Tippecanoe And His Accidency, Too

Yesterday marked the 177th anniversary of an interesting point in American history.  On April 4, 1841, President William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia, only 31 days after taking office.  He became the first President to die in office, and remains to this day the President who had the shortest tenure in the White House.

125274-004-91e5633aBut that’s not the interesting part, in my view.  Instead, the interesting question was:  what comes next?  The Constitution, at that point, made no specific provision for what to do if a President died in office.  Vice President John Tyler, who ran with Harrison on the catchy if somewhat dismissive slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” decided that he inevitably should ascend to the presidency and become President himself.  The Constitution wasn’t exactly clear on that point, and whether the Vice President should simply remain Vice President but exercise presidential powers when necessary.  But Tyler was resolute.  He took the oath of office, insisted on exercising the full powers of the presidency, and even gave an inaugural address.  He also was reportedly very prickly about how he came to occupy the Oval Office, and purportedly refused to acknowledge correspondence addressed to him as “Acting President.”

We should add, incidentally, that Tyler may not have been motivated solely by a desire to avoid a constitutional crisis:  by becoming the President in name, Tyler’s annual salary increased five-fold, from $5,000 a year to $25,000 a year.  And Tyler wasn’t exactly a good guy, either — he was a slave owner who later supported the Confederacy and died while serving in the Confederate Congress.

But eventually the Congress went along with Tyler’s approach to presidential succession, and even though his foes derided him as “His Accidency,” the “Tyler precedent” on presidential succession was established — to be followed after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the assassination of James Garfield, and all of the other instances of vice presidential succession until the 25th Amendment, which established specific rules on the succession process, was ratified more than 100 years later.

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The Insatiable Political Money Appetite

Some years ago a friend’s relative ran for political office.  The friend sheepishly asked if we might make a contribution to the campaign.  I didn’t know the relative, but we wanted to be supportive, so we kicked in a modest sum.  It’s the only political contribution I’ve made in recent memory.

What happened next was that my email address, and the fact that I’d made a financial contribution, got shared with other politicians of the same political party — and suddenly I was receiving regular emails from lots of elected officials and erstwhile candidates for national and statewide office.  The list of my political email correspondents continues to grow, and every one of the messages, without exception, seeks money.  I’ll get four or five emails a day from the candidates themselves, their campaign managers, their political directors, and even other politicians who are supporting their campaigns.

67815-mr_creosote-monty-python-obesity“I’m asking you for $5.”  “Robert, did you see the message from X?”  “We need your help to meet our March fundraising goal.”  “Don’t be fooled — this is not a safe seat.”  “We’re counting on you to help us crush the dark forces of evil represented by the other party.”  (OK, the last one isn’t a verbatim quote, but that’s the gist.)

It’s amazing how many fundraising appeals are sent, and how constant the barrage is.  I suppose I could remove myself from the lists, but I find it interesting to get even this limited perspective into how our current political system works.  It’s all about money, and scare tactics, and a parade of horribles designed to wrest a few bucks from the common man.  And interestingly, every email with a desperate request for money that I get makes me less inclined to make another contribution.  The fundraising pleas aren’t only manipulative, they also show that if I did make another contribution I’d only be feeding the beast, encouraging an even more overwhelming barrage of emails, and probably causing the campaigns to hire more people to do even more fundraising.

The appetite of political campaigns for money is as insatiable as the appetite of Monty Python’s colossal diner.  You wonder if, like the diner, one day it’s all going to blow up.

Should Federal Taxpayers Pay Off Student Loans?

During the 2016 presidential election, the student loan debt of Americans was one of the issues that attracted attention.  Bernie Sanders, for example, advocated for the federal government paying the college tuition of students attending public colleges and universities — with the cost to be covered by a tax on “Wall Street speculators” — and others argued that the federal government should pay off the student loans of college graduates who have found that the real-world problem of paying off their debt is interfering with their ability to follow their dreams.

So, should the federal government pay off student loan debts?  After all, the feds bailed out GM and has helped the big banks, and our politicians have just approved a $1.3 trillion interim spending package — so why not just toss a few billion dollars more onto the national debt load and help out those overwhelmed college grads who are working as waiters or baristas rather than pursuing whatever career awaits philosophy majors?

One of the problems with one-size-fits-all solutions is that, by definition, they do not take into account the important differences that may be revealed if individual circumstances are examined.  That’s where a recent survey of college students comes in.  A company called LendEDU, which operates in the student loan space, polled 1,000 college students at four-year institutions who are receiving student loans — and it found that more than half of them admitted to using their student loan proceeds to pay for spring break vacations.

That’s possible because of the way student loans are administered.  Colleges and universities get the proceeds, take out the tuition costs, and then remit the remainder to the students — who can use it for pretty much whatever they want, including some fun in the sun with their fellow students.  The LendEDU poll isn’t scientific, and of course there are highly responsible college students who aren’t using their student loan proceeds for a frolic and detour on the beach.  Nevertheless, how students actually used their student loans certainly seems like the kind of information we’d want to consider before we decide to pay off their debts.  (And, incidentally, I would apply the same test before bailing out large corporate institutions, too.)

Which of the federal taxpayers among us wants to foot the bill for last Saturday’s excellent kegger?

The Sap Test

The story of Cambridge Analytica is an interesting one.  Mother Jones has a fascinating article on how the British firm came to America making big promises to provide in-depth voter profile data and targeted marketing to Republican presidential campaigns — including the Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Donald Trump campaigns — and not really delivering on its big promises.  Along the way, Cambridge Analytica got Facebook into trouble, because Cambridge claimed to “harvest” Facebook’s user profiles and other data to “exploit” what was known about them and to “target their inner demons.”

d40It’s a good read on several levels.  There’s a bit of a thrill in seeing, again, that political masterminds can be played for saps, and it’s always a rewarding reaffirmation of democratic values to read how people’s contributions to political campaigns are spent — or in this case, misspent — on efforts to manipulate voter views and carefully position candidates to appeal to them.  That the Cambridge Analytica big promises apparently went largely unfulfilled doesn’t alter the fact that political campaigns paid it huge amounts of money precisely to provide the kind of information that would permit the campaigns to appeal to voter biases and prejudices and preexisting views — in short, to “target their inner demons.”  And let’s not kid ourselves, either:  Cambridge Analytica was working for Republican candidates in 2016, but Democratic candidates no doubt hired similar research firms and consultants to try to use data to warp voter views in the opposite direction.  It’s worth thinking about that the next time you’re asked to contribute money in response to the latest in the endless fundraising appeals we get from candidates.

But there’s another good lesson lurking in the Cambridge Analytica story, too — about how apparently innocent “personality tests” and other social media staples can be used to assemble masses of data about millions of Americans that can then be used in totally unknown ways.  Every time you respond to the command on one of those annoying “like if you agree” or “share if you agree” posts, or take a “test” to show that you’re one of the people who would be able to identify TV stars from the ’80s, you are creating data that somebody is storing, accessing, counting, analyzing, and then using to develop targeted ads for products — or, potentially, some kind of targeted political message that is supposed to appeal to your likes, dislikes, and demographic category based on the data that you’ve voluntarily provided.

The Cambridge Analytica story, and what it tells us about the data being provided, is food for thought the next time you’re considering disclosing a little piece of your personal information in response to a Facebook quiz or other social media meme.  It would probably be better for everyone if saps like us keep the information about those “inner demons” under wraps.

Where’s A Budget-Cutter To Turn?

Congress has passed, and President Trump has signed, a $1.3 trillion interim federal spending bill.

That’s $1.3 trillion, with a “t.”  And that’s interim, in that the colossal amount of spending will only fund our out-of-control federal government until September 30, when another spending bill will be needed.

8125974243_f6ce8726f2_bPresident Trump, who briefly raised the threat of a veto before putting his John Hancock on the bill, says he’ll never sign another bill like this one.  I’m calling BS on that one.  The reality is that, for people like me who think our country has an enormous spending problem that eventually will be our downfall, there’s nowhere to turn.  The Democrats never met a domestic spending program that they didn’t want to increase.  The Republicans, who posture about deficit responsibility, have shown that they are too craven, and too interested in avoiding ruffling any feathers that might interfere with their reelection prospects, to tackle the tough job of actually reducing, and in some instances eliminating, federal programs that really aren’t necessary.  And President Trump is a deal-maker who will gladly rationalize just about anything, just as he did with this latest monstrosity by saying that the increase in military spending makes all of the rest of the irresponsibility palatable.

There are no longer any institutional forces that will restrain federal spending or cause our political class to act like statesmen and take the long-term, good-for-the-country view.  There’s no appetite whatsoever for careful judgment, for systematic review of whether programs are actually working, and for making the thoughtful choices that are a crucial part of living within your means.  Once again, we’re seeing concrete evidence that the current class of political leaders are the worst political leaders in history.

We’re on the cash-paved road to failure, and spending ourselves into oblivion, and nobody seems to really care about doing anything about it.

Willful Ignorance

Kish shared a fascinating article with me, a New York Times piece about a man who was upset by the election of Donald Trump and, ever since, has decided to retreat from getting information about what’s going on in the world.

stream_imgA former corporate executive, Erik Hagerman lives alone on a pig farm in Glouster, Ohio, in the southeastern part of the state.  He’s consciously avoided getting any information about what has happened in America since November 8, 2016, and has taken steps with his friends and his life to enforce the ban.  No social media.  Constantly reminding his mother, family, and friends, and the baristas at the local coffee shop, to honor what he calls The Blockade.  And, as a result, he is blissfully unaware of everything that is happened for the past year and a half.

I say “blissfully,” because Mr. Hagerman reports that he’s “emotionally healthier than I’ve ever felt.”

When I first read the article, I thought that Mr. Hagerman’s solution to the news of President Trump’s election sounded pretty juvenile and immature.  Really?  An adult who can’t cope with adverse news and decides to disengage from the world as a result, like the kid who gets mad at his friends and takes his football and goes home?  But after thinking about it, I wonder if Mr. Hagerman’s example isn’t worth emulating, even if only a little bit.  Why work yourself into a lather on a daily basis about faraway political races, investigations, congressional hearings, and other that are beyond your control?  Why expose yourself to social media memes that are just going to get under your skin?  It makes you think about what’s really important, doesn’t it?

Most of us don’t have the ability to move to a pig farm in rural Ohio, live a solitary life, and shield ourselves from reality.  Our jobs require us to have a least a rudimentary awareness of what is going on in the world, as we deal with customers and clients and colleagues.  But maybe some disengagement from the big, bad world, and a renewed focus on our families and things like reading the classics, taking long walks with our loved ones, or starting a new do-it-yourself project at home would be good for us all.

A total blockade won’t work, but total immersion isn’t a wise thing, either.  Trying to strike a balance makes sense.

On The Roller-Coaster Ride

If you’ve got some of your retirement savings invested in the stock market, as many of us do, the last few days have been unnerving.  The market had an historic run up, and then it went down again.  Yesterday, where the Dow Jones Industrial Average at one point had dropped 1600 points, was an especially wild ride.

704254-001When the market behaves like this, what’s a normal investor, who’s not an insider or a financial kingpin, supposed to do?  You can get dizzy just reading all of the different views of what is “really” going on.  Some people say it’s just a predictable correction after years of historic gains.  Some say the Trump tax cuts have overheated the economy and the market is reacting to that.  Some say we’re long overdue for a bear market.  And some say the Federal Reserve Board hates President Trump and his focus on the stock market as a proxy for his presidency and just wants to bring him down low.

(The last theory, in which the Fed would be intentionally manipulating the market for overt political purposes, is especially troubling — and even in these conspiratorial times, seems pretty unbelievable.  To buy that theory, you’ve got to conclude that the Fed’s dislike for President Trump is so powerful that they are perfectly willing to take actions that torpedo the retirement portfolios of millions of individual investors just to give the President a black eye.  Could bureaucrats really be so disdainful of average Americans?  Call me naive, but I find that incredibly hard to believe.)

So what’s really happening here?  Beats me!  My guess is that the run-up has been so significant that there are lots of people out there who thought it was time to take their profits, and the downward movement caused by those sales then triggered some market-decline benchmarks that automatically produced further sales and caused the sharp fall — but that’s just a guess.  Maybe somewhere on Wall Street somebody knows the real answer for sure, but I doubt it.  The stock market is so complex, so huge, and so prone to human reaction that it’s difficult to explain these downward spikes.

So, to put the question again, what’s a little-guy investor to do?  If you think saving money for retirement is prudent — if you don’t, you probably wouldn’t read this post in the first place — and you need to find a place to put your money until the retirement day comes, there really aren’t many alternatives to the stock market that can produce a meaningful return.  Most of us aren’t offered opportunities to invest in real estate deals or development projects, and we probably wouldn’t be comfortable having a big chunk of our money invested in such illiquid things, anyway.  Bond yields are low, and banks pay next to nothing on CDs.  So where else are you going to put your money?  This reality suggests that basic, brute economic forces are going to continue to make the stock market a preferred investment option for people and businesses, not just in the U.S. but also abroad.

But you’ve got to recognize that the stock market is a long-term investment, and it’s going to be a roller coaster ride.  When you’re on the coaster, it’s pretty hard to get off on the highest hill, and you don’t want to exit the car and move onto the tracks at the bottom, either.  You just hold on, scream when the cars start that big downward move, and feel your pulse racing until the end.  Or, you can simply close your eyes, recognize you’re on the ride and there’s not much you can do about it, and focus on other things until your circumstances make you a short-term investor and there are true decisions to be made.

Who knows what this current jittery period will bring?  It’s time to hang on tight.