Archive for August, 2018

THIRTY PIECES OF SILVER

On August 22, the S&P 500 Index set a record for stock market bull runs (an aggregate annual increase of at least 20%) by reaching 3,453 days. The streak began on March 9, 2009 when the Great Recession pummeled the economy; the S&P closed at 676. On August 23, President Trump told Fox & Friendsthat if he were impeached, the stock market would crash. Really?

Let me run some numbers. This past Wednesday (August 29), the S&P set another new record at 2,914. That’s a 27% increase over Trump’s 18 months in office—roughly 18% annually. That’s good. But over the seven months since last January 26 when the S&P 500 set a previous high, the S&P was up only 44 points—little more than 0.1%.

Now, go back to November 1, 2016 with the presidential election a week off and fewer than three months remaining in Barack Obama’s second term. The S&P 500 closed at 2,165—a 320% increase over the 92 months since the March 2009 low. From that date during the Obama presidency—remember, he inherited a financial collapse from George W. Bush—the S&P climbed nearly 40% a year.

Yes, the bull market continued under Trump. But it began under Obama. Did Obama have a better grip on the economy? Not necessarily. A president can affect the economy through good or bad judgement, but most economists warn that the economy has a life of its own. Raising or lowering taxes, the Fed changing interest rates, running a budget surplus or deficit, regulating or deregulating the financial industry may—or may not—produce corresponding market gains or losses.

Economic trends, domestic politics and world affairs also produce unexpected results. For example, markets often drop during the threat of war then rise when war begins. Investors prefer certainty to uncertainty, knowing when to choose between plan A or plan B. Also, investors—particularly on Main Street—often act irrationally, chasing bull markets and driving up stocks until they’re overvalued and collapse.

If you own stocks in some form—about half of Americans do—and follow them daily, your financial hopes and dreams experience regulars ups and downs. When a president “delivers” positive market returns in the present, you might fear rocking the boat, ignoring historical fact that long-term, markets rise. So here’s a question:

If Congress finds wrongdoing on the part of Donald Trump before or after the Mueller commission releases its report, would you oppose impeachment? The hit to the market—if there is one—likely will be short-term. Remember the dot.com boom? The dot.com bust followed. Then a recovery. Then another plunge. Then another record recovery.

Despite market history, some Americans may heed Trump’s warning. They’ll betray the nation for thirty pieces of silver. Or, depending on their portfolios, a great deal more. All to prop up a facade of short-term stability. That would make a mockery of American ideals.

This nation doesn’t need Donald Trump to thrive. Yes, Americans put him in the White House—albeit with fewer citizen votes than Hillary Clinton thanks to the Electoral College. Still, the United States deserves better. We’re hardly a perfect nation. But we’re far too good to be misled by an egotist who professes faith in Jesus while worshipping the dollar.

I have not computed percentage increases to account for compounding, but the absolute numbers are—pardon the word—facts. This post was vetted by my financial advisor, Ira Fateman of SAS Financial Advisors. Any errors, however, are mine alone.

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I LOVE A PARADE—SOMETIMES

Have you ever marched in a parade? I don’t mean strolled with a crowd down Main Street on July Fourth or behind Dykes on Bikes during San Francisco’s Pride Week. I mean marchedas part of a military unit? I have. But I’d be ashamed to see our troops march down Pennsylvania Avenue this Veterans Day. (Fortunately, they won’t.)

I can’t remember being in a parade during basic training (Fort Dix, New Jersey) or Advanced Infantry Training (Fort McClellan, Alabama) during summer and autumn 1966. But in May 1967, my student company at the Army’s Infantry Officer Candidate School (Fort Benning, Georgia) paraded for our graduation and commissioning as second lieutenants.

We rehearsed a lot. Two hundred men took 30-inch steps in unison while a band played traditional marching music. Each of us corrected the rifle position of the candidate in front. Drudgery? We had all volunteered for the six-month OCS program and took it seriously. We also enjoyed marching. Yes! There’s something about marching to music with a couple of hundred men (no women then)—it could be thousands—that stirs up testosterone and just feels good.

Passing the reviewing stand, the acting student company commander saluted. The platoon leaders and fellow candidates presented arms. The guests on the reviewing stand included the post’s commanding general, the head of the Infantry School, and our battalion commander, Lt. Colonel Bert Bishop. (I owe a lot to Col. Bishop’s sage, man-to-man advice to the company prior to graduation.)

What made that parade at Fort Benning so important? Like all OCS classes, we celebrated something real—our graduation after a rigorous six months. For Mr. Trump? A parade in Washington is all about ego—being the one saluted by “his” troops. He also sees the opportunity to boast to world leaders that the U.S. has a potent military and thus Donald Trump possesses a big stick (othermen’s and women’s lives being placed at risk) along with a big mouth (he, having never served, remains safe).

I suspect that North Korea’s Kim Jung-un, China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin—all of whom love parades—comprehend the power and reach of American military might. So does French President Emmanuel Macron, who invited Trump to the 2017 Bastille Day parade in Paris that seemed to spark Trump’s obsession with military pomp and circumstance.

So, what purpose would a Washington parade serve? To drum up support for more American tax dollars going to the Pentagon? The Pentagon’s annual budget exceeds $700 billion. “B” as in boy!To frighten the Taliban in Afghanistan? We remain at war there 17 years after our post-9/11 invasion. To honor America’s active duty military and veterans? Denise Rohan, national commander of the American Legion, put it best.

The money required for the parade—estimated at up to $90 million—said Rohan would be better spent providing services to troops and vets “until such time as we can celebrate victory in the war on terrorism and bring our military home.”

Still, Trump lusts after the salutes of a stream of military personnel and with it TV exposure. Only he’d rather not be commander-in-chief but king. Along with the many tens of millions of dollars such a parade would waste, you can take that assessment to the bank.

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BROWN PEOPLE

On August 8, Fox News’s Laura Ingraham stated, “In some parts of the country, it does seem that the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore.” She also said, “Massive demographic changes have been foisted on the American people…” Changes “…most of us don’t like.” Who are the “most of us” upon whom such changes have been forced?

Ingraham clearly referenced white anxiety—white Americans suffering growing numbers of brown people in “their” country. According to CNN, Fox’s fan base is almost 100 percent white. The immigration issue disturbs whites. (Months ago, President Trump asked why more immigrants don’t come from Norway. He might find the answer in his mirror.) The next night, Ingraham denied her comments related to race or ethnicity. Rather, they expressed her desire for secure borders following the rule of law and shared goals of “keeping America safe and her citizens safe and prosperous.”

Three words to Ingraham (which she will reject): Get over it. American immigration policy doesneed a thorough (which does not mean not racist) review and overhaul. I do notbelieve that the United States should—or can—circle the wagons and compel white dominance. Of course, I’m selfish. A white, Christian America excludes me and my family. I’m also a realist—and a humanist.

Last weekend, Carolyn and I visited our son Yosi in Los Angeles. We had dinner at a brown (Colombian) restaurant. Brown people ran it—and well. The next day, we went to L.A.’s revitalized downtown to browse The Last Bookstore, which occupies an old bank. So did many other people of all ethnicities—people who share the love of reading.

On our flight home, we sat among thirty-five new UC Berkeley freshmen on their way to orientation—brown, yellow, black and white members of the class of ’22. All bright and eager—the successful professionals, business people and artists and citizens of the next decade and beyond. Not “the white stuff”—“the right stuff.”

Ethnic diversity also impacts my own Jewish community—although we’ve been a diverse people for millennia. A visit to Israel reveals Jews with roots in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, India, China, East Africa and the Americas—North and South. Skin tones and hair color run the range from dark to light. Features vary all over the place. All are Jews.

San Francisco-based B’chol Lashon  (“In every language”) provides summer-camp and other experiences for Jewish kids with other than total—or even partial—Ashkenazi (Eastern European) background. They can see themselves clearly in the Jewish mirror. They’re in my mirror, too, because we’re all a single Jewish people with many backgrounds and customs.

My synagogue, Congregation Sherith Israel, embraces Jews of all genetic types—those born into Jewish families and Jews by choice. We’re now running an ad on the outside of San Francisco’s MUNI buses to make our position clear that there’s room for everyone under our awe-inspiring dome:

(photo) CHICKEN SOUP + (photo) SRIRACHA BOTTLE = (logo) SHERITH ISRAEL

To be an American is to adhere not to any particular ethnicity but to American values. It’s time to reaffirm that our flag of red, white and blue pledges the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to the red, white, black, yellow and brown.

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THE SUITCASE

Retrieving the newspaper from my front steps last week—I’m a dinosaur—I saw a white suitcase on the sidewalk. My first reaction? As a native New Yorker and a Jew with family in Israel (I was last there in March/April), I’ll attest that the risk of confronting a bomb is real. But who would target my leafy street? I waited.

Several hours later, I went for a walk. The suitcase? Still there. I noticed it lacked one wheel. I concluded that someone—perhaps a homeless person; they wander the neighborhood—didn’t want to lug it any further. An hour later, the suitcase was gone. I felt relieved.

This wasn’t the first abandoned suitcase I’ve encountered. Several years ago, for example, I saw two—open and stuffed with clothing—in the Presidio National Park near my house. Who leaves packed suitcases in a park? My imagination produced a short story, Two Suitcases By the Side of the Road.

The protagonist, a retired executive, encounters two suitcases on a short hike in—yes—the Presidio. A widower who writes fiction to occupy his time—with little success—he imagines the person who left them: a woman he names Grace. He envisions his character fleeing marriage to a dull dentist in Marin County to live with a woman in Santa Barbara. Grace’s plight spurs him to examine his own figurative baggage—an early infidelity and a ruined friendship.

We all carry baggage—errors and indiscretions tucked into hard-shell cases securely locked. But refusing to acknowledge the deeds we regret can haunt us. The protagonist wonders if his imagined Grace can handle her own past transgressions and find happiness. He concludes the story with this observation:

“I’d like to say I know more about how things with Grace will turn out, but that’s asking too much. Particularly of Grace. We each look at our life—turn it over, dissect it—and arrive at a pretty good sense of where we’ve been and a decent idea of where we are. Where we’re going? That’s pushing it. We try to write the stories of our lives, but our lives write us.”

My baggage could fill an old-fashioned steamer trunk. Maybe two. I deal with it by periodically hunkering down in a quiet corner of my mind, unpacking my trunks and sifting through their contents. Repressing awkward matters that mar our past only nourishes them until they sprout so large they burst from their confinement and do additional damage. A little fresh air and sunlight keeps them from metastasizing.

On the other hand, I find objectionable the desire of people to spew endless streams of detailed confessionals. (This commentary represents a one-time general statement; I retain the option to return to it in the future.) The penchant—common here in California—to constantly air one’s blemishes to friends, family and the public constitutes a narcissism I find overwhelming and alienating.

So, I keep my balance while keeping my failings to myself. In doing this—and risking the ire of therapists everywhere—I leverage my mistakes as learning tools while keeping them at a sufficient distance to avoid plunging me into depression. That would result in life writing a chapter for me I won’t appreciate.

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CONFESSIONS OF A TRIBALIST

Last May, the author Michael Chabon—himself Jewish—told graduating Reform rabbis and educators they needed to help dissolve Judaism. The goal? A world where everyone’s the same. Amy Chua, the Chinese-American Yale law professor, who authored Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, opposes that view. I side with Chua.

In “Tribal World: Group Identity is All” (July/August 2018 Foreign Affairs), Chua writes, “The human instinct to identify with a group is almost certainly hard-wired…” In that context, she faults U.S. policymakers for underestimating “the role that group identification plays in shaping human behavior.” Tribes are for real.

I’m guilty of upholding my Jewish identity. Some friends brought up as “just Americans” have confided they envy my ethnic identity. Granted, many North American Jews exhibit no particular concern for Judaism and Jewish life, as Chabon would have them do.

The Talmud (Shevuot39a) teaches, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh.” All Israel [the Jewish people] are responsible each for the other. I take this to heart.

I read baseball box scores each morning and note the performance of each Jewish player. As of yesterday, the Astros’ Alex Bregman—this year’s All-Star Game most valuable player—had 22 homeruns and 71 runs batted in. The Dodgers’ Joc Pederson hit two home runs last night. The Red Sox’ Ian Kinsler  had three hits. The Orioles’ Danny Valencia, a position player, pitched.  When Orioles relief pitcher Richard Blier—having a great year—went out for the season with an injury, that hurt. Basketball’s Omri Casspi signed with Memphis. Hooray!

It’s not just sports. Last Sunday night, Carolyn and I went to the Jewish Film Festival to see a documentary about Sammy Davis, Jr. As my synagogue’s congregation and Israel’s population attest, Jews display a wide variety of genetics and cultural backgrounds. I believe in Am Yisrael Echad—the people Israel is one. We’re universalists despite our particularism.

Am I offending others, such as Whites, Blacks, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Asians, Latinos, Cat Lovers, and Chocaholics? If so, who determines our universalistic identity? Hopefully, no one. I can see the inevitable outcome: Jews forego Chanukah for Christmas to be “like everyone else.”

Yes, tribalism can be toxic. Witness the Greater Middle East and India, for example. Examine Europe: France’s Jews, who suffered during the Holocaust with French complicity, endure violent anti-Semitism, much at the hands of Muslims. European Muslims don’t have it easy, either. A Muslim friend born in England is achieving great success as an actor yet remains wary. Mesut Ozil, five-time German soccer player of the year, left the national team after criticism for posing for a photo with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (admittedly not my favorite political leader).“I’m a German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” wrote Ozil, born in Germany.

The United States offers ample proof that tribalists can be loyal citizens, who take our Constitution and values to heart. The hyphenated American—Jewish-Americans, African-Americans, Irish-Americans, Japanese-Americans and so on—helped make this nation great. When the current political idiocy ends, we will continue to do so. The hyphen enables us to bring varied religious and cultural backgrounds to a common table heaped with bagels, ribs, Mongolian beef, tacos, chicken vindaloo—and respect. All enrich the American experience.

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