|Volume 19, Issue 7||July 21, 2017|
In this Issue:
Our Cleft Country
Just as the financial crisis of late 2008 to early 2009 was the worst in my lifetime, yet probably not really the most calamitous in American or global history, the Great Depression and the Depression of the 1890s both likely having been worse, so now our nation's political divide appears to me without precedent, but I know from a sense of history that the challenges to decorum, respect, integrity, tolerance, peace, acknowledged truth, civility, and the rule of law in the decade before our Civil War, in the years prior to World War II, in the McCarthyism era, in the early days of the civil rights movement, and during the Vietnam War, were also quite taxing and in certain instances or regions more severe than is our current alienation one from another. Yet, even as a relatively small amount of extra something in the universe will make the difference between whether it keeps accelerating faster and faster and farther and farther apart vs. eventually reversing direction and coming back together as a unified singularity, the trends and the energy behind them now in American political discourse, though of uncertain outcome, seem presently to favor an irreconcilable extent of polarity, the rifts growing ever more marked. The phrase "this cannot end well" appears apt.
Black Americans and police officers, new immigrants and established generations of our citizenry, Muslims and Christians or Jews, the poor or "merely" middle class vs. the top 1%, the religious right vs. the assumed atheistic progressives, the coasts vs. the inner heartland, the Republicans vs. the Independents vs. the Democrats, and so on, all participate in a narrative of greater and greater extremes and entrenchment, us vs. them, hypothetical winners vs. losers, that renders mute before they can begin efforts to reach win/win solutions to everyone's concerns.
The United States of the 1930s saw the rise of violent, powerful Fascist and Communist groups. As luck would have it, a subsequent involvement in World War II was transformative and brought levels of unity plus broadened horizons previously not seen as our Greatest Generation successfully and head-on tackled issues that spanned the world and hung civilization in the balance. Is there an as yet unforeseen, existential event ahead for us now that may give us at last the insight to put more petty differences aside and come together for our common good? Or must we and successive generations suffer a fate more like that of mid-19th Century Americans whose disagreements also threatened to tear asunder the social fabric?
Ignoring several other schisms, if we look only at the divide between our dominant political parties, we find interesting stats. Geographically, only 15% of USA regions chose Hillary Clinton in 2016, while 85% of the nation's political units voted mainly for Donald Trump. Yet more voters live in the smaller, Hillary favored territory, fewer in the much larger Trump supporting areas. Voters tended to be quite polarized already by election day, calling her at best "Crooked Hilary" or him "Incompetent Donald" or worse. The popular vote went for her, the electoral college for him. Major urban areas and most along the coasts went for her, rural areas and the Midwest mainly for him. It is reminiscent of the South vs. the North regional divide just prior to The War Between the States. We live in two nations, neither well understanding or appreciating the other.
Today those on one side of the political spectrum openly and regularly use the sounding boards of social media and biased TV and talk shows to proclaim that those on the other side are irredeemable. "Hard line conservatives" say of the "ultra liberals" that they are "democraps," "libtards," hypocrites, crybabies, girly men, "demoncrats," beta, duh-masses, "cucks," bleeding-hearts, communists, snowflakes, and anti-business. The far left attempts to denigrate those on the distant right by calling them traitors, liars, bullies, warmongers, fake news promoters, "deplorables," bigots, trickle-down propagandists, anti-intellectuals, cynics, second amendment fanatics, racists, and (also) hypocrites.
Since the November, 2016, election, members of both major parties have called for violence against the other. Democratic marchers are to be run over with powerful vehicles. Specific opponents on the right are to be killed. Actual aggression and bloodshed have occurred in the name of one or another side. Reporters have also been attacked. There is no agreement even on what are the facts concerning key issues that our politicians face. In a propaganda-rich environment, people often think the truth is unknowable, that all media are distorted, so we might as well simply believe whatever feels right among those who already share our outlooks. This is also redolent of the years before the Civil War, when millions were getting entirely different slants on the news, depending on if they lived above or below the Mason-Dixon line. Naturally they were influenced by skewed presentations of the primary issues leading up to that conflict. As is becoming more true today, through such tainted lenses each side came to see the other as contemptible and illegitimate, ultimately of course leading to prolonged violence from which we have not yet fully recovered as a country.
Clearly, however, we are not there - on the verge of a new civil war - yet. Maybe, as occurred in France with the most recent elections and the victories of Emmanuel Macron and his party, the majority will see it is better to be for things which are positive and centrist instead of mainly against those whom many had come to hate on either extreme. Third parties do not elect presidents in this country, but they can change the atmosphere when it has become too vile. They can also supplant existing parties and, from their new status as one of the two major parties, subsequently go on to win the White House. Hence the Republicans took over from the Whigs in 1856 and elected Abraham Lincoln in 1860. In my view, this could happen again if either the Republicans or the Democrats of today are seen by enough voters as irrelevant to their needs and to the vital business of governing our land. Less heat and more cool, practical, tough accomplishment are what are required. That was a lesson from how we won World War II, got ourselves out of the Great Depression, and mostly avoided fratricidal battles in the streets in the early 20th Century. It was not learned in time by tens of millions here, many of whom thus became combatants in the 1860s.
Is there a constructive way forward now? Certainly, yet to me it cannot occur by each side listening foremost to those preaching to its own choir about the evils of the other. Demonizing Donald Trump, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and Neil Gorsuch is no more the answer than vilifying Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. Wiser heads must prevail and soon. If not, our cleft country may in a few years again be rife with civil combat, and none but perhaps Putin and the undertakers will be the winners.
The Two Americas of 2016. Tim Wallace in nytimes.com; November 16, 2016.
A Sense of Curiosity
As biological entities, we are equipped to survive in the physical world surrounding us. This generally means that we must gather information about our environment in order to adjust our behaviors for keeping our bodies safe and healthy. If food tastes or smells sour, we reject it. A finger placed on a hot surface is quickly withdrawn. The sound of nearby thunder alerts us to the danger of lightning, and nobody in his or her right mind would casually step off a 10-foot high retaining wall. Our five physical senses help us make choices about our actions, determine our preferences, and usually protect us from harm. We place so much emphasis on the interface between us and everything else that we tend to use the word "sense" in a large number of related contexts. Common sense, a sense of self, sixth sense, a sense of wonder and even nonsense are all familiar colloquialisms for specific ways in which we interact with our decidedly sensual world.
Humans evolved outdoors. There were no cities, buildings or even houses until quite recently in our species' history. A cave might serve as shelter from outside dangers, but it was probably never a truly attractive place where people would choose to spend more than the necessary amount of time. Just the fact that caves are dark and we cannot see without light makes them less desirable than being out in the sunny landscape.
But somewhere along the line, our ancestors managed to improve their security by distancing themselves from the rest of the environment. They created not only simple shelters, but all sorts of structures to provide entire artificial ecosystems that are as unlike our natural surroundings as possible. There is a trend encouraged by our species' advances in technology, urbanization and information overload: people more often than ever before choose to either observe or ignore the natural world around them. As I spend time with different groups of people, those who are interested in environmental or scientific pursuits and those involved in the arts or other anthropocentric fields, the gap in how each perceives the world around them is striking.
An unsolved riddle; best guess is some sort of insect cocoons or pupariums. Even the ant seems curious about them.
It's a given that we all must learn to deal with the relatively unnatural aspects of our civilization. We interact with machines and other manmade objects on such a regular basis that it has become second nature (pun intended). Our fundamental biological needs are met by way of utilizing such artificial constructs as electricity, money, plumbing and the wheel. There was a time when the average person could understand any tool or contraption encountered. It probably didn't take a lot of explanation to grasp the purpose and implementation of a stone spear point or a gourd used to hold water. Wedges, needles, axes, pulleys and even gears won't bewilder even the most spatially challenged individuals. But things change. Progress in our industrial age has meant complication multiplied exponentially. Almost anyone can construct and use an abacus, but practically nobody can build a pocket calculator from scratch. Many tools we use now are so complex that questioning how they work would be an exercise in futility; we just use them. And sometimes "just using" is difficult enough. A case in point: there are people who choose not to own a computer, play a musical instrument, or drive a car.
So, if we are inured to having so many complicated things around us that we just accept the myriad aspects which we don't really understand, do we have to turn off our sense of curiosity? It is certainly engaging enough to spend most waking hours just using our various toys and tools, communicating with each other through short phrases and snapshots, and partaking of all the synthetic conveniences we've surrounded ourselves with. The comment I made earlier about different circles of acquaintances having varied outlooks seems to also include the degree of curiosity they exhibit.
People continue to learn throughout their lives. Some do it more than others. It can be as simple as adapting to new circumstances or unexpected events, or as involved as purposefully exploring a new field beyond our current areas of expertise. Curiosity-driven learning starts with questions and the desire for answers. It continues with persistence, even when the answers are not easily realized or understood. It ends, well, maybe never. This kind of learning is not for everyone, as it involves hard work. It can be quite frustrating to research something, then come up with dead ends, ambiguous possible solutions, or outright contradictions. Only the passion of true curiosity can sustain the kind of intense examination necessary to answer difficult or confusing issues, or to understand the mechanisms behind complex systems, both natural and artificial. For many people, a superficial explanation, even if it is not necessarily a reflection of fact, is better than taking the time to delve deeper. Critical thinking is not easy, but with resources like email connections to experts, the sharing of observations and insights with other people and the Google accessible WWW reference library, nobody has to go it alone.
I'm particularly drawn to the natural world and find that the study of animals, plants and ecology offers plenty of grist for my curiosity mill. With almost every outing I discover a constant supply of enigmas that are either new to me or help provide another tiny piece to the environmental system that I am puzzling out. I frequently observe phenomena that don't fit my preconceived notions, but only by reviewing even widely held ideas and holding them up to scrutiny against actual observed facts will I gain a better understanding of how our environment here on Planet Earth works.
As with our basic five physical senses, curiosity is a tool that we use to examine our world and, upon doing so, hopefully informing the decisions we make to better our lives and those of the people and other creatures around us.
|In Oct., 1989, Larry and Val took a daytrip to San Antonio to enjoy the parks and gardens. They also took along their new purchase from the Austin Humane Society, a miniature schnauzer/Scottish terrier mix they named Frisky Pepper Tornado Rex. The little dog had her first encounter with a horse (carrying a mounted policeman) and took all the other sights, sounds, and especially smells, in stride. Larry snapped this picture by the Japanese Tea Garden, near the zoo. Over the next fourteen years, Frisky enjoyed trips to Illinois, Colorado, Wisconsin and Florida, as well as various destinations in Texas, always leaving her mark to prove that these locales were forever after additional parcels in her vast personal territory.|
|(The Terra Tabloid is a venue for the discussion of issues pertaining to the past, present, and future of our planet and human interaction with it.)|
Few these days would question that Earth's surface is getting hotter. Helping to confirm this deduction is the fact that each of the last three years has seen a new record high in average global temperatures. A parent with a child born in late 2013 was wondering, "If this keeps up, how hot will it be when my son reaches 21?" The question, though, is whether or not human activity has played a significant part in the rise.
Is manmade global climate change a hoax or a reality already affecting weather and the biosphere and likely to continue to do so for the next 100 years at least? Others can lay out the debate better than I. The interested reader might find in my primary sources places to pursue further research. Suffice to say climate scientists have presented an impressive array of data in support of their conclusions that human involvement in the advancing mercury readings is a reality. Nonetheless, a large number of people remain skeptical. They have interesting arguments on their side as well.
I am not a climate expert, but am persuaded that if those who are have the right answer, then we would be as foolish to ignore their warnings as those who for decades contended that their smoking habits were not bad for health, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.
I am reminded of the saying by philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal, that, to paraphrase, there is no harm in believing in God and no special benefit from being an atheist, but if the latter lives accordingly and is wrong, it could be very unpleasant indeed. Ergo, we may as well at least act as if there is a God. He said it better than I, and of course in French, but you get the idea.
Steven Hawking says the world will be uninhabitable within a hundred years directly as a result of global warming. He is so sure of it he says a few of us must colonize another world in order to avoid our species' extinction. If so, we might as well begin now to celebrate the late, great Homo sapiens, for the odds against our successfully colonizing another planet in that amount of time and being able to survive there independent of Earth are staggering.
If I get to a Y in the road in an unfamiliar area and a local Good Ol' Boy there tells me to take the right way because the other is shorter but leads around a sharp bend to a sudden drop-off, I'm going to certainly be cautious as I proceed but more inclined to veer right. The Good Ol' Boy might be wrong, but what if he is right?
That said, I respect those who look at the matter another way. I do not think it best to sweep the matter under the carpet because there are alternative opinions. Some of the greatest start-up companies, like Facebook and Google once were, have taught a valuable lesson, that we need to not squelch but address our differences. Only then can we find answers that take into account all perspectives and so arrive at truly win/win solutions, more likely to prove lasting.
If the skeptics are correct, we and the rest of the people on the planet can continue with business as usual, adding as much carbon dioxide (CO2) to the air as we wish, and there will be no significant or long-term cost in doing so.
Per NASA, however, with current production of the CO2 that is going into the atmosphere, temperatures will go up 2.5 to 10 degrees F (equals 1.4 to 5.6 degrees C) over the next century. Related to this, there will be more and stronger storms, droughts and floods will increase in frequency and intensity, sea levels will rise significantly, the poles will become ice free, glaciers will melt, the global system of sea currents will be affected, and within the next few decades each year's seasonal warm months will be extended by about 4-5 weeks (at the expense of the cool months).
Here is a degree by degree forecast of how the increasing temperatures would affect things:
If global heating has increased to this level, there may be irreversible and runaway effects, such as the deep thawing of permafrost regions, releasing huge amounts of methane and assuring still further roasting within the decades thereafter. As that heat trapping progesses, clouds of poisonous hydrogen sulfide could be released from the seabeds. Hydrogen sulfide is thought to have been a mass killer in the end-Permian event, when 95% of all species on Earth became extinct. As Stephen Hawking predicts, in such a world we would have trouble surviving as well.
If even the first two levels of Hell portrayed above come about, it would be a stingy gift to bequeath to our nieces and nephews, kids, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Should we as a species, for the short-term convenience of an unrestricted use of fossil fuels, take a chance that we are wrong about whether or not our contribution to global warming is real?
A Degree by Degree Explanation of What Will Happen When the Earth Warms in globalwarming.berrens.nl; July 20, 2017
Earth Could Hit 1.5 Degrees of Warming in Just 9 Years, Scientists Say Ian Johnston in independent.co.uk; May 9, 2017;
Is Human Activity Primarily Responsible for Global Climate Change? in ProCon.org; June 19, 2017;
When Will Climate Change Make the Earth Too Hot for Humans? David Wallace-Wells in nymag.com; July 9, 2017;
Why a Half-Degree Temperature Rise Is a Big Deal Bob Silberg in climate.nasa.gov; June 29, 2016.
One of the most commonly encountered snakes in our area is the Texas rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus lindheimeri). This large snake, which usually grows to 5 or 6 feet in length, is a subspecies of the eastern rat snake and is generally acknowledged to be one of the most aggressive of our nonvenomous serpents. This characteristic makes it an easy photo subject because it tends to not retreat when approached but instead just holds its ground, no matter how many different angles a photographer tries. Due to their fearless behavior and the fact that adults are sort of a nondescript brown mottled pattern with a dark head, they are often mistaken for venomous snakes such as rattlesnakes, cottonmouths and copperheads. However, anyone familiar with our local snakes can usually easily tell the difference. While the rat snake will bite if handled, it has only tiny teeth and leaves hardly any wounds. I once found a young snake that had become stranded on a sidewalk near some stores. Knowing that it would be easy prey for wandering predators or be stepped on by people, I decided to move it somewhere safer. I knew what I was in for, but the quickness of the bite was still a bit startling.
Rat snakes are constrictors and will subdue particularly feisty prey within wrapped coils. They are also very good climbers and scale trees and walls to hunt bird eggs and nestlings. While they are excellent at rodent control, they can become a problem around chicken coops.
Both bonds and stocks can provide income. An advantage bonds have is that in rough times for stocks they tend to hold their market value relatively well. Thus, if one wishes to have more portfolio stability during inevitable bear markets for equities, a healthy percentage holding of bonds can be reassuring. In the 2007-2009 market tumble, a blend of 40% bonds and 60% stocks, fell about 32%, whereas the S&P 500 Index alone fell over 54%. A September 4, 2007, $100,000 investment in a 40/60 mix of Vanguard Total Bond Market Index Fund, Investor Shares (VBMFX), and Vanguard 500 Index Fund, Investor Shares (VFINX), would have been worth $67,523 by 3/9/2009, whereas an all-equity investment on 9/4/2007 in the Vanguard 500 Index Fund, Investor Shares, over the same period would then have been worth only $45,537, an extra loss of $21,986 or 21.99% of the original investment.
Nonetheless, a case can be made for obtaining most of one's income from stocks instead of bonds. To paraphrase Warren Buffett, I would rather have a bumpy 15% annual return than a smooth 12%. And the fact is that bonds do not keep up with inflation, whereas stocks do. What is more, these days the yield or income from bonds other than high risk ones is often even lower than that for good quality, large-capitalization stocks. In addition, bonds, even if kept to maturity, generally only provide back to the investor the amount that was originally invested, though this can vary according to the type of bond. Stocks, on the other hand, have significant potential for price appreciation over time. If I focus on the income I am receiving from stocks as a whole and not on their volatility or likelihood of going up or down respectively in bull vs. bear markets, then stocks are certainly preferable in most instances.
Imagine a person who does not need to dip into the stocks he or she owns for living expenses and plans to never sell a portfolio, but instead can simply rely upon its dividend income. That person can look on the ups and downs of the equity market as like the passage of the seasons in their effects on an outdoor garden. In a temperate climate zone without a greenhouse, there will of course be periods when things do not look particularly good for the garden, and it may appear even beyond hope for awhile. Yet, each spring the gardener, aided by solar energy, water, and good soil, can encourage new growth until within a few weeks or months there is a fresh bounty of produce, the equivalent of one's stock portfolio income, produce that is predictable and independent of the ravages of many severe autumn and winter conditions.
Now consider the amount of that "produce." In almost all markets there are at least a few good quality stocks that provide dividends competitive with the yields of bonds. Today is no exception. It is no trouble to find stocks with excellent financial strength, growth potential, and sizable dividends even when compared with bonds.
Here are examples:
One can add to income equities on a regular basis, perhaps every 3-6 months, each time seeking the best risk-adjusted value. Even among top-notch companies there are almost always some temporarily in the doghouse whose dividend percentages (of the cost basis) benefit as a result. My current favorites of this sort are Total, ADR (TOT) and Verizon Communications (VZ).
Since even fairly mature, conservative, large-cap stocks tend to go up in value and price over time, whereas bonds typically do not, there are excess profit advantages to owning income stocks over bonds. These extra profits, in turn, are frequently passed along to shareholders via increases in the dividend amounts. Thus a 4% dividend yield at the time of a stock's purchase can become in ten or fifteen years a 6% or even an 8% yield, in relation to the original purchase price (the yield-on-cost). On occasion, the effects of these increases are stunning. CocaCola (KO) paid a 3% dividend in 1988, the year Warren Buffett bought a large number of shares for Berkshire Hathaway. Because of the company's profitability, subsequent increases in the asset's return to shareholders, and stock splits or buybacks that have improved the value of each remaining share, the yield-on-cost of his original purchases is now over 50%.
I began buying higher dividend stocks, beginning with AT&T (T) in order to offset added costs of our phone, wifi, and internet services. Recently I realized that of course other high quality companies' shares could enhance our overall dividend income. Ideally, investments can help assure such income increases annually, whether or not we are in a bull market. Dividends from stable companies are better than most annuities in the sense of providing not only good yields but overall growth in annual returns. As we now approach in the life of Riley the number of years I worked for Disability Determination, our annual dividend income exceeds each year's state retirement checks. Indeed, those checks have not been increased to adjust for inflation or health care deductions, so their buying power has steadily gone down, currently only about 60% as valuable as when I left regular employment. Yet the dividend income has persistently risen, even outpacing medical and other inflationary factors. This should continue whether stocks are up or down.
The downside, as noted in the opening paragraph, is not to be discounted, however. If one is liable to need to use nest egg assets beyond their dividends to pay for expenses or settle an estate in the next few years, then money market funds, certificates of deposit, and short-term Treasuries are probably a better place to park one's liquid assets. Alternatively, one can seek a cautious blend, for instance, of cash reserves, bonds, annuities, real estate, and stocks (or stock mutual funds) and at times rebalance the allocation's mix to restore the intended percentages in each.
If you haven't already made your reservations to be within the path of totality for the Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017 (on Aug. 21), then give up. In any location where the weather promises to be reasonably good, there will be no available lodging, and traffic will be horrendous. An impressive event like this is so popular that the number of attendees will be even greater than for Trump's inauguration. We hope all have terrific mid-summer nights' dreams, days to match, and efficient air-conditioning throughout!
|For others who may have chanced upon this site, larvalbug bytes is a monthly family-and-investment newsletter, put out by an old codger and sweet thing, with sometimes a little help as well from our engaging pooch, Peri. We invite readers' comments by and would also be happy to readers when new issues are published. Articles and stories from back issues are available in our archives.|
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"Brand Name Bugs" and larvalbug web design by Valerie.
"Brand Name Bugs" and larvalbug web design by Valerie.