Memorable Baseball Moments

The 5th game of this year’s World Series was an amazing experience. No doubt this year’s GNP, lost a couple of basis points due the lengthy contest, which surely shortened Monday’s workday by about a couple of hours of millions of sleepy Americans .

The springy, slippery new baseballs may have had something to do with how incredible Sunday’s game was. But doughty players determined to make a difference was the ultimate cause of its excellence.

However, as very few who saw Sunday night’s game through to the end were alive in 1951, let’s relive the contest between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers in the final playoff game for the National League pennant.

The Giants were at bat behind by two runs in the bottom of the 9th inning. There were two runners on base, with two outs, and Bobby Thompson was at bat with the great Ralph Branca pitching. The count got to 3 and 2 and the odds at that moment that the Giants could win were 5,765,843,242 against. Branca threw and Thompson swung and the ball left the park completely.

Giants WON! At 5-4.

It took over 50 years for enough people to not ever know or forget that moment, and now we have an equally memorable game to stimulate interest in baseball for another 100 years!

Diamonds are FOREVER!

The Bottom Line of Democracy

As I wrote yesterday, the Constitution we created over 200 years ago stands in the way of solving the problems faced by a modern nation like the United States.

One major change that has occurred since 1817 is the rise of cities. Well over half of the population in 1817 lived in rural areas. Today, that number is around 20%. However, the distribution of voting power in our Senate and Electoral College and in the mis-configuration of our Congressional districts is largely stuck in the rural past.

A real majority of Americans are being held hostage by a rural minority, and to solve that problem, the country has to go through a constitutional process created with the same pre-industrial society in mind, one in which rural voters also hold disproportionate power, which means that may be impossible.

However, a truly democratic solution exists if we want it badly enough!

We should hold a national referendum on the question “Do we want to amend the Constitution to provide for a new distribution of voting power everywhere to reflect the actual majority of the population eligible to vote?

I know of no obstacle for having such a referendum other than that there is no explicit authorization in our Constitution.

Of course, such a referendum could not be binding unless it was given force of law by Congress, but the idea could catch on with enough Americans to force their Congressional representatives to act and/or create a private nonpartisan referendum.

If we want the majority to truly rule in America, we must first show that there is a serious majority who truly wants that change!

And the time to do that is NOW.

The ballot box is the best bottom line that can exist.

 

Our Fragile Republic

When he emerged from the Pennsylvania State House on September 17th, 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked whether the citizens of the new United States would have a monarchy or a republic. Pausing for a moment on the stairs, he responded “A republic, if you can keep it”. Even at the triumphant birth of a new nation, Franklin knew that the government he had helped bring into the world must be maintained through constant vigilance and action.

All nations can fall. All democracies can slip into autocracy. Sparta and Athens did both, as did Ancient Rome. France has managed to emerge from autocracy again and again only to succumb to the temptations of imperial rule. There is no reason to believe the United States is fundamentally different.

Though Frances Fukayama argued in 1989 that the rise and spread of liberal democracy may have meant the end of history, recent events have challenged that thesis. Though America likes to pat itself on the back for having found the perfect form of government (or, as Winston Churchill put it, “the worst form of government, except for all the others”), there are plenty of reasons to believe that liberal democracy—whether in its purely democratic, republican, or hybrid forms—is on the brink of some kind of disaster.

The United States, in particular, seems closer to the edge than any time since the 19th Century. We have become a starkly divided nation, and support for liberal norms and institutions are shockingly low. At the root of our failure is our inability to deal with basic flaws in our Constitution.

As evidenced by the Three-Fifths Compromise (a compromise reached between Northern and Southern delegates that agreed to count each slave as three-fifths of a person when counting population in order to determine Congressional representation), the Constitution was less a timeless document than a set of accommodations to the political realities of that moment. Though that particular compromise has been properly excised from our founding document, some of the fundamental problems remain. In particular, the outsized importance that the Senate and the Electoral College plus Congressional gerrymandering gives to the citizens of sparsely populated states has fueled the drive of our partisan division and the radicalism of the modern Republican Party.

Such relics still operative in our Constitution has caused our political system to calcify, which is a mortal danger. As Jared Diamond argued in Collapse, societies that do not adapt to changing realities are the most likely to be destroyed. And there is no doubt that modern America is struggling to adapt to the realities of the contemporary world, whether that means the echo chambers of the internet, growing automation,  income inequality, the rise of other Great Powers to challenge American hegemony, or the unknowable world that will be created by anthropogenic climate change.

This recitation may sound quite academic and even highbrow to some people. But that does nothing to diminish its importance.

We have to get past that type of deflection and take head on and deal clearly and firmly with these ever too real threats to the survival of America as we have known it.

NOW!

Back to 1790 and the Fight Over Federalism

As our forefathers learned during their struggle to move from a revolutionary Confederacy to a genuine constitutional democracy, the fundamental differences between regions and local constituencies can be dangerous.

In 2015, historian Joseph Ellis wrote a brilliant and gripping book called The Quartet about how Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, and Jay led the fight to unify the former colonies under a Constitution. It is not clear that Ellis foresaw the results of the 2016 election, but he may well have because he teaches vividly that we are now facing a similar fight.

Divided as our country is today, our standing in the world is at the risk of blowing away. The classic phrase “united we stand, divided we fall” appears to have vanished. Or perhaps it has been revealed as prophecy.

Part of the problem is again the haves vs the have nots, but the cultural schisms between “us” and “them” have assumed a greater prominence than in a very long time.

If there were a single dividing issue—as there was with slavery in the middle of the 19th century—it might be possible that we could be on the brink of not just protests but genuine military fighting.

The map of our divisions is different today from the late 1700s and the late 1850s, BUT it is clear that most of the coastal USA (plus a few major urban centers) is liberal in its orientation and most of the rest of our country is conservative.

Happily (?), this map does not lend itself easily to organized military conflict. But as we see globally, maps are no longer the cornerstones of modern armed conflict, which can erupt seemingly anywhere and everywhere and at any time.

So what are the major issues which are dividing us today?

–Immigration: Though not a problem in 1800 or 1860, it is today and can be managed without conflict.

–Race: we fought the civil war and have made great progress toward genuine equality, but we still have quite a way to go.

–Elites vs blue collar: our economy is changing as we inexorably become more and more a service society and we need to find ways to  lift up all members of society.

–The internet: the echo chambers of social media are destroying productive political discourse.

–Representation: our system is collapsing with abuses of campaign finance and distorted districting.

–Checks and Balances: Congress and the President show no signs of interest in seeking common public good through good faith efforts to compromise.

–Sloganeering: simplistic and misleading slogans like America First and “drain the swamp” are taking over rational thought.

The days when leaders like Washington, Hamilton, Jay, and Jefferson’s voices stood out and meant a lot to most people sadly may be gone forever.

But what was clear when the Constitutional Convention first assembled is clear again.

Read Ellis’s book and urge everyone you know to do so. It will never go out of style.

Together, there may be in due course enough support to try for a new Convention to seek consensus on the issues that must be addressed today to save our nation.

Trump’s One Good Thing?

If I ask friends to name just one good thing about Trump, the first response I usually hear that there are none. But if one really looked hard, surely there must be something.

Years ago, a flinty old friend referred to a mutual acquaintance as a prismatic bastard. I was puzzled and asked what he meant. The answer was that guy was a bastard from every angle.

In that sense, there really may not be one good thing about Trump because even his positive acts are undermined by his own words and, often, subsequent actions. Anything good, one might say, is silenced by the bad that inevitably follows.

Finally, another idea came to mind.

My father had a great friend whose mother-in-law who probably rivaled Trump in her own way. But the friend always said he loved having her come for the summer.

When asked how that was possible, he would smile and say, “It makes the summer last sooo long!”

“And when she leaves,” he added, “it is such a relief.”

We have not yet gotten to that part with Trump, but it may be sooner than

Digital Patent Medicine

One hundred years ago—give or take—the country was awash in so-called “patent medicines” that claimed to cure virtually every ill that can befall a person. They were called patent medicines because they allegedly had patents, which occasionally they actually did, and they sold in massive quantities. Though they were mostly harmless, and made largely of natural substances, they only cured some symptoms for a very few people. Regularly, many people were made ill by the misleading promises of the “snake oil salesmen” who hawked the patent medicines.

Then, as was common in the early 20th Century, Washington DC took a whack at the problem. They came up with the Food and Drug Administration and patent medicines pretty much came to a screeching halt. Hooray!

Now, the internet and social media have created a new form of ‘patent’ medicine which has become increasingly common.  Messages get blasted everywhere about peoples’ concerns with weight, diabetes, heart conditions, sexual inabilities, mental failures etc. Those messages are crafted cleverly to avoid outright promises and they offer BIG discounts on allegedly non-harmful natural products not subject to FDA approval.

At age 86, I find myself tuning in to some of those messages every now and then because I am edging into an age territory where some of those problems begin to be quite real for me.

Then I think a bit and avoid them mainly because, IF they were as advertised, they would be in high demand and command similarly high prices. Their messages say things like “You have not heard about this because doctors and drug companies want you to buy their expensive drugs which rarely do you much long term good.” But that is nonsense.

THEREFORE: I have now concluded that the time has arrived for the FDA to assert jurisdiction over internet advertising CLAIMS for those concoctions.

If I have been suckered for a while, there also must be a lot more suckers out there too.

The time has arrived to come to the aid of all of us gullible suckers!

Green Fields vs Concrete Streets

When I was born in 1931, more than 40% of Americans still lived in rural areas. Today, that number has shrunk enormously. These rural areas, which make up the vast majority of the landmass of the United States, have fewer than one-thousand people per square mile (about 1.5 per acre). In contrast, New York City has over 24 thousand inhabitants per square mile (and Manhattan boasts a whopping 66 thousand per square mile).

I will leave it to others to more deeply unpack how and why this shift occurred, but at least one aspect seems obvious: cities concentrate job opportunity and entertainment, almost by definition. But while it is important to understand why people have chosen to live in cities, it is absolutely vital that we understand the resulting effects on our nation’s attitudes, culture, and politics.

I am far from the first person to ask these questions. In 2008, Bill Bishop published The Big Sort, an account of Americans’ movement not just into cities, but into clusters of like-minded people. The result has been an increase in the number of “landslide counties”, counties in which one candidate wins at least 60% of the vote. In the 2016 presidential election, the New York Times reports, 2,474 counties were won by a landslide, while as recently as 1992, only 1,125 were.

An even closer look at the numbers suggests that the rise in landslide counties is closely tied to the exodus of Americans from rural counties to urban counties. For example, there were 242 Democratic landslide counties in 2016 and 2,232 Republican landslide counties, but Democratic landslide counties contained a total of 99 million people while Republican landslide counties only contained 94 million. Meanwhile, Democratic landslide counties encompassed 235,485 square miles (7% of the United States) while Republican landslide counties encompassed an astounding 2,069,967 square miles (59% of the United States). That means that a square mile of a Democratic landslide county contained on average 420 people, and a square mile of Republican landslide county contained a mere 45. And as FiveThirtyEight.com notes, even in America’s reddest states, cities are reliably blue.

Trump succeeded in the election largely by pitting the inhabitants of rural America, who feel increasingly marginalized, against the big-city types, who are seen as smug and overbearing. And as the tension between city and country increase, so too does the cultural and political warfare that has come to dominate our politics (and occasionally has erupted into literal violence).

One possible counter measure would be to confront our Big Sort with a Great Scramble, to find some way to ‘move’ some apartment-dwellers into the country, and some country-folks into the city. That way, everyone could be reminded that we all put our blue jeans on one leg at a time. The result would likely be some reversal of the distrust that has soured our national conversation and made a mess of our politics.

If my “Great Scramble” sounds a bit too “Cultural Revolution” for your tastes, modern technology offers us a possible ingenious solution. It would be easy enough to create an app to pair city-dwellers with rural counterparts and give them an opportunity to have non-controversial and productive conversations via Skype with strangers, and political opposites, and learn about one another without the disruptions of leaving their own homes.

But whatever the solution turns out to be, something must be done to get more Americans back on the same page and map! That can only happen if more of those people get to know each other, even a bit, and talk about LIFE!

What is Corker up to?

WHAT IS CORKER UP TO?

Senator Bob Corker is fed up. Last week, he began standing up again and again in public against a moronic, scary, and accidentally elected President. He has announced that he will not run again for his Senate seat. Clearly, he will be a thorn in the side of Trump and McConnell for the next one and one half years. He will likely become an ally of John McCain, Lisa Murkowski, and Susan Collins in being the Senate’s Republican conscience.

Corker came to office with a somewhat tarnished record in his initial run for the Senate, but has ended up an articulate, sensible, and outspoken leader in his party. It comes as something of a surprise that he would choose this moment to cash in his political chips and retire back home.

In the meanwhile, Trump keeps on escalating his spasms of rhetoric about North Korea which is leading many serious people—including Corker— to worry about a mistaken step which could lead to calamity.

We all know there is only one thing on Trump’s mind: himself. He seems incapable of seeing things from different perspectives. In addition, his real estate experience has taught him to think in terms of dollar signs. For Trump, negotiation is synonymous with haggling. It appears that he is simply unable to grasp the realities of the geopolitical world in which people kill and die over a patch of dirt or the name of an island. It is far too easy to make mistakes in that game. But do not try to teach him that. His key cabinet officers have been trying!

So back to Corker.

I think he has plans beyond needling Trump and his sycophants for a couple months.

Corker likely knows that someone from the Republican Party is going to have to challenge Trump in 2019. To fail to do so would be a moral abomination. And by having stood against his party’s leadership and Trump, he is effectively branding himself as a sensible, credible alternative.

I would also allow for the possibility that he will “review” his retirement announcement if he is “drafted” by his Senate colleagues and by the public. If so, I imagine he might make a concerted push for Mitch McConnell’s job. (He could also run for Governor in his home state of Tennessee, but now that he has been in the Big Show, I doubt he would want to go back to Podunk—with due apologies to Tennessee—politics.)

I would not tune him out. In fact I would tune in on him all the more closely.

Cyber Thieves have an Eye on Your $

A real estate investor receives a closing statement and wire instructions from a title company, confirms with their attorneys, and wires funds into escrow.

An art dealer, after months of negotiations, wires funds to the agent of a collector.

A woman affected by the recent hurricanes is in urgent needs of repairs to her home.  After several conversations with the woman and her contractor, her financial advisor wires funds to the contractor.

If you are worried about foreign hackers interfering in our elections, you should be. But you should also know that there are other serious personal dangers lurking in cyberspace.  All of the above real and recent transactions were fraudulent.

Email related scams and frauds are becoming more sophisticated (and profitable) every day.  They are being perpetrated (largely) by offshore professional organizations with many “employees” and sophisticated tools at their disposal.  Years ago, scams were generally unsophisticated and easy to detect.  Random emails from random people – the Nigerian prince was common – asking for help and money with a promise of great returns.  Then email hacks became more prevalent leading to emails from people you know, but with improbable stories: “Help I’m stuck in London have been robbed and need you to send me money.”  The English was off, the message was strange, and yet it still worked.

Today, there are common phishing, spear phishing, and email lurking scams that are harder to detect.  Emails that come from authentic looking institutions: the IRS, your bank, Equifax – often they are directed, seemingly, to you personally and have your personal information.

Other scams are relatively low tech but sophisticated nonetheless—hacking into email systems is not difficult for professional hackers.  But they have learned that “lurking” in, and watching, your email traffic (both with humans and automatic filters) can be extremely profitable.  When the chance arises, they can impersonate somebody—often using that victims exact words copied from other emails—and strike at the perfect, devious moment.

All three frauds mentioned above were real and legitimate transactions.  The criminals were able to divert the funds at the very end by substituting wire instructions into an otherwise legitimate email, or by sending last minute emails (from the legitimate recipient) with a slight change to the instructions.  These were not technologically advanced scams, they were very well executed old fashion confidence jobs.

In every case the parties were known to each other and had many prior in person or on the phone contact.  But at the last critical step, they relied on email, and they were defrauded.  Verify, check, verify, check, verify, verify.  This is the rule before sending funds or credit card information by email or based on email instructions.

This is happening all over the country every day. Ask your neighbors.

These are old tricks, but hackers are growing more sophisticated and more audacious every year. This is a big country and there are many targets out there for this sort of thing. It is surely becoming an epidemic with real national economic impact.

Explain to everyone you now know to be vigilant about their accounts and do not ever hesitate to question the source and authority of instructions you receive about handling your—as well as other peoples’—money.  There is a lot more to say on this topic and I obviously cannot cover it all—but vigilance is the one message I leave you with (if this is indeed really me!)

BEWARE!

The Stock Market vs Trump???

That is the most intriguing question of the day on Wall Street because on the answer hangs fortunes—to be made and lost.

If there were a rational answer it ought to be the best and easiest—though of course there are no guarantees—but there does not appear to be one—nevertheless we should at least give this intriguing question a good hard think.

An easy, though possibly flip, answer may be that it really does not matter, on the risk down side particularly, who is President and what he/she may have in mind.

Our Presidency has the ‘appearance’ of being the single most powerful position in any democratic system, yet that position is not alone in our system and perhaps when the system, as a whole, is presented with things that simply make no sense,[as has been the case several times so far this year] the system has its own ways of quietly, but effectively, essentially preventing the wrong things from happening.

About 10 days before the election a year ago, I ran into a quite sensible, successful businessman who surprisingly said that he was planning to vote for Trump. His explanation was simple. He deplored both Trump and Clinton. But he could not stand her more. He felt that the ‘system’ could “manage” Trump better than Clinton. But, that she could NOT be managed by the system because she was the system.

That quite astonishing idea looks more and more plausible every day that passes.

Take a few examples:

1- Cutting back on  freedom of travel for specific foreigners: very quickly the system in the courts and the federal bureaucracy largely have—at least so far—made Trump’s main aim fail.

2- Killing Obamacare without a substitute in hand: the almost unimaginable thing happened and several key Republican votes disappeared preventing that outcome.

3- Flirting with war in Asia and the Middle East: DOD and State, depleted as they remain, have so far blunted Trump’s instinct to govern by Tweet—still, things are very touchy, but at the moment better than the alternatives.

4- Leaving the Paris Accord on climate change has nominally occurred but it is still like a fish wiggling on the dock in Trump’s net waiting to get back in the sea.

5- Reforming taxes and passing the budget are up next: the outlook for the most egregious elements- such as tax breaks for the very rich like Trump– proposed are pretty dim—thank goodness!

6-The Trump efforts to revert to protectionism have been pretty well bottled up in the Congress, so far! Trade wars would be inevitable and be very costly to the US and world economies and ALL Americans.

There are a few things Trump has put forward that the stock market surely must like. Tax breaks for the rich have in the past been popular but given the budget demands they are very unlikely. Less regulation of Wall Street and businesses is also historically popular with the stock market but is also still quite constrained. That said these two items could not alone account for today’s markets.

It is true that people/investors generally believe in what they like and discount what they do not like.

What all this adds up to, and says to me, is that my Trump voting acquaintance pretty well foresaw what has happened so far.

While the Obama Presidency surely was not perfect, his economic policies added up over his 8 years as President to a solid foundation for today’s  economy sufficient to justify most of today’s current stock market highs.

Therefore perhaps we can relax—just a tiny bit—about the puzzling inconsistencies between stock market highs and the uncertainties of Trump’s Presidency.

That said, we cannot cease being VERY vigilant.

And, to sell today’s market short might well turn out to be a big mistake!