Homeownerlessness

Thus far, in my life, I have never owned my own home except when I’ve lived in VW vans. It’s my own fault – mortgages were easy to come by several times in my life and I chose not to invest. This will sound funny, but the prices always seemed too high. In the early-1990s … Continue reading “Homeownerlessness”

Thus far, in my life, I have never owned my own home except when I’ve lived in VW vans. It’s my own fault – mortgages were easy to come by several times in my life and I chose not to invest. This will sound funny, but the prices always seemed too high. In the early-1990s – a Staff Seargent in my Marine Corps unit suggested that a bunch of enlisted guys pool our money and start buying real estate. It was a good suggestion and none of us took it. In the mid to late 1990s, I was struggling to find my calling – if, while I had worked in radio, I had applied for a mortgage using my VA Loan – I could have bought a modest house in what is now the booming real estate market of Bellingham, Washington. In the early 2000s – I had the opportunity to purchase a small studio apartment in Honolulu for $100,000 – the price seemed pretty extreme to me and I passed. And then, the housing boom came and I was sure that the economy was heading over a cliff but mortgages were incredibly easy to come by – I chose not to seek a home loan. That was it for me – those were my opportunities. We all know what happened in 2007 with the economy and housing – as a result of that – the requirements for getting a home loan became much more stringent – in fact – in 2016 when I talked to several banks about getting a loan – they told me that my VA Guarantee was no longer worth much and that as a self-employed business owner that my reported income was too low to qualify for a home loan – both bankers suggested that I ‘find a way’ to report a higher income. Yes, I could have lied on my taxes this year. I could have taken less deductions. I could have paid more tax…but the truth is that this year with the long grey winter and the bizarre politics of 2016 – my business wasn’t sufficient to do that. We needed those deductions.

Now, the housing market is again red hot. Things like AirBnB have made housing prices soar in desirable locations. I am in the midst of closing or with any luck selling my business (I do not own the building that houses it). For the present time, my VA Home Loan Guarantee sits in a folder – worthless and unusable. I console myself by imagining that the housing market will again have a massive crash and perhaps I will be able to buy something afterwards – but I don’t really believe it. I tell myself that the banks own most of the houses that people live in – and the mortgages are simply another form of rent and home ownership is by and large an illusion anyway. We have been served an eviction notice in the house we’ve rented for the past four years because the owner wants to sell it. I am thankful that we had already been making plans to move before we got the notice, but can’t help asking myself “What if we had not?”

We currently exist in a 60 day limbo in which lies a form of homelessness that terrifies me. The landlord was apologetic and felt bad about serving the eviction because we have been great tenants – but right now is the time to sell. I don’t blame her a bit. I would have done the same thing in her position. We are 60 days away from involuntary family homelessness.

Yes, we have been making plans. Yes, I am sure we will find something. I’d be foolish, however, not to be concerned. AirBnB and the red hot housing market have driven rents sky high.

I am a person – actually, we are a family, that if you want to send a birthday card to my 5-year-old daughter, a letter to my wife, or even a bill to me – more than 60 days from now to us – we have no forwarding address.

So, once again, here I am. This time, I was ready to seize opportunity – and this time it was denied me. I am rooting for the collapse of the economy. I am rooting for the collapse of the housing bubble. I am rooting for the collapse of AirBnB and more. I would rather be cheering for the economy and housing – but this Gen-x USMC veteran has been left behind by it. I have been left out of it. I accept my responsibility in this process – but no matter how hard I try – it just doesn’t make sense that this is all my fault. And so – here we are. Here I am. Here we go.

Ramadan Mubarak & Ramadan Kareem & Random Musings

The world is filled with kind, peaceful, struggling-with-life-just-like-everyone Muslim people. From the bottom of my heart, I wish them Ramadan Mubarak and Ramadan Kareem. The month of Ramadan is much better understood in my country, the United States of America, than it has ever been before but still – the mistrust, misunderstanding, fear, and hatred towards everyday Muslims and Islam continues. The currently appointed Secretary of State has broken with tradition and turned down an offer to host a Eid-al-Fatr breaking of the fast in late June. Here in the state we currently live in – a white supremacist spewed a hate-filled rant at two teenage girls because one of them was wearing a hijab on a Portland Train – and when several bystanders attempted to get him to simmer down and defended the young women – he killed two of them with a knife – this was on Friday, the first day of the Islamic Holy month of Ramadan…an awful thing at any time – and yet, a hopeful thing as strangers stood up to defend the rights of strangers. One can hope that their deaths do not push others to remain quiet while such things happen in the future – which they surely will.

Ramadan – for those who are not certain – is a lunar month in which all adult, healthy Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. No food, no water, no sex, no smoking and during this time the faithful contemplate God, life, the world, and use the hunger and thirst to overcome their baser selves. This is a form of what is known as Greater Jihad. Jihad is holy war – everyone knows that now it seems – but this is Greater Jihad – the war against our own desires and corruptions – the war to make ourselves better than we currently are – to strive for the perfection we were created to attain. The Lessor Jihad – that is the war against the external elements which seek to deceive us and force us away from God. The Greater Jihad is the important battle – the Lessor Jihad would be unimportant if we were focused on the Greater Jihad. This is what the idiot militants do not understand – change comes from within. They are like people who choose to eradicate food in the world so that they can successfully fast…the true challenge is to eliminate the desire for the food – or better yet- to overcome the food. Change comes from within.

I read the news often – I probably shouldn’t, but I do. Certain things jump out at me – things like a part of the President’s budget calls for the largest increase in jails and detention centers in the history of the United States – this is couched in terms that make it look like an immigration issue – and maybe it is – but it is troubling in any way you look at it. Seeing the ongoing silent war between the son-in-law and the neo-nazi news editor is also troubling – because it seems to me the narrative went like this – moderate-Jewish-son-in-law gains influence and neo-nazi-editor fades into the background – which seemed hopeful but now the Jewish son-in-law is at the center of a growing scandal and the neo-nazi-editor is reshaping the inner circle of the president and not being talked about while he does it – he is bringing the hardest right advisers and pushing out the ones who hold the most moderate views. I believe this is reason to be alarmed – but no one is talking about it. The media has been reined in and the libel laws are changed just by the act of talking about changing them. If you doubt this – look at the stabbing murders I mentioned above. These happened Friday and most of the media did not cover the events until late on Saturday – these hate crimes should have been front page within minutes but they were not – it is not subtle if you are paying attention.

I still believe that this country is in very deep trouble. We have become used to it. The constant jokes have made us less alarmed at what is happening but it is still happening. Wealth is shifting at the fastest rate in human history and it is shifting from the bottom to the top – the bottom never disappears, it simply grows to include more. Not long ago the poor earned $20,000 or less – now it is just as difficult to survive if you make $60,000. Inflation is being vastly under-reported. The devaluation of currency while banks produce thousands of trillions of dollars in digital currency is not imaginary. Control mechanisms are being perfected. This is an alarming time-period which seems to largely be invisible.

Change comes from within. Perhaps it is time to have a societal Ramadan fast. A Greater Jihad within the limits of the cancerous capitalist system which is eating us. I have no idea how such a thing would begin – but perhaps it is much more simple than I am thinking about – maybe all it really takes is mastering the self and refusing to participate, refusing to allow food or drink to pass our lips from sunrise to sunset for a month. Ramadan kareem. Ramadan Mubarak.

Social Insecurity and the Unpleasant American Dream

I’m certain that I’m not alone. I have no retirement plan. There is no windfall waiting for me. No inheritance or IRA sits patiently waiting for my time of need. I have enough debt to keep me awake at night from time to time. No social safety net protects me or my family from a very hard fall – a fall that could be triggered by an accident, an extreme weather event, or sudden political chaos – all of which could be imminent. I am sure that I’m not alone in my social insecurity and the dark pit of hopelessness that looms around each and every corner. This is the unpleasant American Dream realized – constant dread of financial disaster which is coming whether I like it or not.

Is it my own fault? Certainly I have made many of the decisions that have brought me here. I could have stayed in the Marines for twenty years. I could have gone to University right after graduating high school in 1990 instead of going in the Marines and deferring a degree until 2008. I could have stayed in a number of careers that didn’t bring me joy -I could have pursued a management career in hospitality, I could have remained an Air Traffic Controller, I could have stayed a stock broker or an insurance agent, I could have stayed in Hawaii after graduating and taken any job that might have been available at the height of the recession, I could have stayed in radio, I could have persevered in a tech career after the dot-com bust, and so on. I second guess my life decisions all the time. I made them, I live with the consequences – but there is no going back. At the time, I made the best decision that I could and did what I thought was best for my future. Usually, those decisions had very little to do with finance and much more to do with things like ethics, spiritual beliefs, and an awareness that life is transitory and if I didn’t take the time to live while I was young, I would someday be old and regret that I had not. My life is worthy, my experiences a joy and comfort, and my integrity mostly intact.

But this is the United States of America – the country I was raised in was a country formed by revolutionaries and shaped by organized labor. A country with laws to protect workers, the poor, the sick, the elderly, the insane and handicapped. We were supposed to have social security and peace of mind in our old age. I’m not old yet – mid-life at worst – but I don’t see any sort of retirement or ease of living in my American future. I see a nightmare. For two decades now, I’ve seen senior citizens filling the low wage workforce – working in jobs that in my youth belonged to high school students. Senior greeters at Walmart and Senior fry cooks at McDonalds. In the 1970s and 1980s – I remember people having retirement parties when they reached age 65 – When was the last time you heard about someone actually retiring? Yes, it happens in government and maybe in some other isolated fields – but not in my world. I have some friends who will retire – but not many. Most of us will have to scrabble until the day we die for enough to pay our insurance, buy prescriptions, pay heating bills, and buy food. That’s the fate of the majority of us in the United States.

I don’t know why, but I thought we were better than that. We’ve elected billionaires who have put millionaires and billionaires in charge of the public protections and we’ve gotten what we pay for. And when you elect billionaires, one thing you can be sure of is that they want everyone to pay. There is no public safety net. There is no protection for workers. There is no future for this country except for increasing oppression against the working class and the poverty class until the pressure becomes so extreme that it explodes. We are already seeing the vents of steam jetting from the cracks – and there is more of that to come.

At some point, the United States decided that taking care of business was the best way to take care of people. That point happened somewhere between the 1950s and the 1980s – it was a gradual erosion of the New Deal until suddenly, we found ourselves living in a society where there is no longer a deal at all except perhaps for The Art of the Deal – from nurturing to shystering and exploitation.

I find a strange comfort in beating myself up at not having made the right choices – but if I had made different choices, I could easily have found myself in worse conditions than those I live in now. The Marines and ATC could have led to an early death from alcoholism, radio has merged and consolidated until only the most talented are able to achieve careers, I could have been a dot-com has been, or a real estate tycoon who lost everything in the recession, the soul sucking work of selling stock (let’s make money from this war Bob!) could easily have led to suicide, and the list goes on. There’s really no reason or purpose in beating myself up over the past.

The future though – it is that which worries me. I cannot see a future that I want to be a part of in the United States. I cannot see a future that I want my child to be a part of in the United States. When I attempt to see the future here, I see tragedy and hardship. I wanted to come back to my country and succeed. I wanted to come back to my country and find a future I could believe in. I am trying. I am really trying to see past the storm on the horizon. From my perspective though – it just looks like it will get worse and worse and worse with no prospect for a sunny day.

A Shameful Society

What kind of world do we live in when a slime ball like Bill O’Reilly not only doesn’t get fired for sexual harassment but also gets a huge payoff when the company he works for (FOX) realizes that people are upset that he got away with sexually harassing multiple women – who were also paid off by Fox to keep them from pursuing charges? Certainly I’m no fan of the politics of Fox news, but this takes the cake – essentially, O’Reilly just got a huge payoff for being a dirtbag – it’s almost as bad as electing a man accused of sexually assaulting an underage girl to the office of the President – which, come to think of it, actually happened and so this shouldn’t be a surprise at all. Decency does not matter any more in the United States – only money.As long as existing home sales rise (they have), marketshare, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average rises – all is forgiven.

I have spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out what is propping up our economy and I’ve failed to discover anything – which is not a surprise – no one seems to have the answers as to why the economy in general should be rising but the fundamentals of the economy remain gloomy. I’ve got a few guesses 1) there is a lot more US Currency being printed than we are being told – the economy is still being fluffed 2) student debt is somehow being packaged and resold despite an average default of once every minute 3) capital doesn’t have a safehaven or a strong negative bet and is bouncing around while it waits for a shoe to drop.

As a retailer, I know one thing for sure, people are not spending recklessly on material goods. I don’t know where their money is going – but they are being tight with it when it comes to spending in brick and mortar shops. My suspicion is they are spending credit on online retail, spending cash on food and experiences like travel, and investing equity in their properties which they use for AirBnB rentals – which drives the cost of rent up and the cost of buying a property up as well.

And all of that leaves the great majority of us – scratching our heads and wondering where all the prosperity we were promised as kids has disappeared to. And the answer is, it doesn’t matter. Go buy a lottery ticket or do some serious sexual harassment because that is the surest path to riches in the USA of today.

What I’m Reading: The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson

My quest to understand the world we live in continues to focus on capital and finance with The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson, like another book I recently read and reviewed, Money – this was written on the eve of a major financial catastrophe – though Ferguson, to his credit, is much more aware of the systemic instability he is writing in than Robertson was. And, unlike the Great Depression, the onset of the Great Recession had already begun at the time of Ferguson’s writing and by the time he wrote the revised conclusion of the paperback version – the major effects had already been felt and dealt with and the recovery efforts were well underway.

This was a good book and offered a wealth of information about the transition of money from hard currency to fancifully re-packaged imaginary money based on money that was loaned but which never actually existed and then even to the most chimeric form of capital yet – the hedge fund. Ferguson’s telling of the birth of banks, stock companies, paper currency, debt markets, and derivatives was both entertaining and informative. I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand capitalism and money.

That being said, Ferguson is a cheerleader of capitalism and an enthusiastic supporter of the positive benefits of money. For Ferguson, there seems to be no possibility of imagining a world in which unfettered capitalism, collecting interest, and central governmental oversight of monetary instruments could possibly exist. There is a palpable admiration present in his tales of swindlers, con-men, and thieves enriching themselves at the expense of honest workers and virtually no empathy present as he ignores the human toll that the financial escapades of men and governments wreak upon five centuries of humanity. He is a gifted storyteller and a talented teacher of economic principles and history – but ultimately, it is clear that he is a capitalist and not a humanitarian.

Still, the book is a must-read as these several notable passages illustrate:

..there were few mourners when the last meaningful vestige of it {the gold standard} were removed on August 15, 1971, the day that President Nixon closed the so called ‘gold window’ through which, under certain restricted circumstances, dollars could still be exchanged for gold. From that day onward, the centuries old link between money and precious metal was broken.

In his chapter about financial bubbles, Ferguson tells the colorful tale of John Law, a murderer fleeing justice in his native Scotland, who managed to take complete control of the French Royal Bank and essentially destroyed the treasury of France (and her citizens) through selling shares in the Mississippi company which was responsible for leaving France bankrupt and in need of the capital that selling the Louisiana Purchase to the fledgling United States brought. According to Ferguson, Law was single-handedly responsible for the founding of New Orleans and the ascent of Britain over France. I would love to see a movie about Law, but I’m glad to have not been one of his direct victims.

And finally, this quote struck me as incredibly powerful. It’s worth holding onto and thinking about deeply.

Longer life is good news for individuals, but it is bad news for the welfare state and the politicians who have to persuade voters to reform it.

And that, is perhaps the most powerful, though unintended message of this book – what is good for the individual is not necessarily good for the capitalist or the capitalist state. Buyer beware indeed.

The Capitalist Conundrum

Capitalism is relatively new and still evolving on the human timeline – going back no further than the Medici of Florence and then modernizing in the Netherlands of the 18th century before reaching full early bloom in London and then in the 19th and 20th centuries in New York – the mantra of capitalism has always been a combination of higher productivity + lower material and labor costs + increased demand = greater profits. It’s no coincidence that material and labor go together. Our work is lumped in with the raw materials because human labor is a raw material. You (or me) are of value to the capitalist in one of three ways – a raw material, a consumer, or a lender. The third may come as a surprise, but the debt that we incur is actually an asset to the lender. Let’s assume that robots suddenly provide all the labor including extraction, manufacture, delivery, and retrieval (trash collection, recycling, etc). Artificial intelligence is also handing marketing, merchandising, stocking, and quality control. The robot/AI work also includes making robots and new A.I. – Okay, so all of us are out of a job. Does that stop capitalism? No way. We are still consumers and at this point, in order to consume the productt produced by the AI/Robot factories – we will need to be borrowers (consumers of loans) and lenders (purchasers of debt to companies and nations through stocks which are loans to corporations and bonds which are loans to governments. Since we will be bored – we will probably be consuming more – just like when you sit in front of your computer for too long, you sometimes end up buying something – usually on credit. So, in the robot/AI society the capitalist gets higher productivity + lower material and labor costs + increased demand which as I mentioned before lead to higher profits which are doled out to the corporate shareholders who buy more shares and presumably diversify their investments with holdings in government bonds which allow the government to dole out to welfare programs which would seem likely to be the largest consumer (as a sort of collective patron of the needy), meanwhile the corporations are consolidated into larger corporations which eventually are all owned by the largest banks which leads to the conundrum which I can’t get my head around – I need help with this. At some point, there starts to exist a closed feedback loop between the banks and the government. The government buys from the banks with money the banks have lent to the government and the government pays the banks with money borrowed from the citizens, the citizens borrow from the banks to purchase the products the banks produce, the banks would seem to eventually swallow the government and the citizen so that we have corporate citizen banks which determine who eats and who starves, who lives in peace and who suffers war, and as we’ve seen in the philosophy and writings of others – at some point – the majority of citizen consumers are no longer a valuable resource but instead become a drain on the scaled up economy – at that point – it would seem – the banks are left with the option of 1) transforming into an altruistic welfare state or 2) genocide machine – It seems to me that a perfect capitalist machine looks a lot like genocide in its final days. As I look at our society undergoing rapid transformation – I can’t help but think that genocide on a global scale is not very far away.