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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 5, 2016

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Jungle, Trumponomics, the Financial Edge

I've never read The Jungle Book.  I never saw the Disney animated musical version of the story.

The current live-action remake that's crushing all the competition at the movie theaters is, in a word, excellent. It's not for little kids -- not only are some of these animals really, really scary, but also there are so many vertiginous shots looking down at certain death if Mowgli falls while leaping along branches that children will become acrophobes like me if they aren't already.

The CGI is brilliantly done; the animals are completely convincing, as are the beautiful jungle settings. Best and coolest climbing trees ever anywhere. The kid playing Mowgli does a very good job of showing the only emotions required -- intense concentration, and somewhat less intense concentration. And the voice actors are outstanding.

Two songs from the animated musical are in this movie, but the writers worked them seamlessly into the story so it doesn't feel like a musical.

OK, there are some idiotic mistakes. Tigers, monkeys with prehensile tails, and African elephants are on different continents. There is no one jungle that contains all the animals shown.

But The Jungle Book is a movie and besides, it's quite likely that, as with Tarzan, some of these mistakes are in the original.

My wife and I watched enthralled, and did not feel that we had watched a "kids' movie." We watched a good movie, which might also be entertaining and inspiring for young people. I recommend it to everyone, not just people dragging kids along with them.

*

The most recent Commentary magazine has a powerful series of articles on what the consequences of Trump's policies would be, were he elected President.

Naturally, because Trump has never articulated any clear policies, the challenge first is in finding out what in the world his policies might be. It's not as if this New York liberal wears his conservative costume with any kind of style. A lot of Trump supporters seem to think that he represents the Tea Party or the Republican Party or at least sensible business-oriented economics ... but no, this man comes out of left field, and all we have to go on are the angry, petulant things he says in his speeches.

When it comes to business and economics, Trump is, by far, the most destructive of the candidates, if he could actually carry out his announced policies. Yes -- more destructive than the two socialists vying for the Democratic nomination.

That's because Trump has clearly said, on many occasions, that he would use tariffs to punish our trading rivals and countries whose foreign policy runs contrary to our own.

Tariffs are the taxes you charge on goods brought into the U.S. from other countries. Imposing high tariffs is called "protectionism," because when countries with weak, industrializing economies are just starting out, they use tariffs to keep cheap foreign goods from competing with locally manufactured goods.

Ours is not a weak, industrializing economy. Our prosperity for the past half century is built on a foundation of free trade -- the practice of reducing or eliminating tariffs. That has brought us two benefits.

1. Our public marketplace has access to goods made in other countries at far lower prices. That's why we have fresh produce year-round in our grocery stores, for instance, even when they're out of season here. Without tariffs jacking up the prices on vegetables and fruits from south of the equator, importers can afford to bring them in and sell them at reasonable prices.

2. When other countries allow our goods into their countries without tariffs, our manufacturers can sell American products in markets far larger than our own domestic market.

So what happens if Trump's massive tariffs go into effect? First, prices rise sharply in American stores. That's if the importers can afford to bring the goods into the U.S. at all -- because another consequence is that a lot of things we're used to buying from abroad might disappear from our stores entirely.

Second, other countries retaliate by imposing high tariffs on American goods. Suddenly our manufacturers don't have anything like the same access to foreign markets -- and our domestic market can't absorb the excess production.

So American factories cut way back on production, and a lot of Americans lose their jobs. Wages go down. With fewer consumers spending fewer dollars, it makes no sense for anyone to try to launch new companies to sell to the American market, so innovation is stifled.

These are not "possible" or even "probable" results of Trump starting a tariff war. These are absolute certainties, by the laws of economics, and the mildest estimates of the consequences show us plunging into a recession at least as bad as the one that started in 2008.

That's why the Republican Party has stood for free trade most of the time since World War II. Free trade brings prosperity to the entire world -- and the end of free trade, which is what Trump seems to propose, would be devastating throughout the world.

Let's look at another Trump proposal. He intends to send eleven million unregistered foreigners, mostly hispanic, out of the country.

Latin American countries cannot absorb these refugees, so they would end up in vast concentration camps near the border. Instead of working at jobs and contributing to our economy both as producers and as consumers, feeding and housing these refugees would be an incredible burden on the federal budget.

And no, we couldn't employ them to build Trump's Great Wall of Stupidity. Have you never heard of sabotage?

But even if we could smoothly transition them all back into their home countries (though many of them have grown up in the U.S. and have no memory of their "home" country at all), the loss of eleven million consumers and producers would shatter our economy ... just like 2008.

Now, I've heard people say, "Congress wouldn't go along with these proposals anyway -- the President doesn't have the power to revoke tariff treaties without consent of Congress, and Congress isn't that stupid."

First, why elect someone President if you're counting on Congress to keep him from carrying out his program?

Second, if Trump were elected, that would make everybody in Congress look to the next election, saying to themselves: If Trumpism is an electoral winner, then I'd better go along with him and pretend that I supported his ideas all along.

Not every Congresswight is that unprincipled, but many are.

Besides, where's the logic in this? Many Trump supporters are following him because they're fed up with the way Republicans in Congress have gone along with the status quo (because whenever Republicans oppose a Democratic Party President, the media cover it like Armageddon, with the Republicans depicted as the forces of Satan).

Does it make any sense to elect a President in protest against do-little congressional Republicans -- and hope that those same Republicans will not get the message and will instead continue to do nothing in order to block policies at least as stupid as the Obama policies have been?

And don't imagine that Trump has any more respect for the Constitution than Obama has had. When anybody blocks Trump, what does he do? He gets meaner and nastier. He'll remember how Obama governed by executive order, and Trump will quickly get just as unconstitutional and dictatorial -- or more so.

Hearing people talk about how "Congress will keep him under control" reminds me of how the people who decided to make Hitler the chancellor of Germany were sure that the other parties and institutions and national leaders would keep him under control. What words or actions of Trump tell us that he does not have the instincts of a dictator?

Now there's a lot of nonsense about how "whoever arrives at the Republican convention with the most delegates should get the nomination."

This is actually insane. First, the rules haven't changed -- it takes a simple majority of the delegates to get the nomination. Nobody fudged the rules to hurt Trump.

Second, this nomination process is not neutral -- that is, nobody arrives at the convention just happening to have won more votes out of the patchwork of primaries and caucuses in the fifty states.

Instead, every primary and every caucus has been about only one thing: Donald Trump. He has got overwhelming media coverage, whereas the other candidates had to swim upstream against that flood.

Therefore, every vote has been either for or against Donald Trump. Whatever other candidate a voter might have preferred, the most salient feature of every other candidate was this: He or she was not Donald Trump.

If Trump arrives with a majority of the delegates, then he will be the nominee and his delegates will remake the Republican Party in his insane image. That will mean the end of the Republican Party as a serious contributor to American government for a generation.

If Trump arrives with fewer than a majority of the delegates, this is because the clear majority of Republicans did not want Donald Trump as their nominee. He does not have a "right" to the nomination just because he got more votes than anybody else. He only has a right to the nomination if he gets a majority, period.

Trump whines like a baby about how the "establishment" is trying to stack the process against him. But claiming that a plurality of delegates should be enough to nominate -- that is the huge cheat, the rule change, the "fix."

As Carly Fiorina has said, the five-yard line is not a touchdown, and if Trump doesn't cross the goal line, it's still anybody's game.

*

For a long time, I have felt that choosing between Trump and Cruz was almost as nauseating as choosing between Hillary and Trump. I find Cruz personally repulsive, and I'm hardly alone in that. But because Cruz has the Christian Right in his pocket (as Mitt Romney never could have), he has emerged ahead of any of the other alternatives to Trump on the Republican side.

The other night, Sean Hannity had a "town meeting" in Indianapolis with Cruz and his designated running mate, Carly Fiorina. I started watching only because of Fiorina -- I wondered if she would have to sit there like Nancy Reagan, glowing as she watched the Big Guy blather on.

But no, Fiorina was able to speak eloquently and intelligently on several issues.

In case you missed it, here's the whole program: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEw0KLF3hlE

What shocked me, however, was that I found myself liking almost everything Cruz said. I especially liked, near the end of the program, Cruz's list of the five things he intended to do on his first day as President.

First, unlike Trump and Obama, Cruz actually seems to understand what presidents can and cannot do -- his list of actions consists of things that the president can simply decide, without exceeding his powers.

Second, while I'm not sure Cruz realizes that announcing that the American embassy in Israel would move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem would cause an immediate eruption of Muslim violence worldwide, and probably bring a quick end to whatever "honeymoon" a Cruz presidency might have enjoyed with the media, nevertheless it shows that Cruz's heart is in the right place.

Where Trump seems to have no commitment to Israel and no understanding that Israel's enemies are not rational negotiators and never, never keep any agreements they make, Cruz understands that without Israel as an ally, assured of limitless U.S. support against Israel's insane terrorist enemies, the U.S. has no presence in the Middle East and no possible way of carrying out any kind of foreign policy there.

Cruz, then, would be a president who would bring us back from the abyss of death-to-the-Jews anti-semitism that has been the hallmark of Obama's and Hillary's foreign policy.

I still think Kasich, Rubio, Bush, Fiorina, and several other erstwhile Republican candidates would make a better president than Cruz. But at least I feel reasonably confident now, as I did not before, that nominating Cruz would provide me with one candidate I could vote for with reasonable optimism that the outcome for America and the world at large might be a good one.

*

This month's The Atlantic (May 2016) has a very insightful article about the fragility of the so-called Middle Class in America right now. "My Secret Shame," by Neal Gabler, takes a personal as well as journalistic look at how most Americans are balancing on a financial slack wire, so that any shift in the economy can push them over.

Let's remember why the devastating collapse in the housing market in 2008 happened. Yes, I've seen the movies, I know all the mistakes that were made by banks and by the government.

But the trigger was the near doubling of gasoline prices in the summer of 2008. In Southern California, which was the national bellwether in the foreclosure epidemic, most of the marginal, iffy mortgages were issued to people who were buying houses far away from where they worked.

We all know that the farther you are from the center of business, the cheaper the houses are -- as everyone in Greensboro who has gone house-shopping knows. You get a more affordable mortgage, but you pay for it with a longer commute.

The people who, by grace of "junk" mortgages, were living in remote new neighborhoods in Southern California, were making ends meet ... barely. And when the long commute suddenly cost twice as much as it had a month before, there was no room in the family budget to absorb the shock. The car needed gas or there was no job, no income, no anything.

So the gas was paid for, and the food was paid for, and the taxes were withheld, and ... the mortgage payment was the big-ticket item that, if you didn't pay it, you could pay for everything else.

Until the bank took the house back. Then you were moving in with relatives. Or living in the car. But you had to keep the car so you could keep the job and not have to live in a shelter or on the street.

That was the cruel choice in 2008, for people living on a budget that had no room for emergencies.

The message of "My Secret Shame" is that most Americans in the so-called Middle Class are, in fact, living on the financial edge.

Here's the vital question that the Federal Reserve Board has asked since 2013 in surveys designed to measure the economic health of American consumers:

How would you pay for a $400 emergency?

Four hundred dollar emergencies happen all the time. That's about the cost of most things that go wrong with a car. That's the cost of the summer class or camp your kid really really needs to get into. That's the cost of replacing the storm-damaged windows, when you find out that your insurance doesn't cover acts of God.

I grew up in a family that was on the margin like that. The broken window between the kitchen and the patio that was re-glazed with plywood for nearly a year. The television that could not be repaired or replaced for more than a year. This with both parents working long before that was the norm, and with my dad working two part-time jobs and my mom doing extra typing jobs -- that's the only way we had enough money to cope with regular life, let alone emergencies.

That was in the 1960s. I remember how depressed my parents got when bill collectors hounded them, even though they really were working as hard as any two humans could work. It was hard to maintain any pretense of living a middle-class life. If people had realized just how hard-pressed my family was, financially, it would have shamed them among their friends.

Here's what that Federal Reserve survey shows:

Forty-seven percent of respondents said that they could only cover that unexpected $400 expense by borrowing, by selling something, or they couldn't come up with the money at all.

That's half of us. Half.

Gabler, the author of the essay, admits that he's in the 47%. But hey, I knew exactly why he was there: Freelance writers rarely have any kind of income security. Freelancers are, by definition, living on the margin -- unless they have prudently saved a lot of money.

There are people who do save, watching out for just such an emergency. A couple of years ago, a very dear friend lost his job -- the company downsized his office right out of existence.

I went to him and, as discreetly as possible, said that if he needed some help to tide him over until he could get a new position, he should let me know.

He thanked me, and then told me something that almost knocked me over: "We have more than a year's income in the bank, so we're OK for the time being."

A year's income in the bank! That has been my wife's and my goal -- nay, our necessity -- since I first went freelance as a writer and editor back in January 1978. Guess how often we've achieved that! Heck, we were very proud when we were able to get a month's salary and expenses in the bank as an untouchable reserve!

My wife is far more prudent and frugal than I am, which is why I don't carry a checkbook and don't handle the money. It's not that she likes doing it more than I do, it's that when it's her responsibility, she actually does it. You know -- like a grownup. Every marriage should have at least one.

But it's not just freelance writers, or contractors who depend on the ups and downs of the economy, who are in that 47% who can't readily come up with $400.

I urge you to read Gabler's essay, because its most important message is, You're not the only one.

In 2014, according to Gabler, a Bankrate survey found that only 38% of Americans "would cover a $1,000 emergency room visit or a $500 car repair with money they'd saved." That means that 62% of us could not.

In fact, most of us live as if our credit worthiness were our savings. We don't actually have any financial reserve at all -- we only have however much room is left on our credit cards. And if they're maxed out, we've got nothing.

It's not the way it was before 2008, when lending institutions were begging for us to take a second mortgage. Now it's actually kind of hard to borrow against our home equity -- mostly because in 2008 the lenders learned the hard way that when real estate prices fall, second mortgages quickly turn into horribly bad loans.

The more details Gabler provides in his article, the clearer it becomes that most of us are getting by, financially, by dancing as fast as we can.

And even if you're among the more affluent group that could get by on your own resources for even a month if you lost your job, you aren't safe from the economic repercussions from the tens of millions of households that would quickly become insolvent in a sudden economic downturn.

In 2008, the number of people who defaulted on mortgages was not that large. Like most people, I thought, Well, we're safe enough.

But when the house of cards starts tumbling, nobody's safe. Sure, you have money in the bank. How long will it last when your company downsizes in response to the recession caused by other people going bankrupt?

When other people don't have the money to buy goods and services, then even the prudent people are at risk of salary cuts, job loss, and worse.

And when the whole economy is in collapse, and federal tax revenues are therefore in the toilet, how long can the government keep borrowing money to pay the welfare and unemployment benefits that are supposedly our safety net?

All of America -- citizens, governments, and businesses -- is coasting on the prosperity of the past, living as if the future were always going to be rosy, our incomes always rising.

But we know that isn't true. Most of us don't expect our income to rise significantly, and we're correct.

So when Bernie Sanders promises free college tuition for everybody -- an absurd subsidy for absurdly overpriced universities -- that's going to require a rise in taxes, which will shrink the economy (it always does) so that there are fewer jobs for new college graduates.

When Trump proposes policies like tariff wars and expulsion of 11 million workers and consumers from our economy, the laws of economics (which function whether you believe in capitalism or not) decree that we would plunge into a recession worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s, with the whole world dragged downward in our wake.

What do we do about it?

First, we follow John D. Rockefeller's recipe -- from back before he was rich. Out of every dollar he earned, he saved a significant percentage -- and also gave a significant amount to charity and his church's missionary work.

Here's the advice Rockefeller gave to a group of young adults -- and it's advice that we know Rockefeller lived by himself, right from the start of his working life:

"Now let me leave this little word of counsel for you. Keep a little ledger, as I did. Write down in it what you receive, and do not be ashamed to write down what you pay away. See that you pay it away in such a manner that your father or mother may look over your book and see just what you did with your money. It will help you to save money, and that you ought to do."

(I got this quote from Presh Talwalkar's blog. See: Track Your Money: Saving Advice From Rockefeller )

Many of us wait to find out what we spent till we receive our credit card statements -- and some of us don't check over those expenses even then. We look at the bottom line, and pay either what we must (the minimum) or what we can afford out of this check.

Most of us really don't know what we're spending, and therefore we doom ourselves to be perpetually out of money when the emergency comes.

Between advertising and our own desire to have -- or give our children -- nice stuff, many of us who could be building up a hefty savings account are spending more than we or our children need us to. We readily take on huge obligations that aren't really all that important.

And even if you never need that savings account for your own emergencies, wouldn't it be nice to have a ready cash reserve we could dip into in order to help out a friend or family member? If we have no savings, we have to stand by helplessly watching as people dear to us sink into financial quicksand.

Financial prudence doesn't win any beauty contests -- but it can save us from falling off the cliff, or allow us to help save others.

And if you are already in the quicksand -- if your net worth and cash flow are upside down already -- then the only road out of the mess is to see where you can cut back sharply.

Sell the house you're in (or give up your current rental) and move to a smaller place; children's lives are not crippled by sharing bedrooms or sleeping on the couch for a while. You don't need cable television -- no, really, you don't, not if you're having trouble buying food.

And if you're out of work, don't even imagine that you're guaranteed to find employment at your previous income level, or in the field you've trained for. Assume you're going to take a huge salary cut and act accordingly while you're still getting unemployment benefits.

In other words, assume the worst, and do what it takes to live within your means.

I know people who have done this -- at great sacrifice, in some cases, and with some embarrassment, for those who were proud of being in a particular financial class. Yet in most cases, the ones who continued to rely on their own labor and who cut back radically on what they regarded as "necessities" actually became closer as families.

If you're in a dinosaur neighborhood -- one that is so far from anybody's job that everybody has to consume gasoline the way dinosaurs chowed down on jungle vegetation -- consider moving to a smaller place much closer in. Yeah, your kids will grow up without a big yard or their own bedroom -- but if their parents are home a lot more because they aren't commuting, their lives will be much happier.

Money can't buy the most important things -- so if you stop spending money trying to buy them, chances are very good you can get off the financial edge and even start saving money.

Unless you're a freelance writer. Then you're doomed no matter what you do.


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