“Stability” really matters, for people who already have capital (earned or inherited)

OK, I am “retired”, and I “depend” on past accumulated wealth, much earned but some inherited, to keep these blogs going because they don’t pay for themselves.  They don’t require much money (or Piketty-style capital) to run in the grand scheme of things, but they depend on stable infrastructure, security, and stable economic and personal circumstances for me.

Yes, stability.  And judging from the “outside world” events of recent weeks, it doesn’t sound like something I can count on as much as I have.

For most of my adult working life, I was very much in command of the possibility for my own mistakes to undo me and possibly end my stable I.T. career (as with bad elevations into production).

But early in my life I was forced to be much more aware of eternal demands by the community I was brought in.  Gender conformity had to do with that.  Then came the military draft and Vietnam.  There was an expectation of eventually having a family even if running a gauntlet that could expose me to some personal fair share of community hazards.  This had much more to do with my own “mental health” problems in the age 19-21 range than I probably realized (including a brush with nihilism in 1964).

It is true, of course, that my employment could be affected by outside business events like mergers and takeovers, but in my case these actually worked out in my favor.  And earlier in my work life I was concerned about staying near a large city (New York) where it would be easier for me to “come out”;  the energy crisis was actually a threat to my mobility, as was potentially NYC’s “drop dead” financial meltdown when I was (finally) living there.

So it is, in retirement.  If you have accumulated wealth, you want the world to be stable so you don’t have to watch your back, and face sudden expropriation because of political deterioration (maybe combined with a natural catastrophe).  You want to believe if you pay your bills, make good choices, and play by the “rules” you will be OK.  And you find people knocking for attention your life, and you have to deal with the knowledge that they didn’t have the situational stability that “you” did.

It’s possible to find one’s life suddenly becomes a political bargaining chip. For example, Congress could try to means-test Social Security recipients (even current one) as part of its debt (and debt ceiling) issue.

I have to say I do have a gut reaction from “extremists”, whether associated with Communism (North Korea) or radical Islam, who make threats that sound personal, as if they saw someone like me as a personal enemy.  I do understand the racial contact, that some people will take statements (hate speech) made on the alt-right that way, also. But combativeness has become a problem that I had not anticipated throughout most of my working life.

It is true, also, that the most extreme scenarios from foreign enemies could reduce me personally to nothing.  The conservative Weekly Standard, after 9/11, liked to use the term, being “brought low” because of the resentment of others.  In the North Korean threat, there are many nuances.  The right wing talks about EMP, and the major media refuses to mention it.  It could become a real threat, but my own probing of the utility world suggests it is making some progress in making transformers less vulnerable (to “E3” threats, also posed by extreme solar storms).  (The power companies won’t say exactly what they are doing, for good security reasons.)  Personal electronics, cars, and data can face threats from a different mechanism (“E1”) which actually might be easier for an enemy (including retaliation by the DPRK) to pull off.  This is a developing topic that the major media just doesn’t want to cover yet (outside of cyberwar, which is better known, as with the psychological warfare implications of the Sony hack).

I have to say, too, that for one’s life to come to an end out of political expropriation or violence is particularly ugly.  I was privileged enough to avoid Vietnam combat, and I was “safe” enough not to get HIV, which previously could have been the most dangerous threats I faced.  I was economically stable for my entire work career, which sometime after 9/11.  I did have some family cushion.

The basic reaction from most people is to “belong” to something bigger than the self.  I think all this relates to “the afterlife” and I won’t get into that further right here. In retirement, I’ve had to deal with constant reminders of how narrow my capacity for personal intimacy can be, even if it can be intense in the right circumstances.  Yes, now I have to throw the “psychological defenses” (Rosenfels) to maintain my personal independence and stop being dragged into the causes as others.  Solidarity alone seems rather alien to me, even if I can’t count on affording that kind of attitude forever.

Again, as to the “belonging” idea, throughout history, individuals have suffered because of the actions of their leadership.  In Biblical times, it was considered morally appropriate that all members of a tribe be punished together for “disobedience” (to “Jehovah”).  In modern times, it’s the “everybody gets detention for the sins of one in middle school” problem,

I want to reemphasize my intention so see all my own media initiatives through.  That includes getting a novel out in early 2018, trying to market a screenplay, getting some of my music (written over 50 years, some of it embedded in two big sonatas) performed.  The best chance to make some of this pay for itself would be to get some (perhaps conservative) news outlets interested in some of my blog content, especially in undercovered areas (power grid security, filial responsibility laws, downstream liability protections in online speech scenarios including copyright, defamation, and implicit content (which can include criminal misuse like trafficking).  The intention is to help solve problems in non-partisan manners away from the bundled demands common with “identity politics”.

I tend not to respond to demands for mass “solidarity” with so many other causes, and I usually am not willing to “pimp” someone else’s causes as my own.  But I realize I could be riding on partially unearned privilege, which can become dangerous.  Indeed, having inherited wealth subsumes a responsibility to address needs as they arise;  to ignore them would be tantamount to stealing. I tend to think that helping others is easier if you are in a relationship or have had kids (that became an issue when I was working as a substitute teacher).  I think there can be situations where one has to be prepared to accept others as dependents and “play family” (and this often happens in estate and inheritance situations anyway, although it did not specifically in my own situation). We saw this idea in films like “Raising Helen” and in the TV series “Summerland”.

I’ll mention that it looks like I’m selling the estate house and moving out in October. That would remove the hosting opportunities for now; but, after downsizing, it could make other volunteering much easier and even open up the possibility of volunteer travel (although I need to stay “connected” at all times when traveling as it is now).

I have to add that taking on dependents grates against complacency. It means more willingness to sell other people’s messages rather than on sticking to your own.  Our culture has developed a certain split personality: resistance to sales people or middlemen and to being contacted by cold calls (the robocall and cold call problem), yet an expectation of voluntary personal generosity and inclusivity online.

The sudden announcement of the intended termination of DACA is a good example of how instability affects those less fortunate. Although I really believe Congress will fix it in the required six months, today “dreamers” would have to deal with employers or schools who are uncertain as to what their legal status might be in less than a year.

(Posted: Tuesday, September 5, 2017, at 7 PM EDT)

Will Trump take chances over the debt ceiling in 2017?

Does Donald Trump’s selection of Re, MicK Mulvaney (R-SC) as a future director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) could signal a cavalier attitude toward debt ceiling issue, writes Catherine Rampbell today on p. A17 of the Washington Post.

Rampbell notes that Mulvaney consistenly voted against raising the debt ceiling.  She also explains in the op-ed that the debt ceiling allows the government to pay bills it has already incurred, not to start new spending.  (That’s 99% true.)  Obama has consistently reminded Congress of that in two previous crises on 2011 and 2013.

I had covered some of the details on what a debt ceiling-related default in a posting here on Social Security on May 25.

Rampbell seems to be referring to a reckless statement that Trump had made about the debt, as reported in the National Review by Michael Tanner in May 2016.  Trump had said he would make a “deal” to force bondholders to accept less than face value.  Imagine what that could do to people’s savings and the perception of the relative “safety” of major bond markets.  He would turn US Treasuries into junk bonds. This does not sound like a suitable proposal for “Shark Tank”.  Mark Cuban and Barbara Corcoran would both be “out”.

Rampbell’s “optimistic” assessment was that the appointment of two “Goldman Sachs alumni” to the Cabinet (Treasury) and White House staff would temper Trump into understanding he should not risk tanking the entire economy.

Bipartisan Report gives the facts on the debt ceiling right now.  The debt ceiling rule had been suspended in November 2015.  The debt ceiling comes back on March 16, 2017 (about two months after Trump’s inauguration).  The $20.1 trillion limit will lead the Treasury Department to do “extreme accounting” until the summer of 2017, at which time Trump will have a real crisis.  We hope that as a real businessman he gets it by then.  Maybe his grown kids will explain this to him.

(Posted: Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016 at 10:30 AM EST)

Social Security is not as hard to fix as the right wing claims, but the ideological and legal questions remain

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Sometime in June 2011, as the first great debt ceiling crisis approached, the House Speaker at the time, John Boehner (R-Ohio, and very much “the cigarette smoking man” from “The X-Files”) suggested that we stop paying wealthier social security beneficiaries, that is, start means-testing, because “we don’t have the money”.

Tea Party conservatives like Michelle Bachman tried to play down the meaning of the debt-ceiling, when in fact failing to extend it means that the federal government really might default on payments for money it already owes for money already authorized by Congress. Discussions of prioritizing payments ensued.  There were historic, abortive meetings between Obama and Boehner, talk of grand bargains, and the like.

Throughout most of 2013, which start with what CNN’s Wolf Blitzer is always called “The Fiscal Cliff”, played out the debt ceiling problem in at least two sequences.  On Blogger, on my “Major Issues Blog”, (debt ceiling category link), I wrote many postings on the nitty gritty of the debate, but wondered if more privileged retirees like me would have to “man up”.

The Social Security debate, like so many other issues, has many compartments, and some of them inspire some emotion.

The most striking problem seems to come from a 1960 Supreme Court Opinion, Flemming v. Nestor, which, in a bizarre sequence related to an immigrant with Communist activities, the Court wound up ruling that the U.S. government is not contractually obliged to pay Social Security benefits to (less needy) recipients even though it has collected FICA taxes (often matched by employers) from them over the years.  Social Security gives its own link here.  The Wall Street Journal published a stinging article by David Rivkin and Lee Casey that mentions the Flemming v. Nestor case (opinion ) and also ratifies some Tea Party ideas on the debt ceiling.

So, theoretically, Congress could cut start means testing recipients today to balance the budget.  Donald Trump, for all his bombast, has actually said we should support Social Security and hasn’t gotten into this area yet (he might strengthen his position in the campaign if he did reassure the public again). The disincentive for Congress to do this is political, not constitutional.

But there is a totally separate issue that got conflated.  In a debt ceiling scenario, the Treasury would have to prioritize payments, and the Social Security Trust Fund is one of the largest claimants.  Maybe bond holders would come first.  But in any legal battle over prioritization, the Trust Fund would probably prevail.  I won’t get into the arcane accounting of the Trust Fund and the OMB.  There are a lot of conflicting accounts online of how it actually works by well-meaning professionals.  But the “upshot” (a favorite “New York Times” word) is that even in a debt ceiling crisis, Social Security recipients would probably continue getting their benefits. Means testing is a totally separate thing.

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The best evidence of this assertion comes from answers to my own comment on a New York Times piece Jan. 13, 2013 (one of a series of five interrelated papers by law professors), especially the second answer.  The article was about “prioritizing debt obligations”, by Lawrence Tribe.

The actual comment is not addressable by URL, but it is the 17th for the article.

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The actual condition of Social Security and the “meaning” of the program are somewhat separate issues.  Social Security can pay benefits as promised until 2034 as of now (own statement), but that deadline year might slip down continually with demographics (fewer children, longer lives).  Reputable conservative writing suggests that the Trust Fund can be kept solvent much longer by changing wage indexing to price indexing (a variation of the COLA increase debate), meaning slightly lower benefits over time.  For example, look at the paper by Stephen Entin at Tax Foundation. This would even obviate the need for major FICA tax increases on workers and wage base escalation.  All of this would accompany gradual raising of full retirement age and even allowable early retirement.

But none of this answers the cultural debate over Social Security. When it started in 1937, the first beneficiaries had not paid into the system.  But over time, most working beneficiaries have benefits (including spousal, which can now include gay partners) correlated to their lifetime FICA contributions, more or less like an annuity.  Benefits have been “promised”.  There are various requirements, like ten covered quarters, and an earnings limit during early retirement, which makes little real sense.

Let’s pause on the early retirement issue. When I was “working” in my long track I.T. career, the “culture” was that you retired early (even at 55).  My pension had a “social security bridge” until I reached 62.  Many private pensions have social security offsets that kick in at 62.  This does not make demographic sense today.  In 2000, my own pension was frozen, and replaced with a more generous 401(k) match.

My own benefit is less than if I had waited to “full retirement” (66-1/2) or even 70-1/2.  But in my circumstances back in 2005, I needed to start it.  My actuarial break-even age is about 77-1/2 (in 2012) and I am nearing 73 now.

I definitely counted on Social Security “keeping its promise” as part of my strategy.  I have viewed it as a quasi-annuity.  Of course that brings up privatization, the biggest advantage of which is that politicians like Boehner couldn’t take it away.  Obviously a private program would need to be tightly regulated.  As a whole, open-ended non-liquid investments are not a very wise way to save for retirement.  Another issue is that lower-income people, or those who have kids early, could not afford to set aside “savings” unless more or less compelled to (which FICA does).

Many critics still say that Social Security is really still “welfare” ( Noam Chomsky says that, in a recent film .  Legally, this seems to be the case.  Liberal critics note that social security disadvantages poor people for not living as long, and for not accumulating as many benefits.  Libertarian Harry Browne has even said that better-off current beneficiaries might have to accept a short-term stiff to go to a privatized system. My own reaction is that, to the extent that it is expected to provide only a bare social safety net, then it should be covered by progressive taxation, but  that sounds like something Bernie Sanders would say.  (What’s wrong with that?)

Nevertheless, the “welfare” mentality often motivates rather careless commentary from some quarters.  For example, in 2013, a few people wrote that social security recipients should brace to ask for handouts from “family and friends”, a rather gratuitous and offensive interpretation.

There is no question that my own formal retirement (at 58, from my last major IT job, during the post 9/11 shock at the end of 2001) was too early.  Indeed, people have tried to “bargain” with me, saying that I ought to be able to sell and pimp things like everyone else, to help support OPC (other people’s children).  That’s a moral topic I’ll come back to again.

This may a good place to mention that some conservative groups consider the interest in Congress in offering a “Chapter 9” pseudo-bankruptcy to Puerto Rico could set a dangerous precedents tempting other states to default, on the backs of bondholders who after often seniors with employer-set-up 401(k)’s.  The Center for Individual Freedom (CFIF) has such a warning here. It uses the adjective, “crushed”.

(Published: Monday, May 23, 2016, at 1 :15 PM EDT)

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Update: June 30, 2016

Here’s a useful perspective by Allan Sloan of the Washington Post: “2030: Social Security’s troubles here and now“.

“Resilience” is an important component of personal moral compass

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Back in Fifth Grade (the spring of 1954), we studied “The Pioneers” as a unit of social studies, and made little dioramas and projects, and assembled scrapbooks with little handwritten “reports” and drawings.  One time the teacher, Miss Craft, got mad at us and threatened to cancel the unit, saying we should study “courtesy” instead.

I used to enjoy western shows (in black and white) as a kid, just after we got TV in 1950 – those four-act programs where there would occur a climactic stage wreck (or maybe a train wreck) in the last act.  I once wrote a letter to a TV channel saying Gene Autry should have a horseback race with Roy Rogers.

I would enjoy Walt Disney’s idea of FrontierLand (as well as TomorrowLand and AdventureLand, much more than FantasyLand) and recall the movie “The Great Locomotive Chase” with Fess Parker. (Sorry, I also enjoyed “Howdy Doody” (even Clarabelle and Mr. Bluster) and I even rejoiced in the opening of a fictitious town “Doodyville” back in the summer of 1955, beamed onto BW TV during a summer on an Ohio farm.)  Those we the not-so-good old days of “I Like Ike”.

In 2007. Director Andrew Dominik and Warner Brothers gave us the western “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford”.  There’s a scene where a passenger train, around 1880 or so, is hijacked (by James and company) and all the passengers are robbed somewhere in the Dakotas.  In a way, people were vulnerable to catastrophic “terrorism” then just as we are now.  Smallpox was used as a biological weapon as early as the French and Indian Wars, all the way back in the world of James Fenimore Cooper.

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“Pioneer values” seem uniquely American, or at least North American. Normally, a man saw his land (farm or ranch) and land, once settled, in combination with his family (extended) as the source of psychological identity.  The law (the town or county sheriff) mattered, but there was an element of life that transcended the “system”.  On  the frontier, you took care of yourself and your own family. If a disaster like a wildfire or tornado happened (or if you were overrun by outlaws or native Americans), you rebuilt yourself.  You did things with your hands.

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I guess anyone can tell where I am headed – justifying the Second Amendment, gun ownership, self-defense and the life.  Libertarians sometimes say that the ability to defend oneself and neighbors ought to be seen as a moral obligation.  Switzerland believes this, and escaped the Nazis.  I could digress into the area of bad karma, too:  Americans, in westward expansion, took land away from natives, creating the horrible reservation system we have today, with the diabetes and poverty.  Having lived in Minnesota from 1997-2003, I’ve driven through some reservations in the northern part of the state and in South Dakota.  We also have a system of casinos and gaming that makes some natives rich.  I enjoyed visits to Mystic Lake on Highway 169, SW of Minneapolis, during that period, as the LPMN often had its conventions there.

I do understand the view of people who want the absolute right to defend their own rural strongholds.  But I want to get to a tangential or related issue.  How much should we count on “the system” to be there for us?

It’s true, we usually look at good, prudent, and “moral” behavior in terms of following the rules of the game, especially with the financial system that we have set up to live by. That system can be enriched in speculative but probably, in the long run, beneficial ways (like bitcoin or digital currencies).  And while I don’t follow the extreme positions of some gurus like Porter Stansberry (whom Ron Paul now supports) I think the possibility of future major crashes is very real, partly because debt keeps increasing, and our country (as shown by testing the brinks with the several debt ceiling crises recently) is not absolutely committed to stopping them.  As with we know from Puerto Rico and Greece, we can’t count on being paid back what we’re owed 100% of the time.  Donald Trump has been running around predicting a huge crash and saying only he can save us (read about his latest theories on solvency on Vox here).

So, an individual needs to pay some heed to the idea that the “rules” can change radically in the future, or that law and order could disintegrate, and he or she will still be morally accountable for personal actions, and their putative effect on others, in a much more uncertain environment, t the mercy of external forces.  Coercion does not absolve the need for moral accountability.

The world has been much more stable than it might have been for my adult life. At the outset (when I was 19 and a “patient” at NIH) we dodge the Cuban Missile Crisis (would Nixon have gotten us out of it?_  We’ve reversed the energy crisis and oil embargoes of the 1970s, as well as urban financial crises (at least for NYC when I lived there, but not Detroit).  In the 1980s, AIDS and HIV became an existential threat not only to lives like mine but to the future of “gay rights” as we knew it (an odd away to prioritize things) but became politically and medically manageable with technology.

The biggest before-after moment for a lot of us was 9/11, and so far the worst (in terms of big events) has not happened in the US.  But the danger of asymmetry increases, as ISIS, its internet recruiting of a mass movement, and the attacks in Europe show.  Right now, we can imagine extreme social and economic disruption that could result from dirty bombs (as with news reports after the Brussels attack), bioterror, or even electromagnetic pulse or small nuclear devices, even if the actual likelihood of these seems very small because of (fortunately) the practical difficulty in amateurs’ making them.

Still, our western values, which provoke hidden dependencies and weak karma, may have created a world that seems meaningless to a lot of young men, who seek belonging, an odd sense of sexual power, and revenge.  Furthermore, many people live in parts of the world much more vulnerable to natural catastrophes than others do (including me).  The prospect that people could recover, even group recovery means giving up a lot of personal agendas, itself helps provide some security and deterrence to enemies, and long term stability.  So, reliance matters, even as a personal moral value.

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While the libertarian and sometimes evangelical right sees resilience almost through the lens of a doomsday prepper, there is a very personal side, too, having to do with relationships.  Recently, Ryan McMaken, anticipating a similar subsequent piece by Ron Paul, in criticizing conscription, actually said that being maimed in war is a kind of “tax” that keeps a person from ever being a desirable sexual partner.  But one of the ideas of “conservative” moral thinking has been reserving sexuality for marriage so that if people are faced with sudden physical challenges (even those that affect appearance as well as function) they can still form and keep relationships.  This is an idea related to resilience.  Collectively, it seems to make a whole culture safer (and able to continue itself even if severely challenged by nature or very combative enemies).  That’s one reason why social conservatives want to limit sexual speech and experience to special, socially managed spaces, and resist some retaliatory speech from people who like me who have trouble dealing with their social expectations.

Response to bullying bears on resilience.  In my own thoughts, I’ve detected in recent years a sense that there is no honor in victimhood. But simply disappearing could inspire more bullying of others.  Many “enemies” see bullying not so much as a matter of disagreeing with the values of others as a way to maintain power and control for its own sake. It’s important to note international “bullying” that can affect ordinary civilians (maybe less in the U.S. than Europe), as the disturbing Wall Street Journal article on p. A3 on May 11, 2016, by Perviaz Shallwani and Devlin Barrett.

Emotional aloofness and ostrich-like proclivity to “hunker down” may keep individuals (like me) out of trouble in many circumstances. But that personal strategy is not good for the resilience of the larger group.

(Published: Monday, May 9, 2016, 2:45 PM EDT)