           U.S. Census Bureau 

The fertility rate has dropped almost in half during my lifetime. Women went from having three children to two.

In past decades immigration powered our population growth. They entered the country and then had big families. That is changing. Immigrants become "Americanized" in family size. Over the past two decades, birth rates among foreign-born Hispanics dropped to nearly the same rate as White immigrants. Children of Hispanic immigrants--the 2nd generation--have essentially the same birth rates as native-born Americans.

In the early 1970s a huge cohort of Baby Boomers came into the work force. Americans experienced a population panic. Paul Erlich's The Population Bomb predicted we were on an unstoppable trend of population growth. He said the "Mother of the Year" should be a sterilized woman with two adopted children. Then reliable contraception became widespread. As countries become wealthier, and women had more freedom, they chose to have fewer babies or none at all. Women got educations and jobs. The birthrate dropped to below replacement rate and keeps dropping.   

A school of thought among Democrats is that American women might have more children if children were not so expensive. Maybe if we had universal health care and child care, free pre-K, and more family-friendly taxation then young women would have more children. The data suggest otherwise. Low birthrates are universal in developed countries, in both Asia and Europe. The average woman in the European Union has 1.57 children, well below the replacement rate of 2.1. This includes notable "Catholic" countries, including Italy. It is also true in Protestant countries with robust social welfare programs. Sweden and Denmark have a fertility rate of 1.7 child per woman.

The COVID pandemic caused another decline in birthrates on top of the long-term trend. Births have a seasonality. They rise in the spring and peak in the summer. Babies are started in the winter and peak in the spring. The COVID shutdowns in the spring of 2020 showed up as yet-lower births in 2021. 

Americans are experiencing something new and unfamiliar, a labor shortage. Baby Boomers are retiring and dying, which explains some of it. Fewer babies explain some more. For decades economists wrestled with unemployment. Unemployment is imbedded in our mindset and the mission of the Federal Reserve. There aren't jobs for people, we worried, and it will cause poverty and social unrest. We need to update our concerns. Boomers are retiring and we have a shortage of workers. Worse, looking ahead, we aren't producing new Americans who will enter the workforce in future decades and into mid-century. That is baked into the birthrate numbers.

We are encountering two trends in conflict. One is the resistance to population "globalism," i.e. immigration, one of the elements of a free market and movement of labor. The other is a need for workers to do the work desired by the prosperous consumers created by the free market and movement of capital.

The "culture war" that stopped comprehensive immigration reform is not unique to the U.S. We see it everywhere, from Brexit in Britain, to the rise of nationalist parties in Europe, to China's "re-education" of non-Han people, to religious nationalism in Turkey, to anti-Islam policies in India. Populist movements are pressing their governments to close ranks around traditional ethnicity and national culture. 

Meanwhile, in the developed countries, we aren't replacing our own populations, so there is a labor shortage. Countries that still have high birthrates in Africa, Latin America, and Asia are producing workers. There is dis-equilibrium in supply and demand. It will get worse. Something big has got to change and it will shape the political conflicts of the next decades. It is already shaping the conflicts in this one.

Friday, January 21, 2022

Long haired hippy student radical

Anti-vaxxers are part of a tribe.

Opposition to vaccinations isn't about health risks. It is a tribal marker. 


A comment posted by Portland resident John Flenniken yesterday put into place something so obvious that I hadn't noticed it. 

That is the nature of category errors. In category errors one misunderstands the entire nature of something, like mistaking a family gathering for a wedding instead of a funeral. Like the CDC and most Democratic governors, I thought the data of health outcomes was overwhelming and therefore would be persuasive to the vaccine resistant. Get vaccinated and live. We have charts that show it. Public service ads show doctors and nurses talking about crowded hospitals. Vaccinations make sense. Simple.

Not simple. Vaccinations aren't about health. They are about tribe. Much of what the pro-vaccination health care establishment does is worse than irrelevant. It backfires. Pleading hardens opposition. Mandates create martyrs.

John Flenniken is a retired safety engineer for an electric utility, Pacific Power, a job he took because he could not support his family as a high school chemistry teacher. He observed:

Denying the Covid vaccine has become a rite, akin to bra and draft card burning. It is a way to identify yourself to the group you most admire and relate.   

You spout the tribal gospel and repeat the mantra to yourself and others. You proselytize your belief. To prove your faith in this new belief, you abandon caution and meet in groups for hours, maskless and unvaccinated. You validate your faith in being unvaccinated by hearing about the masses of infected and dying but you're fine and healthy they were masked and maybe vaccinated. You scoff and ridicule the masked populous. Like handling a poisonous viper and not getting bite you demonstrate your faith and cement your place in the tribe. That someone from outside your tribe may smile or chuckle at a death in your group does not resonate. You are a true believer. 

As the whole world around you tells you to get vaccinated and wear a mask the more militant you become. It's now about freedom akin to religious liberty. You are now ready to fight.

I should have noticed a tribal marker. I was young in the late 1960s. I've been there. I was part of the tribe of long-haired youthful student radicals.

1970 at college
I did not need to be a hippy to be part of the tribe. By the fashion of the time, I was "clean for Gene" but guys wore their hair long and shaggy. Girls wore it long and parted in the middle, like Joan Baez. I didn't support fellow students occupying college buildings, but I was forced to look a part and choose a tribe. I could be part of an unthinkable tribe--the people directly or indirectly supporting the war in Vietnam--or the tribe of people who opposed it. I didn't agree with my tribe, but I knew what I opposed and I knew the tribal markers. I had shaggy hair.

Trump leads a tribe. He understood Republicans better than does Romney, Ryan, McConnell, or the Bush family. He made an early decision to downplay COVID. He could have gone the other way, called it a War on COVID, and unified Americans under that banner. It was a fatal miscalculation for him politically and for his team now, as they die disproportionately from COVID. He defines and enforces the boundaries of the team's membership and thought. Resistance to the CDC, Anthony Fauci, vaccinations, and masks became markers for the team long before Biden was elected. 

GOP gathering. No masks, hospital full.
Nothing Richard Nixon might have said could get me to trim my hair shorter. Only leaders within the anti-vaccination team can move the needle much farther on vaccinations. Trump would need to give full-throated persistent support to vaccination and compliance with indoor mask-wearing. I am imagining an alternative past. Had the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Jefferson Airplane, and a dozen other people of prominence and credibility, cut their hair and made some other conspicuous marker, maybe wore black tee shirts instead of tie-dye and bell bottoms, maybe we all would have moved on. The tribe is more persistent than its uniform.