Here We Go Again

You’d think that, after the crash of the housing market, the failure of banks, the stock market plunge, and the Great Recession of 2008-2009 that still is affecting the economy in many parts of the country, modern Americans would have learned a painful but lasting lesson about taking on too much debt.

It looks like you’d be wrong.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York report on household debt says that Americans are collectively approaching the record level of debt that we had accumulated in 2008, and probably will break through that record this year.  According to the report, by the end of 2016 our collective household debt, which includes everything from mortgages to credit cards to student loans to car loans, had risen to $12.58 trillion, which is just below the 2008 record of $12.68 trillion.  Even worse, last year our debt load increased by a whopping $460 billion, which is the largest increase in a decade.  Mortgage loan balances are now $8.48 trillion, which accounts for about 67 percent of the total debt load.  And the total amount of debt increased in every category being measured.

The experts say there’s reason to think that 2017 is different, because there are fewer delinquencies being reported now — about half as many as was the case in 2008 — and fewer consumer bankruptcies, too.  Who knows?  Maybe the banks that are extending all of that credit are a lot more judicious in their loan decisions than they were in 2006, 2007, and 2008, and maybe Americans have become much more capable of juggling enormous amounts of personal debt.

And maybe we’ll all live happily ever after in the Land of Narn.

It’s a good illustration of how people have changed.  Anyone who lived through the Great Depression was permanently scarred by the experience; they became forever frugal, suspicious of any kind of debt, and relentlessly focused on building up their savings and paying off that mortgage so they and their friends could hold a “burn the mortgage” party.  The lessons they learned during the Great Depression were still motivating their decisions decades later.

The “Great Recession” clearly hasn’t had the same kind of lasting impact.  It seems that modern Americans just never learn.

The Bridge Report

It’s not just gigantic dams and spillways that we need to worry about.  Those of us who regularly use the nation’s interstate highway system should be thinking about whether that bridge that our car is rolling across is safe, too — because a recently released report has concluded that thousands of our bridges are structurally deficient.

Lines of cars are pictured during a rush hour traffic jam on GuoOK, perhaps we should read this report with a healthy grain of salt, because the source is the American Road and Transportation Builders Association.  Getting a report from the ARTBA about whether more bridge repair and construction projects should be funded is like getting a restaurant review from the head chef — you’ve got to think that there’s a bit of self-interest lurking in there somewhere.

Still, the report is based on Department of Transportation data, which scores all bridges on a nine-point scale.  Here’s an amazing statistic:  173,919 of the bridges in the U.S. — more than one in four — are at least 50 years old and have never had major reconstruction work.  I know they built things well back in the ’50s and ’60s, but 50 years of carrying increasing loads of cars and trucks over rivers and inlet and gorges, without an overhaul, seems like an extremely long time.  The report also concludes that more than 55,000 bridges in America are structurally deficient and 13,000 bridges on our interstates need to be replaced, widened, or repaired.

So, our interstate highway system needs work — and by the way we need to figure out how to fund that work, because the increasing fuel efficiency of our cars and trucks means that the gas tax is producing less revenue than expected.  And we need to get local and state governments, who haven’t been carrying their share of the maintenance load, off the dime, too.

I’m sure I’ve driven over dozens of the bridges on the ARTBA’s “deficient bridges” list, without being aware of the structural deficiency issues.  Let’s hope that people pay some attention to this particular area of infrastructure need, before we have another catastrophic bridge collapse that finally spurs people into doing what they should have been doing for years now.

Pathetic Proofreading

The Library of Congress recently released an inaugural poster of our new President with a quote from him — and as you can see below it had a big, embarrassing typo in it.

trumpposterIt’s true.  The Library of Congress, for God’s sake!   The home of hundreds of thousands of books, started when Congress purchased the personal library of Thomas Jefferson, apparently doesn’t employ a decent proofreader who knows the difference between “to” and “too.”

It’s sad, but it’s not really surprising.  Proofreading is an art that is pretty much gone with the wind.  People used to pride themselves on zealously catching typos and misspellings and other written errors.  These days, though, people type things up and blast them out, whether via Twitter or blogs or Facebook, and nobody bothers to check them for spelling or grammar or the proper use of the King’s English.  We’ve gotten to the point where we basically accept the casual typo or the misuse of a word because . . . well, because we’re just in too much of a hurry to pay attention to those little, trifling details.  As I said . . . it’s sad.

But really — the Library of Congress?  The official inaugural poster?  If there’s one thing that should be proofread to a fare the well, that’s it.  For shame!

Lessons From A Crumbling Spillway

People have been holding their breath and keeping their fingers crossed out in northern California.  Thousands of residents from a number of communities have been evacuated after a spillway from the massive Oroville dam was determined to be on the brink of failure.  As of early this morning, fortunately, it looks like the spillway will hold.

oroville-dam-side-view-associated-press-640x480The Oroville Dam story is an interesting one.  California has been struggling with drought conditions for years, but then recently got hit with lots of rain and snow that has filled its reservoirs and allowed officials to declare that drought conditions are over.  Now, though, the spillway failure raises questions about whether the state’s water control infrastructure is up to the task of dealing with water flow in non-drought conditions.

It’s a story that you probably could write about much of America’s infrastructure from the east coast to the west coast, and all points in between.  As you drive under bridges that look to be cracked and crumbling, with chunks of concrete missing and rebar exposed, travel through airports that are beat up and obviously overtaxed, and walk past retaining walls that are bowed out, you wonder about whether the folks in charge are paying much attention to the basics.  And, of course, that doesn’t even begin to address “hidden” infrastructure, like dams and reservoirs, sewer piping and spillways, electrical grids and stormwater drains, that are underground or removed from population centers.  There is a lingering sense that the concrete, steel, and piping that holds the country up has been neglected — perhaps because bridges, tunnels, dams, and reservoirs don’t vote, lobby legislators, or fill council chambers, demanding their share of tax dollars.

President Trump has talked about addressing these infrastructure issues — such as our “third world” airports — and it’s an issue about which there seems to be some consensus among both Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C.  But there’s more to it than that.  Not every bridge or reservoir is a federal issue that requires federal tax dollars or federal bureaucrats issuing approvals.  Local and state governmental officials need to recognize that they have responsibility, too, and they can’t continue to shortchange maintenance and improvement of core infrastructure.  Rather than just holding their hands out to Uncle Sam, they need to look to their own budgets and tax revenues to fund the repair and refurbishment effort, too.

Perhaps the Oroville Dam story will get people to start paying attention to what they should have been paying attention to all along.

Super Unfunny

Super Bowl LI will be the stuff of legend, but the commercials during the game?  Not so much.

I can’t say that I saw every commercial broadcast during the game, of course, but the ones I did see weren’t very memorable.  Basically, in this Super Bowl as in other Super Bowls, the commercials fell into two main categories:  the tedious “story” ads that hit you over the head with a message, and the ads that are supposed to be funny.  (There’s also a third category of weird, one-off ads from companies that simply want to get their name out there during the Super Bowl, even though there is basically no chance that 99.99% of the viewing audience will ever purchase their product or service.  This year, the Morgan Freeman ad for Turkish Airlines aptly represents that category.  Turkish Airlines?  Really?)

The enormous Super Bowl audience endures the “story” ads, and accepts the perverse notion of large corporate sponsors lecturing us on the proper way of thinking about something, in hopes that the ads that are trying to be funny will make us laugh.

This year . . . not so much.  I like seeing Melissa McCarthy slammed around as much as the next guy, but her ad was symptomatic of the flaws that seemed to infect all of the wannabe funny ads — a thin premise that gets beaten to death and tries way too hard.  You sit and watch them, kind of shake your head, and marvel that this is the best that a huge ad agency and a million-dollar commercial buy can do.  I didn’t see anything clever or original in a way comparable to the classic “Doberhuahua” ad from a few years ago, for example — and because we could all use a hearty laugh these days, I’ve linked to it below.

Who knows?  Maybe a symptom of aging is that you think the commercials during past Super Bowls are better than the current crop — but I doubt it.

Redefining “Presidential,” And Reconsidering Overreaction

In some way, Donald Trump is like the weather:  you’d like to ignore him, but you just can’t.  He’s like that blustering, loud summer thunderstorm that blows in on the day you’ve scheduled an outdoor party and requires everybody to change their plans whether they want to or not.

It’s pretty obvious, after only a few days in office, that the era of Trump is going to change how we look at our presidents, and what we consider to be “presidential” behavior.  In recent decades, we’ve become used to our presidents maintaining a certain public decorum and discretion.  Sure, there have been a few exceptions in the sexual dalliance department, but for the most part our modern presidents have tried to take the personal high road.  They leave the attacks to their minions and strive to stay above the fray.

Imacon Color ScannerNot President Trump.  He’s down there himself, throwing punches via Twitter.  His most recent activities in this regard involve lashing out at the federal district court judge that issued a temporary restraining order against Trump’s immigration executive order.  Trump referred to Judge James Robart as a “so-called judge” and said his ruling was ridiculous.  Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer immediately attacked Trump, saying his comment “shows a disdain for an independent judiciary that doesn’t always bend to his wishes and a continued lack of respect for the Constitution.”

I’ve got mixed feelings about all of this.  I personally prefer the more genteel, above-the-fray presidential model; I think it’s more fitting for a great nation that seeks to inspire others and lead by example.  I wish our President wouldn’t “tweet.”  But I also recognize that American presidents haven’t always been that way.  The behavior of presidents of the 1800s — think Andrew Jackson, for example — was a lot more bare-knuckled than what has come since.

I also think there’s danger for the Democrats in repeatedly overreacting to Trump.  If you argue that everything Trump does is the most outrageous travesty in the history of the republic (and that’s pretty much what you get from the Democrats these days) you ultimately are going to be viewed as the boy who cried wolf — which means the townspeople aren’t going to pay attention when you really want them to listen.  And in this case the reality is that, since the very early days of our country, elected politicians have been strongly criticizing judges.  Andrew Jackson famously declined to enforce a Supreme Court ruling, and Abraham Lincoln harshly lambasted the Supreme Court, and its Chief Justice, after the Dred Scott decision.  More recently, the rulings of the Warren Court became a political lightning rod during the ’60s, and President Obama saw fit to directly criticize the current Supreme Court, sitting right in front of him during a State of the Union speech, about their Citizens United ruling.

So Trump’s reference to a “so-called judge” really isn’t that big a deal when viewed in the historical context.  What’s weird about it is that it comes out in tweets — which makes it seem less presidential and, because it’s a tweet, less serious.  When Trump has these little outbursts I think if the Democrats simply shook their heads and said that what Trump is doing is “regrettable,” without acting like his every move threatens to bring down the Constitution, Trump’s Twitter act will wear thin on its own.

But they can’t help themselves right now, and neither can Trump.  So we’re going to have to ride out a few of those thunderstorms.

College Crack-Up

There was rioting on the University of California campus at Berkeley earlier this week — the worst kind of rioting.

screen-shot-2017-02-02-at-10-43-55-am-1024x682A protest was planned to try to stop a speech that was to be given by a conservative figure named Milo Yiannopoulos, and according to the University, “150 masked agitators” came onto campus to turn the protest into a riot.  During the ensuing melee, two UC Berkeley students who happened to be Republicans were attacked while giving an interview, a suit-wearing student was pepper-sprayed and beaten with a rod because a protester through he “looked like a Nazi,” the mob threw Molotov cocktails and commercial grade fireworks at police and smashed windows, and the riot ultimately caused $100,000 worth of damage to the campus.  Oh, yeah — the college cancelled the speech by Yiannopoulos and spirited him off campus “amid the violence and destruction of property and out of concern for public safety.”

So, the protest that turned into a riot achieved its ultimate goal of preventing a speech by a right-wing guy who consciously strives to be provocative and whose perspective many people find vile and hateful.  It’s not clear whether all of the protesters/rioters were there out of concern about Yiannopoulos’ views — UC administrators believe that some of the people who came to the protest from off campus were with a local anarchist group called “Black Bloc” that has been causing problems in Oakland for years and that may have just been looking for an excuse to pelt police and bust some glass — but the outcome is not a good one for those who believe in free speech, even if the speech is by someone whose views are appalling.  According to a piece written by a UC student, some of the students on campus are wondering whether the violence was justified because a peaceful protest would not have succeeded in preventing Yiannopoulos’ speech.   If that view is widespread, the Berkeley incident sends exactly the wrong message:  violence works if you are looking to prevent speech by someone you oppose.  That attitude should send a shudder through the administrative offices of colleges across the land.

I think UC-Berkeley botched this whole process.  It’s time for colleges to get back to being places that tolerate all kinds of speech and that recognize that the response to disagreeable speech — even the most vile, toxic, hateful speech — is not riots, but more speech in opposition.  Rather than breaking windows, how about “teach-ins” by professors who disagree with Yiannopoulos’ views and can respond to his remarks and his approach, after Yiannopoulos is allowed to say whatever he intends to say?  That’s what would have happened on the OSU campus when I was a student back in the ’70s.

Riots should never be tolerated, but riots that are a conscious effort to quash free speech are especially wrong.  Colleges need to stiffen their spines and make sure that the rights of all speakers are respected and protected.