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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
But no, Fiorina was able to speak eloquently and intelligently on several issues.
In case you missed it, here's the whole program:
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Unless you're a freelance writer. Then you're doomed no matter what you do.