Saturday, May 29, 2021

Heads Up: John Warner; Exxon

The Virginia Senator

John Warner’s career in the US Senate bookended the Republican Party’s short era of dominance in Virginia. He was narrowly elected in 1978, in a state which favored conservative Democrats; and retired from the US Senate in 2009. He was certainly part of the Defense establishment, which once held economic and political power in Virginia; the submarine USS John Warner (SSN-785) is named in his honor. He drew support from across the political spectrum, running unopposed in 2002. Before his retirement, the nascent Tea Party movement branded this popular moderate as a RINO (Republican in Name Only). John Warner was indeed a RINO: “Reasonable, Intelligent, Nice and Open-minded”.

Warner's death comes at an inflection point as the Republican Party of Virginia (RPV) attempts to rebuilt from a lost decade of nominating Tea Party and Trumpist candidates, who failed to win any statewide election since 2009. If proof is found in pudding, these rural hardliners typically lost their November elections by 10 points or more; while mainstream candidates in 2013 and 2014 fell just one point short of victory. The RPV is optimistic for this year’s races, as the nominees are both diverse and chosen by suburban voters, who have marched towards the Democrats in the past decade. John Warner was richly eulogized by the nominees, showing that the late Senator is a model to be followed. 


Exxon Going Green?

This one is personal to me, as I dumped this laggard of a stock last year. Shareholders put Jeffrey Ubben of Value Act Capital onto Exxon's Board of Directors, in hopes of bringing the large corporation up to par in the future of energy. Ubben's unique thinking is that an "oil company" can be part of a "Responsible Investing" (ESG-focused) portfolio.  For other petroleum companies, the transition to green energy is nothing new. BP (British Petroleum) had long styled itself as "beyond petroleum", embracing a green sunflower as its logo.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

The Fascist Moment

 In the manifestos of various nutjobs, there is a common theme favoring increased control of society, particularly in areas of immigration and family policy. To the disenfranchised, these radical solutions offer false hope of increased status and wealth. It would be easy to ignore the effect of such writings, but for the fact that crazed manifestos have enabled great evils in the past, from Mein Kampf to the writings of Dylan Klebold. Dare I say, we did have a Beta-Test of fascism in America, an unintended consequence of the national coronavirus response strategy.

At a fundamental level, fascists are miserable because you are outwardly happy. Their grievances often come from perception of deficit in their social lives, and they fantasize ways to remove joy and spontaneity from relationships, including hook-up culture. As an example of pattern rupture, the year-long government shutdowns of “non-essential” businesses such as bars and concert venues in many states may permanently alter what it means “to go out” for an evening. While social activities have moved from public spaces to private settings (at one service academy, daytime liberty on weekends resulted in a 15% COVID infection rate after just two months), researchers have found increased malaise among young adults. This may be confounded with other factors like lack of hiring in well-paying jobs.

Halting immigration from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia has featured in multiple extremist manifestos. The national border is sealed with policies reminiscent of the isolationist 1930s. Based on the adjusted travel patterns of my peer group, I would surmise that most international travelers and immigrants today are coming to the US from Europe, rather than the Global South.

Record Gun Sales- Gun ownership has increased, especially among women and racial minorities Some Leftist groups have embraced gun ownership, often as a response to the outwardly firearm-toting Far Right groups. It is impossible to stereotype who might be armed today. Notably, the new generation of firearm owners, predominantly urban or suburban dwellers, have purchased firearms for reasons other than hunting. Marksmanship, tactical training and self-defense have grown in prominence: this disassembled militia appears in manifesto writings.

Inequitable Health Outcomes- Higher COVID death rates among disfavored groups represents a racially and socioeconomically unequal loss of life. COVID infection crossed all walks of life, as seen in how the virus first spread through the global jet-set. But those with less reserves, in wealth or health, were more likely to perish.  Social Darwinist policies are frequently invoked in manifestos.  

Discussing birth rates during a prolonged crisis is a difficult subject, because of conflicting mainstream philosophies. On one hand, it is seen as the “responsible choice” to delay childbearing until one’s socioeconomic situation improves. In the other stream of thought, childbearing is life’s most essential activity, and minimal constraints should apply: in the religious context, this would include marriage between biological parents. As many of my friends are in this stage of life, I am interested to see how countermeasures applied in the Spring of 2020, such as no-visitation policies in maternity wards, affected the rate of home births; or if it caused couples to be discouraged, resulting in a birth rate drop this past Winter. What the evidence shows is that couples have postponed childrearing, except for the wealthiest young adults (see Refinery29, Insider). Survival of the fittest, much?

Reversion to traditional gender roles: Celebration of the family puts a softer edge on the general bluntness of fascist policies. Women, though, tend to bear the strain in domestic workload and missed career opportunities. As modern resources that enabled the two-income household became unavailable; be it daycare centers, grandparents, foreign au-pairs, and, yes, public schools; one parent had to step back from full-time work. In the past, it was assumed that a woman would take up domestic responsibilities; today, income, stability, and now, essentialness, are hashed out between the couple. Egalitarianism is to let the math speak for itself, and most often, Dad keeps pursuing his career.

Hopefully, the experience of the past year and a half has debunked any thoughts that fascism is a viable solution to the political difficulties in the United States. High-priority issues that have come to the fore-front in national discussion are learning and skills loss, alleviation of childhood poverty, and newfound respect for individual freedom.  There appears to be bipartisan agreement in saying “never again”, with regard to the challenges people and the nation have endured.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Two Slaveries and the Church


Waging the long spiritual fight against communism in Eastern Europe and Greater China left little room for self-reflection, which has now come to the forefront of Catholic consciousness. If the Church had the power to initiate an orderly transition from communism to democracy in Eastern Europe, what power did it have, and did not use, to end human slavery? From today’s lenses, the Catholic Churches’ role in 1800’s slavery appears to be participation and implicit approval. This must be reconciled.

Looking back to the 1890s, in the same papacy of Pope Leo XIII, the Church made a switch from being soft on chattel slavery to being tough on the mental slavery of Marxist communism. By this time, the Church had been stripped of its earthly powers, particularly the papal holdings in Italy (prompting the Leonine Prayers in the Traditional Latin Mass). The world changed greatly at the dawn of the 20th century. France underwent secularization around 1905. Hereditary monarchy was discredited after WWI. For centuries and millennia, monarchs held a special place in state religions, setting the ‘tone’ for the population, and occasionally practicing intolerance towards religious minorities in their realm. For the Church, there was a real threat that monarchy across Europe would be replaced by communism, as happened in Russia. If monarchy was obsolete, and communism intolerable; then democracy, or transitional autocracy (as in Portugal, Spain or the Republic of China), had to be embraced. Unlike most events in world history, the people would decide, through ballot box or popular uprising, their self-determination.  

 In previous generations, the Church’s worldly concerns as landlord and investor had created a close intertwining of Church and the Spanish and French colonies, where chattel slavery was a common practice.  In theory, slaves in French and Spanish colonies had more rights than slaves in English and Islamic areas. In French practice, mixed-race children were born free; while this was not the case in the American South at large. In practice, life was harsh for all agricultural slaves. Work in the Caribbean sugar plantations was known to be a virtual death sentence. Would the Church have placated itself on false platitudes? Emphasis on pastoral care emerged in the late 1800s, with focus on various groups such as immigrants, Black Americans, and Pacific Islanders. In this context, a focus on human liberation became a natural outcrop of charitable work to feed, educate, and care for the disadvantaged. Leo XIII’s successor, the pauper-born Pope Pius X, would understand that proclamations of human dignity had to be backed by action.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Appalachian Serenade


For at least the past decade, New Hampshire has been attracting conservative and libertarian-minded individuals from the Northeast, through the Free State Project and personal initiative. Strong gun rights, no state income tax, and boundless opportunities for rugged outdoor activities provide the incentives. The Granite State’s rural areas vote Democratic, while the more educated and urbanized southern part of New Hampshire, closest to Boston, prefer Republicans. This inversion of modern political trends can also be found in another mountainous state: West Virginia.

Lest anyone forget, West Virginia was a solidly Democratic state until Al Gore and John Kerry were nominated by the Democratic Party in 2000 and 2004. A legacy of coal-field patronage and low-wage labor resulted in a highly-unionized workforce and economically progressive politics. Until Obama’s “War on Coal”, it was unthinkable that West Virginia would make efforts to appease the staunch Republican appendage of the Eastern Panhandle, closest to Washington, DC. It already had competitive advantages in being home to the states’ highest average incomes, federal employment, two interstate highways, and a commuter rail line. But nobody can bring back coal: Virginia’s recent elimination of a coal production tax credit, which was was cut for economically ineffectiveness (the environmental reasons are still too touchy to mention), was but one signal that coal is dead or dying, and that clear minds needed to create a new strategy for economic growth in Appalachia.

West Virginia’s Governor Jim Justice (himself a Democrat turned Republican) passed a Right-to-Work bill, once unthinkable in a strong labor state. More interestingly, he has proposed eliminating the state’s income tax. Just west of Washington Dulles International Airport, the freeway splits. The left turn is for Route 7 /Harry Byrd Highway, into the prosperous horse-and-wine country, which is also growing as suburban bedroom communities. The right turn for Route 9 is the road less travelled. The narrow, meandering road heads into the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, which lies directly north and parallel to Route 7. Using radically pro-growth policies, and seizing on the current political turmoil and stagnant growth in non-metropolitan Virginia, Governor Jim Justice’s goal is to make his road the more travelled road. The experience of New Hampshire shows this to be a real possibility.



Saturday, April 3, 2021

Easter Greetings


We've come a long way since last Easter, when public services in most states, and by many denominations, were cancelled. The churches will be "full" this Easter, and I think it will mostly be okay. (Mine is at 50%, with every other pew empty, so people don't breathe on each others' necks).                      In contrast to last Christmas' gatherings that led to tragic loss of life in January, we now have widespread availability of COVID vaccines among senior citizens, and a lower infection rate overall.

Do I expect to see a moderate spike in cases in three weeks? Certainly, especially with the cold weather on the East Coast this weekend, which will keep families indoors. Am I afraid that public health officials will use the explainable blip to cancel open-air graduation plans tentatively scheduled in May and June? Certainly, but I think now is a good time for optimism. 


Saturday, March 20, 2021

Curation or Censorship? eBay's Very Public Decline

Recently, eBay crossed the Rubicon by prohibiting the sale of now-collectible Dr. Seuss works, relatively obscure books that are now out of print by the decision of the Seuss estate. With that action, among others, eBay lost its market distinction as an online emporium.

At one time, eBay was a unicorn. The online business achieved a level of trust in which customers feel comfortable carrying out large transactions in gold and silver, electronics and jewelry. The scammers are becoming more sophisticated, though, so security is an area where eBay must focus. In this new cybersecurity paradigm, eBay does not have time for nitpicking the merchandise decisions of its core sellers and buyers; nor can afford the overhead of having staff manually cancelling listings.

The premise of the online marketplace is that customers search for what they want and find it. If they can't find what they want, they will take their business elsewhere. I am sure that eBay lost bibliophiles who look for collectible and out of print works. That was eBay's niche in the book market, and they blew it in one week. Amazon and Barnes and Noble remain top sellers of commodity works like in-print books and textbooks. eBay was not competing effectively in that arena, nor should they try.

eBay is still the preferred marketplace of coin buyers. But if they go on a whim to cancel listing of coins from certain countries or regimes, then the credibility of eBay as an open marketplace diminishes for the numismatic community.

Now, staying above the line of the law was a founding value of eBay. Drug paraphernalia and cockfighting tools are banned. Prohibiting these sales likely helped to bolster the reputation of e-commerce. eBay has also engaged in well-understood social policy, such as not selling Hypodermic needles - though this is part of a lively debate on the risk and benefit of access to clean needles: deterrence and mitigation. Early in the current pandemic, it was advisable to stop marketplace sales of PPE- but small , certified, upstart manufacturers lost sales as they could not communicate with eBay et al. that they needed a wider distribution stream that e-commerce could provide. (NY Times)

User experience has suffered: by 2019 users were “bombarded” with irrelevant advertising. Sellers note that the pages have been overrun by “cheap Chinese merchandise”, and that “eBay can NOT operate as another Amazon”. To top it off, the flailing company is cancelling its longtime eBay bucks program in April.

eBay forgot it’s flea market roots, where buyers move on to the next seller's table, if they find one table to be distasteful. The browser does not quit the market, unless the majority of sellers have gone rogue. Or the owner of the market makes bad strategic decisions. 

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Harry Byrd: The Bigot Who Closed the Black-White Wage Gap.

Harry Byrd, a segregationist who ran Virginia's political machine in the mid-20th century, is losing his place near the seat of government in Richmond, VA. A statue erected in 1976, featuring the long-term Senator sizing down the federal budget, is expected to be removed from outdoor display. How did he fall out of grace so quickly?

Too recently, White Supremacists dominated the Deep South. In contrast, segregationists were
"racial moderates" in the South, as they were called in their time. Politicians of the later group were often socially conservative, and fiscally liberal, the "Blue Dog" epitaph today. Public health and education improvements occurred in the mid-20th century by a separate and somewhat equal policy. 

 Atlanta, Memphis, and Washington DC hold America's 3 historically black medical schools. These cities, in general, were forward-looking and not in touch with racial attitudes in their surrounding region. Graduates of Black professional schools built a self-sufficiency in border state Black communities that leaders like Frederick Douglas  and WEB DuBois imagined. 
Yet in the heart of the Jim Crow era, many African-Americans worked as peanut, cotton and tobacco sharecroppers under the peonage system in "Black Belt" counties. Predominately Black urban occupations such as movie attendants, domestic servants, and shoe-shiners were exempted from minimum wage laws. (This shortcoming was symbolically closed in recent years). 

Federal directives on equal employment in the defense sector during and after World War Two played a key role in leveling the harsh discrepancy between Black and White income. Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia, a Democrat, maintained cordial  relations with President Eisenhower, the later of whom was able to push civil rights bills through a recalcitrant congress in 1957 and 1960. This relationship made Virginia a powerhouse in infrastructure (Dulles International Airport was build with federal funds), technology,  and the defense industry. In major Virginia cities, college expansions were paired with the opening of a Black college. Hospitals opened or were renovated in underserved communities (Credit to the US Government's Hill-Burton Act of 1946). The racial wage gap compressed further.

Source: Virginia Pilot

With an emerging black middle class came legal action that closed the chapter on Jim Crow. Strength of conviction and legal connections led plaintiffs to sue for equal rights. Cases include Morgan vs. Virginia (1946), desegregating interstate transportation; Boynton vs Virginia (1960), reinforcing the 1946 case; Davis vs Prince Edward County, which became part of Brown vs Board of Education (1954); and Loving vs Virginia (1967) on interracial marriage.

If there is evidence that the latter generation of segregationists delivered for minority citizens, it is found in voter turnout. The same Southern Democrats who defended segregation often gained support of Black voters towards the end of the 20th century. Governor George Wallace and Senator Al Gore, Sr, are two examples.

Virginia Pilot Link: