I Intend to Vote Everyday

Young people tend to think their vote doesn’t matter (compared to the views of older Americans).

Which is a shame. Because their cynicism is directly tied to public policy, which favors older Americans and, quite frankly, is responsible for younger ones getting the shaft these days.

But it is what it is. If young Americans don’t care enough to vote, then I’m not about to feel sorry for them when their government sticks it to them. Decisions have consequences. Both good and bad. Surely they can’t be so stupid not to realize that.

I also don’t get worked up about it because I realize being politically active involves more than voting. A whole lot more. In fact, the case can be made that our vote is a minor political act in the overall scheme of things.

So what’s potentially even more important than voting?
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What Do I Understand Now That I Wish I’d Understood Then?

What do I understand (or at least think I understand) now that I wish I had understood when I had began my journey through adulthood? It’s of no consequence to me, of course: it’s impossible to turn back the clock. But it might be of some help to you, Vera.

In looking back I’m struck by how naïve I was when I came out of high school and, four years later, college. I had little appreciation for what the world was really like. Growing up in a working-class family in homogenous rural south-central Pennsylvania hadn’t exposed me to much. My world was very small.

More than four decades of career experiences in law, business (CEO), government (special agent for DOD and, later, cabinet secretary), and higher ed (college president) changed that. To a degree. There is still much about life I don’t understand or, perhaps more accurately, refuse to accept. I’m still learning and always will be. Nonetheless, life has imparted a few lessons along the way.

Some of the lessons were easy to learn; some were hard. Some were moments of euphoria and left fond memories; some were painful and left scars. Others were learned merely by reading or observing. (It’s always preferable to learn from other people’s wisdom or mistakes.) I decided to compose a list of what I consider to have been some of the most important lessons.

What the list isn’t, however, is a list of rules to live by. I’m not fond of rules and would never suggest life is so easily mastered. Moreover, as I’ve mentioned before, I have absolutely no desire to tell you how to live your life, Vera. Rather, I’m simply sharing some of the things I wish I had better understood when I was young, starting out.

Some of the lessons are practical; some are of the existential variety. The list is neither complete nor final. After all, I’m still learning.

Please don’t infer an order of priority, for none is intended. “You” and “your,” below, refer to me; it is as if life is speaking to me. Occasional personal comments follow parenthetically. Continue reading

The Absurdity of American Democracy In the Era of Big Money

I’ve just about had it with all the whining and complaining (which, I admit, is ironic considering the complaining I’m doing here). Events in Washington and in many of our state capitals prove, over and over again, just how corrupt and ineffectual the system is. And the degree to which money has coopted the system. And just how far we are from a functioning democracy.

And so we complain. And whine. And bitch. And point the finger at everyone. Except ourselves that is.

We seem oblivious to the connection between money and the output we receive. We tolerate a system of campaign finance that is certain to be a corrupting influence. And we keep electing people to offices despite their proven track record of ineptitude. And despite their venile behavior. And cruel words.

To make matters worse, many of us have allowed ourselves to be corrupted by a naive, self-destructive ideology. We willingly accept as true absurd claims made by people who are interested in nothing other than their own self-interest. We seem to have lost the traits of skepticism and discernment. We seem to have lost any sense of how a democracy is supposed to work.

And so we are where we are.

But this too shall pass, I believe. Eventually, we shall come to a more enlightened era, when people realize the inherent dangers of unconstrained greed and power. When people understand the work that’s necessary to build and sustain a society that yields the best quality of life for everyone. When people recognize the absurdity in calling people winners or losers. When people no longer react favorably to acts of cruelty.

I don’t know when that day will come. I may be gone from this earth by the time it comes. But it will come.

In the meantime, we should accept responsibility for that which we have created. And stop pointing the finger. The system we have is the system that is the predictable, inevitable product of that which we value. And are willing to tolerate.

Today, money rules. So stop feigning surprise.

What Goes Up, Can Go Down

Here we go again. Somehow, someway, we forget the maxim that has survived the test of time: What goes up, can go down.

In the first decade of this century, many of us thought, despite overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary, that real estate values could only go up. Millions of foreclosures and bankruptcies later, we discovered we were wrong. We had to relearn the lesson the hard way. But it seems we didn’t learn the lesson at all.

I read in this morning’s newspaper how people are spending more and even dipping into their savings because they feel wealthier due to rising stock and real estate prices. Indeed, the savings rate has fallen of late, just when interest rates are showing the urge to rise. Bad timing.

People are borrowing more money to buy stocks. And they’re taking expensive vacations beyond their means. And going deeper into debt to pay for colleges they can’t afford. And buying more house than they need.

An overwhelming majority of investors think the stock market will be higher in six months. They might be right. But they might be wrong. Are they prepared to be wrong? Many aren’t.

Reason would dictate you’d sock more money away during the good times — for rainy days, college, retirement, or simply to have a safety net. But by now it’s pretty obvious many of us live for today and aren’t all that concerned about tomorrow.

History tells us it’s highly likely, at some point, the stock market will fall quite a bit from its current lofty levels. It could be tomorrow. It could take longer. But it surely will fall.

There is a good chance real estate values, at least in certain areas, will fall, too.

If any of these inflated values are sustainable, it will be in only nominal terms, that is, without taking inflation or currency values into account. People are acting that neither is a significant risk. I fear they’ll be mistaken on one or both counts. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any scenario that sees a stronger dollar in the long term. And we know inflation and interest rates are already below historical norms, suggesting the risk to the upside is not immaterial.

The timing and sequence of events are impossible to predict. A material decline, in real terms, in the value of equities and real estate is easy to predict.

But either way, it’s only a prediction. And that’s the point: the future is unknown. All we can know for sure is there will be bumps in the road. At some point, what went up will go down.

Warren Buffett, the most successful investor in the world in my lifetime, is famous for saying, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.”

When asset values fall, or inflation rises, or the dollar falls, or interest rates rise, as these things will most surely do at some point, we’ll discover who was swimming naked.

Save yourself the embarrassment, Vera. Act prudently. Never assume the sun will shine forever just because it’s shining today. And don’t forget life’s hard lessons, particularly this one: What goes up, can go down. And try not to be surprised or unprepared when it does.

P.S. 2/12/18 – This cartoon seemed appropriate.

Turning Black Friday White

Many people are shopping today. Data show that some of them haven’t yet paid off the bills from last year’s shopping binges. But it won’t stop them from shopping more.

In the short-term, this is good for the economy and, by extension, for the rest of us. The long-term is a different story. But, as Americans are prone to do, we’ll deal with that if and when it becomes a problem.

I don’t need anything and I don’t know anyone who does, so I won’t be shopping today. It occurred to me, however, that that’s a problem. Why don’t I know anyone who needs anything?

Perhaps I know too few people. Or perhaps my sphere of personal interactions is too small.

I don’t feel the need to shop, but I do feel like I should have to shop. I feel like I should know someone who needs something.

In general, I think we’re either givers or takers. Most of us aren’t one or the other entirely; we’re a mixture of both. I have seen, however, people who seem to be 100 percent takers. I don’t find them to be attractive and have no desire to emulate them. But perhaps I’m more like them than I care to admit.

What I’ve learned over the course of my life is giving matters. It helps keep us grounded. It helps us maintain proper perspective. It nourishes our souls and makes us better people.

I used to think staying away from the stores was a good thing. That not spending was meritorious. But I’m no longer so sure.