Half A Loaf Is Not Enough!

Until the 2016 election, the turnout of qualified, registered voters in the United States as a whole for quite a long time in recent years ran normally at about 50 +/- %. That is a VERY low percentage by global democracy standards. Then in 2016 it dropped down to 37%.

Ugh!

No doubt a basic reason was a widespread belief that neither candidate was right for the job, for very different reasons. And, thus the overall result was ‘a pox on both of you.’  Of course, that conclusion amounts to kicking the can down the road for another four years, and leaves the whole country – including the 63%  who did not vote – at the mercy of whichever candidate managed to get elected. In this case the winner was elected by about only 1/5 of ALL voters, but also by about 3,000,000 fewer voters altogether.

No matter what you may think about our Constitution and electoral process, that was surely not the way the Founding Fathers ever imagined an election should be concluded. So we are now stuck with another three years of a minority elected President who seems to be doing his best to alienate ever more fellow citizens.

This situation leads to the question of what can we do NOW to help insure a much bigger and more representative turn out in 2020.

That may partly happen because citizen concern has seemingly increased enough to at least get us back to the overall 50% level of voting turnout. In many red or blue States that are one-sided there are plenty of voters [of both parties] who do not vote because they somehow think ‘their’ vote does not matter.

One – hopefully non-controversial — idea could address one basic problem of low turnout.

Voting – and getting there—is not as easy in the US as in many countries because many parts of this country are less densely populated. As a result, it is in fact a pretty big deal to get to the polls on Election Day –transportation, health, conflicting job requirements, long lines and waits for people with disabilities—are all legitimate problems that conflict with people’s desire and ability to vote.

Indeed, an option does exist for absentee ballots but that too has its own discouraging challenges. Paperwork, hassle, too premature to decide, and nearly impossible to change your vote on Election Day. To many such people such voting is not worth the bother particularly in one-sided States.

If there were a way a person who could NOT get out to vote could relatively easily delegate to an immediate family member the right to cast her or his relative’s vote by producing the relative’s Social Security card, driver’s license, health insurance card and/or birth certificate—as well as a statement why they are voting in the relative’s place.

The delegator must say he/she has been promised by the voting relative to cast the vote the way the delegator wants and that no money or any other thing of value was exchanged for the right to cast that relative’s vote.

Another thing that should be included would be a photo of the delegator and the delegatee exchanging the paperwork.

This process could be close to foolproof and would likely increase turn out by something. It is at least worth a try.

Perhaps there are enough flexible and confident jurisdictions to give such a plan a try soon enough to work out the kinks in time for a more general use in 2020!

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An IPhone Managed Education

My wife of 67 years and I attended this week my 70th reunion from Phillips Exeter Academy along with just 6 other classmates.

All 7 attendees met for about an hour, had little or nothing in common other than Exeter and also discovered there are still about 100 (out of about 200) of us alive somewhere, close to 90 years old, who had the good sense to stay home. Perhaps forgetfulness interfered with personal memories among some of us.

There is almost NOTHING of the old experience left now, except a lot of wonderfully modernized old buildings, which relate to our educational experiences in the late 1940s.

I have to admit that I did not really attend for the reunion itself.

I happily have 3 (out of 9) grandchildren (2 girls and 1 boy) who are there now and it was a great chance to go see the old school through their young, modern eyes.

It was/is downright amazing.

But, what we saw was so much more interesting and challenging than what I remember, it really made me want to start over.

To begin with, more than half the students now are female (51%) vs NONE when I attended. As you would expect, these girls are great in all obvious respects. And they are extraordinary in one other respect: as a group, the girls routinely outperform the boys. No surprise! Apparently, the ‘distraction factor’ of the other sex is largely a thing of the past. Or maybe distractions may help explain the girls’ superiority?

Another highly visible difference is diversity. WASP/J type kids are now distinctly in a minority giving way to African Americans, Asians, Europeans, Latinos, etc.  Together they appear to be well over half and are more than fully competitive.

I recall in my first year, we were asked to elect a class president in our first week at school. There was one African American kid in our class [school], and he was the only one whose name was known to more than a few of our classmates, and thus he stood out well enough to get virtually all of the votes. Talk about a long way from Tipperary!

Then there is the educational process itself.

I recall we all had largely preset and similar schedules and stuck to them religiously to avoid confusion. Today, everybody has their very own personalized and accepted schedule from 8 AM to about 8 PM. That schedule is run on an Academy App and every kid has a smart phone which tells them daily where and when to be on deck. It also is used to give them assignments, to change time and dates and no end of information on what they are supposed to be doing, and when and where.

They really are busy and they love ALL their teachers and classmates from whom they also learn.

They not only learn a lot about history, information and ideas,  they are also exposed to the latest in science, the arts and the many, so-called, extracurricular activities and sports that soak up whatever time they have in between everything else.

It used to be that ‘the campus’ was the main center of interest at a boarding school.

Today, it is virtually everything else which is held together and coordinated through the school’s computers and communications technologies.

And, not to forget the teachers! They are there in abundance—about one for every ten students, very informal, friendly and very skilled at teaching—not by preaching, but by drawing the kids in and out and getting them to discover for themselves – which is the very essence of great teaching.

We attended classes in French, Spanish, Biology, and Chemistry as well an Art program in printing designs and a Lab experience in titration.

And, we watched a part of the rowing activities that two of our grand-kids participate in.

The big take away from this wonderful experience was that these kids are being brilliantly prepared for the new and rapidly changing world they will soon inherit.

THANK GOODNESS!

The world needs them – and many more like them.

Wherever The Arrow Landed

The upcoming (or going?) Korean peace summit is going to be a challenge for all concerned.

Trump has repeatedly said ‘all or nothing’ in terms of denuclearization of the whole Korean peninsula. Does he really mean it?

Kim has been fudging about what he means regarding denuclearization. In fact, he is trumping Trump at the moment with his bobbing and weaving. Trump may be meeting his match in sowing confusion and uncertainty.

At one moment, Trump insists that if it does not work out, he will ‘respectfully’ walk away; the next moment he is bragging about prospects of winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Given these circumstances, there is widespread (and rightful) concern that Trump will be so blinded by delusions of greatness – and so desperate to deliver on his lofty expectations – that he’ll get suckered into signing a bad deal and claim it as a “huge” victory. What do we the people have to watch out for to be sure we are not sold a bill of shoddy goods?

I am reminded of a wisdom my friend and colleague Bob Strauss said in the late ‘70s. “The trick of success in politics is to know how to draw the target where the arrow HAS landed.”

If the meeting takes place, Trump will be sorely tempted to do just that, despite all his pronouncements about ‘all or nothing’.

Indeed, a complex step by step process, well-observed and well-regulated, is likely the best and surest way to get the 100% goal of clearing the peninsula of nuclear weapons.

What we do not want or need is any kind of distorted fudge.

Trump is constrained on one side by his current Iranian posture of disdaining such a process. And, Kim has the history of Gadhafi haunting him.

And the rest of us need to remember that wherever the arrow has landed is not a bulls-eye just because Trump claims that is so.

The Nobel Peace prize might just get Trump reelected. I think it’s an impossibly long shot – particularly in light of what many consider an ill-advised premature award to Obama in 2009. The Nobel Committee has likely learned that peace takes work, and work on the Korean Peninsula has only just begun.  If I’m wrong, and Trump gets the award legitimately, it just might turn out that his crazy behavior had some value after all.

I do not recommend betting on that outcome, although I accept the possibility.

In any event, we MUST be sure not to be sold a pig in a poke.

That would be the worst possible outcome of all this high stakes gambling.

A New – New York State Attorney General

Say what you must about Eric Schneiderman’s abrupt departure. Despite his unacceptable behavior, he was an exceptional attorney general. One of the reasons his former post is independently elected is to support and ensure that his/her only boss is ‘the people.’ He was independent, vigorous and persistent – qualities our state needs badly today. Evidently, one of his key assistants is an exceptional woman who enjoys an excellent reputation and should be a leading candidate.

That said, there is another exceptional possibility: Preet Bharara was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York until Trump dumped him because he was too independent.

He is currently a CNN commentator/consultant and we all can see how and why he was so well regarded. He is crisply clear, focused and interesting. Those are crucial characteristics for an effective prosecutor.

At the moment, the famously corrupt NY State Legislature appears to be staying miles away from him as an interim appointment, from which he could quite easily get elected. It is not hard to imagine why they are avoiding him. They would prefer not to ever have to deal with him about their peccadillos.

That is why WE—all the readers of this blog who live in and/or care at all about New York State – should do whatever we can to encourage Bharara to run for the nomination.

It is a rare opportunity when a position opens with such a perfect candidate to take over that job.

That is exactly where we are today.

I do not know him personally, but I am reaching out to him to offer my help.

Talk to everyone relevant you know and give Mr. Bharara a push!

#MeToo Spreads – But Not To Trump

A new dimension of confusion is descending on us in the effect of #metoo on more and more prominent men in entertainment, business and government, while at the same time, Trump’s comparable behavior keeps being brushed off as business as usual.

The irony of that was magnified recently with the sudden resignation of Eric Schneiderman, the strong, talented and aggressive Attorney General of New York State, who was accused of misconduct by several women who had worked with him and who had consensual relationships with him that sadly ended up with abuses of them in the course of those relationships.

The fact that he resigned so quickly confirms his own recognition that he had behaved egregiously, despite the fact that his divorced wife had come to his defense saying that the charges against him were inconsistent  with the man she had known intimately for a very long time.

The #metoo charges led to the quick and decisive downfalls of Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Al Franken and many others. Prior to the 2016 election, no fewer than 16 women came forward with credible stories of harassment or assault by Trump.* Several involved the same power dynamics – preying on women over whom he had authority (e.g., Miss USA/Universe contestants), and many closely track Trump’s own assertions about his behavior on the infamous Access Hollywood tape (“I just start kissing them”, “grab ‘em by the p***y”).

How is this any less objectionable than the behavior of those other men mentioned above whom, so far, have paid a far steeper price?

If very rich, famous and powerful public and private citizens are taken down in short order for their mistakes and misdeeds, how is it that a sitting President can be immune to the consequences of similar –perhaps worse—behavior?

How can the House and Senate sit back and ignore this inequity and leave the question about the President as if it was none of their business?

Come on guys and gals – do your jobs!

* For those who may be interested ABC News has a tally of Trump’s accusers here: https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/list-trumps-accusers-allegations-sexual-misconduct/story?id=51956410

Russia Blackmailing A President of the US

It seems like the plot of a Tom Clancy novel, but it’s also a question more than one national security professional has asked: how could Russia go about actually blackmailing an American president?

At first blush—and this is a blushing matter—it sounds like creating uncertainty and chaos may be the best possible use of any leverage Putin might have.

Trump would have liked to pursue warmer relations with Russia. That idea by itself is not bereft of benefit. Obama attempted such a “reset” with Russia at the beginning of his presidency. However, Obama’s experiment proved that it is naïve to attempt a warming of relations with a devious, ambitious autocrat like Vladimir Putin.

However (hard as it is), we should give Trump credit for something that, in a perfect world, might have been possible and even desirable.

But, is that the whole story?

Assuming all the salacious information in the now-infamous dossier is true, the most powerful and significant use of that truth might be to create the kind of uncertainty and ambiguity that has surrounded Trump’s behavior in the last year.

If Russia were to expose the relevant films etc., that revelation would be quite a bombshell. However, it would put an end to further speculation as well, and remove any further possible Russian leverage over the president.

How and why Trump thought he could handle that in the long run is a mystery. But that would simply be one more Trump mystery.

As Trump has said, he could shoot a person dead on 5th Avenue and still be elected—which he managed only due to our archaic election system that privileges rural white voters. So, it is at least possible that revealing his Moscow romps might not bring down his presidency. Since the alleged behavior certainly falls short of murdering someone in the middle of Manhattan, Trump may have gambled that he could weather the storm such a release would create.

Yet the whole country has been mesmerized by his Moscow trip and Putin has been able to exert a shadow threat while remaining clever enough to maintain his leverage by refraining from revealing the story.

I think most of us (on the left and right) are ready to put the dossier aside and get back on track without its continuing uncertainty. Whether Trump favors Russia because they have leverage over him, because he feels he owes them for his election, or because he personally likes Putin is secondary to the fact that his policy towards Russia undermines American security and our interests abroad.

It is time to deal with the facts of Trump’s behavior, not speculation over his motives.

Three Factors In Good Investing

Books galore, articles, ads, etc. (good and bad) have and are being written about how to invest. Depending on your point of view and interest in the subject, there are a lot of ideas out there floating around that can be leading or misleading and produce misery or joy.

What there is not a lot of, are good ideas about how to go about using those ideas in a safe and productive way. The result generally is that many investors end up with random results and well over half the time do not even come close to most of the ‘averages.’

Yes, there are lots of good general wisdoms to bear in mind as you invest: look before you leap; follow due diligence; do not be overpowered by the ‘clarity’ of charts; never trust tips from unknown sources; and avoid any arbitrary rules that ‘always’ work.

There is, however, one useful method for going about how to decide when and how to buy something.

It is pretty simple to explain, but very complicated and difficult to put into practice. It cannot give you any kind of guaranteed result. But it can help you to think through the maze of often conflicting information you have to deal with to make investment decisions intelligently.

There are basically only three factors in all investment decisions:

1- The facts (whatever facts are?);

2- What you make of the facts (that means you alone); and

3- What ‘the other guy’ will make of those same facts.

How are the three different and why is that relevant?

Whatever the facts may be, they will look different to most observers. Remember the game telephone – that’s just human wiring. Each step along the way a different message is received, so your perspective will be one way – say ‘buy’. The next guy says to himself ‘hold.’  And the one after him says ‘sell.’ They may see different facts, they may have different priorities. That matters because even if you are right in your conclusion, if the other guy says sell you are unlikely to profit.

So the game of analyzing the facts has to include how others read the same story.

Despite today’s fascination with fake facts, there really are bed rock facts that can be quite easily and reliably accessed in today’s connected world. You can find for most public companies information about their managements, products, sales, balance sheets and what the history has been. Collectively those are ‘the facts.’ There are often a lot of irrelevant and misleading pieces. It will never be as clear as a completed jigsaw puzzle!

What you make of those facts is up to you. Is the management being straight with you? Are the products fulfilling a market need? Will the volume grow – at what rate? Are the operating margins appropriate by industry standards? What is the competition planning?

What THE OTHER GUYS make of those same facts in a similar way, is also quite easily accessed on the internet. There are dozens of publications full of their thoughts. You should assess their views carefully.

When a single person focuses on summarizing all three of these facets for any given investment, she/he naturally will tend to converge into a mushy bit of ‘on the one hand and on the other hand.’ And, that is often when a good investment process goes off the rails, moving from ‘truth’ to ‘fudge.’

I have been encouraging people to assign these three elements to three appropriate and different people and then lock them into a room together and not let them out until they reach a rational conclusion, one they are all reasonably happy with and can explain coherently and convincingly to civilians. Indeed, different people are as capable of creating mush as one person alone. But I believe it is worth the try?

This is not an altogether novel idea but it might be a better way of investing than simply giving up and ‘buying the market’ through various indexes. After all, it is movement in the value of individual companies that drives indexes to gain or lose value.

Financial markets have been accelerating into clumps of ‘like’ companies which relieve investors from having to value individual companies. The basic problem with that is that the market process really is about financing individual companies not groups of companies. If the most popular way to own shares directly in XYZ company is to own an index that includes XYZ, who is going to establish the value of XYZ and all the other companies and, just as important, how?

The move away from investing directly in separate companies into indexes may be a still invisible arrow aimed at the heart of capitalism. We should all be careful and wary.

And, we should never give up on valuing separate companies!