Political Propriety

The Tony Awards broadcast was last night.  Actor Robert DeNiro, who appeared to talk about Bruce Springsteen, thought it was appropriate to come out, pump his arms in the air, and say “F*** Trump.”  Twice.

DeNiro then received a standing ovation from those in attendance.

1528693568996It’s just another example of how our national political discourse has run totally off the rails, and people have lost their minds.  We’ve got a President whose unseemly tweets and unusual behavior push the envelope in one direction, and the people who ardently oppose him are pushing the envelope in the opposite direction.  When somebody decides the time is right to appear on a live broadcast that is supposed to be celebrating American theater and start dropping f-bombs, though, we’ve reached a new low.  And when the high-brow, tuxedo-clad audience decides that the appropriate response to the vulgarity is to give the speaker a standing ovation, we’ve reached a lower point still.

DeNiro’s comments couldn’t have come as a surprise.  He’s launched into profanity-laced tirades about President Trump before, including when he introduced Meryl Streep at a different awards ceremony earlier this year.  Did the Tony Awards decision-makers think DeNiro had mended his ways, or did they think, instead, that having the unpredictable — or, perhaps, entirely predictable — DeNiro on as part of the broadcast might just result in an incident exactly like what actually happened, that would help to get the Tony Awards program a little more attention and more news coverage?

I don’t have a problem with people opposing or criticizing President Trump — obviously. But name-calling and profanity aren’t exactly calculated to persuade people about the wrong-headedness of President Trump’s policies, or conduct.  Instead, it just looks like a classless, desperate bid to get some attention that isn’t going to persuade anybody about anything — except, perhaps, that the people who think launching a few f-bombs on a live broadcast, and the people who reacted with a standing ovation, have lost their minds.

Is it too much to expect a little reasoned discourse, and some political propriety?  These days, is it too much to hope that people can refrain from using the Queen Mother of Curses in connection with the President on a live television broadcast?  Apparently so.

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Winging It

The on-again, off-again, on-again summit meeting with North Korea is set to occur next Tuesday in Singapore.  Yesterday, President Trump confirmed reports that he’s not exactly cramming and burning the midnight oil to prepare for the meeting.

5e6mikironhllmggtkqbd54s4i“I don’t think I have to prepare very much. It’s about attitude,” he said. “I think I’ve been prepared for this summit for a long time, as has the other side.”  President Trump, who says the meeting won’t just be a “photo op” and may be the first of several meetings with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, added:  “I think I’m very well prepared.”

The President believes that his tough language about North Korea and Kim has been a key factor in bringing North Korea to the table.  He uses the phrase “maximum pressure” to describe his approach to the country that has long been an international pariah, and said: “If you hear me using the term ‘maximum pressure,’ you’ll know the negotiations didn’t go very well.”  Nevertheless, President Trump predicts that the summit meeting will be a “great success.”

A year and a half into the Trump presidency, we’ve long since realized that President Trump isn’t like most people, who would never dream of going into an important meeting with an isolated, notoriously unpredictable country that feels like an international outcast and has been working to develop a nuclear weapons program to attract attention, put its neighbors on edge, and give it a louder voice in the world.  But President Trump is matching, and maybe even exceeding, North Korea in the unpredictability department, having first abruptly cancelled the summit, then determined that it is back on again.

So, is President Trump just supremely self-confident about everything he does, including meeting foreign dictators who have virtually no relations with other countries?  Or, does the President think that saying he hasn’t been spending much time hitting the briefing books helps to set the framework for the negotiations and gives him an advantage of sorts?  Is the statement that the summit is about “attitude” supposed to convey that the United States doesn’t think there’s much to discuss at this point beyond getting North Korea to end its nuclear program?  Or is it to communicate to North Korea that it isn’t really important enough to demand a big chunk of the President’s time?  Or is the plan to make Kim feel overconfident that he’ll be able to pull a fast one on a negotiator who admittedly hasn’t tried to master the details?  Or, is there some other, deep, Art of the Deal-type negotiation game afoot?

With President Trump, you never know.  But hey — what could go wrong?

What Should The WHCA Do?

Every year, it seems, something happens at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner that is controversial, but this year’s dinner took the cake.  The combination of non-attendance by President Trump, who skipped the dinner for the second straight year after years in which other Presidents typically attended, and a crude stand-up routine by comedian Michelle Wolf that has been strongly criticized by people from across the political spectrum, has a lot of people talking about whether the dinner should be changed — or should occur at all.

180430_michelle_wolf_white_house_staff_roastMuch of the controversy was caused by Wolf’s routine, which launched a lot of insults at members of the Trump Administration, including some mean-spirited comments about high-profile women in the Administration like White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.  Many people found Wolf’s performance offensive.  I’m not familiar with Wolf, but the reports of some of her “jokes” at the dinner suggests that she goes in for cheap jibs, often about physical appearance, rather than a leave ’em rolling in the aisles standup routine.  Insults about people’s looks aren’t exactly the highest form of wit.

And, Wolf’s comments put the assembled black-tie glitterati of the journalism community in the uncomfortable position of listening to an invited performer crassly describe the President’s daughter, for example, as “as helpful to women as an empty box of tampons” — which isn’t exactly calculated to enhance the perceptions of many Americans about the objectivity of the White House press corps.  In an era in which the President routinely tweets about alleged “fake news” and claimed media bias, the Wolf performance at the WHCA dinner seems like a self-inflicted wound, calculated to reveal that the press is, in fact, highly partisan.

This year’s dinner has been viewed by many as such a disaster that it’s provoking some soul-searching within the WHCA about how the dinner should be changed — and whether it should occur at all.  After all, does the press corps really need to be seen rubbing elbows with the President and other high-ranking politicos, or would it be better to hold itself apart from the people it is supposed to be covering?

Why not just end the dinner?  As is true of so many things these days, it comes down to money.  The WHCA dinner is by far the biggest fundraiser for that organization, which then uses the funds to advocate for journalists.  The incoming president of the WHCA says the revenue generated by the event “keeps our association running” — and supporters of the event question whether big media groups will buy expensive tables for a more low-key function that actually focuses on journalism, rather than politicized comedy.

I think the WHCA serves an important function, and I recognize that money is important, so the annual dinner probably is here to stay — at least, until people stop coming.  But I think the WHCA needs to start self-editing a bit more, and thinking about the reputation of journalists everywhere when they are deciding who should speak at the dinner, and what kinds of things should be said.

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.

Bracing For The Weirdest Summit Ever

According to news reports and a tweet from President Trump, there will be a summit meeting in the next two months between President Trump and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.  The agreement to set up a meeting was brokered by the South Korean government, and the place and time of the summit is currently being determined.  In the meantime, North Korea has agreed that it will not engage in any more missile testing until after the summit occurs.

Whenever and wherever it happens — if it happens at all — the meeting promises to be the weirdest, most closely watched, most unpredictable summit in history.

donald-trump-kim-jong-un-ap-mt-171101_16x9_992Viewed solely from the standpoint of normal diplomacy, this meeting will be highly unusual.  North Korea and the United States have no diplomatic relations of any kind, and no American President has ever met a North Korean leader.  In fact, the United States and North Korea technically remain in a state of war, because the Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.   Even President Nixon’s famous trip to China, which reopened relations between America and China, was built upon a prior period of thawing relations and more diplomatic prep work than would occur before this summit.

Add to that the fact that President Trump and Kim Jong-Un have been trading venomous barbs about each other and engaging in lots of saber-rattling talk until now, and are two of the most unpredictable leaders in the world besides, and you have to wonder what the talks between the two of them will be like.  The diplomats and underlings who will be present, from both sides, will no doubt be desperately hoping that Kim Jong-Un and President Trump follow whatever scripts their respective sides have prepared — all the while knowing that history teaches that they probably won’t.  And the media, which carefully analyzed a handshake between President Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin when they first met, will have a field day examining and breathlessly reporting on every wink, nod, and offhand comment.

North Korea has long been a problem that has been ignored by world leaders, hoping it would just go away — but the provocative, destabilizing conduct of North Korea has gotten more and more dangerous as it has worked to develop nuclear weapons and tested long-range missiles.  Something needs to be done to get North Korea off the path of confrontation and into more normalized relations with the United States and the rest of the world.  Will The Weirdest Summit Ever be able to achieve that?  The world will be watching the weirdness, and holding its breath.

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.