Category Archives: Society

The xz Issue Isn’t About Open Source

You’ve probably heard of the recent backdoor in xz. There have been a lot of takes on this, most of them boiling down to some version of:

The problem here is with Open Source Software.

I want to say not only is that view so myopic that it pushes towards the incorrect, but also it blinds us to more serious problems.

Now, I don’t pretend that there are no problems in the FLOSS community. There have been various pieces written about what this issue says about the FLOSS community (usually without actionable solutions). I’m not here to say those pieces are wrong. Just that there’s a bigger picture.

So with this xz issue, it may well be a state actor (aka “spy”) that added this malicious code to xz. We also know that proprietary software and systems can be vulnerable. For instance, a Twitter whistleblower revealed that Twitter employed Indian and Chinese spies, some knowingly. A recent report pointed to security lapses at Microsoft, including “preventable” lapses in security. According to the Wikipedia article on the SolarWinds attack, it was facilitated by various kinds of carelessness, including passwords being posted to Github and weak default passwords. They directly distributed malware-infested updates, encouraged customers to disable anti-malware tools when installing SolarWinds products, and so forth.

It would be naive indeed to assume that there aren’t black hat actors among the legions of programmers employed by companies that outsource work to low-cost countries — some of which have challenges with bribery.

So, given all this, we can’t really say the problem is Open Source. Maybe it’s more broad:

The problem here is with software.

Maybe that inches us closer, but is it really accurate? We have all heard of Boeing’s recent issues, which seem to have some element of root causes in corporate carelessness, cost-cutting, and outsourcing. That sounds rather similar to the SolarWinds issue, doesn’t it?

Well then, the problem is capitalism.

Maybe it has a role to play, but isn’t it a little too easy to just say “capitalism” and throw up our hands helplessly, just as some do with FLOSS as at the start of this article? After all, capitalism also brought us plenty of products of very high quality over the years. When we can point to successful, non-careless products — and I own some of them (for instance, my Framework laptop). We clearly haven’t reached the root cause yet.

And besides, what would you replace it with? All the major alternatives that have been tried have even stronger downsides. Maybe you replace it with “better regulated capitalism”, but that’s still capitalism.

Then the problem must be with consumers.

As this argument would go, it’s consumers’ buying patterns that drive problems. Buyers — individual and corporate — seek flashy features and low cost, prizing those over quality and security.

No doubt this is true in a lot of cases. Maybe greed or status-conscious societies foster it: Temu promises people to “shop like a billionaire”, and unloads on them cheap junk, which “all but guarantees that shipments from Temu containing products made with forced labor are entering the United States on a regular basis“.

But consumers are also people, and some fraction of them are quite capable of writing fantastic software, and in fact, do so.

So what we need is some way to seize control. Some way to do what is right, despite the pressures of consumers or corporations.

Ah yes, dear reader, you have been slogging through all these paragraphs and now realize I have been leading you to this:

Then the solution is Open Source.

Indeed. Faults and all, FLOSS is the most successful movement I know where people are bringing us back to the commons: working and volunteering for the common good, unleashing a thousand creative variants on a theme, iterating in every direction imaginable. We have FLOSS being vital parts of everything from $30 Raspberry Pis to space missions. It is bringing education and communication to impoverished parts of the world. It lets everyone write and release software. And, unlike the SolarWinds and Twitter issues, it exposes both clever solutions and security flaws to the world.

If an authentication process in Windows got slower, we would all shrug and mutter “Microsoft” under our breath. Because, really, what else can we do? We have no agency with Windows.

If an authentication process in Linux gets slower, anybody that’s interested — anybody at all — can dive in and ask “why” and trace it down to root causes.

Some look at this and say “FLOSS is responsible for this mess.” I look at it and say, “this would be so much worse if it wasn’t FLOSS” — and experience backs me up on this.

FLOSS doesn’t prevent security issues itself.

What it does do is give capabilities to us all. The ability to investigate. Ability to fix. Yes, even the ability to break — and its cousin, the power to learn.

And, most rewarding, the ability to contribute.

It’s More Important To Recognize What Direction People Are Moving Than Where They Are

I recently read a post on social media that went something like this (paraphrased):

“If you buy an EV, you’re part of the problem. You’re advancing car culture and are actively hurting the planet. The only ethical thing to do is ditch your cars and put all your effort into supporting transit. Anything else is worthless.”

There is some truth there; supporting transit in areas it makes sense is better than having more cars, even EVs. But of course the key here is in areas it makes sense.

My road isn’t even paved. I live miles from the nearest town. And get into the remote regions of the western USA and you’ll find people that live 40 miles from the nearest neighbor. There’s no realistic way that mass transit is ever going to be a thing in these areas. And even if it were somehow usable, sending buses over miles where nobody lives just to reach the few that are there will be worse than private EVs. And because I can hear this argument coming a mile away, no, it doesn’t make sense to tell these people to just not live in the country because the planet won’t support that anymore, because those people are literally the ones that feed the ones that live in the cities.

The funny thing is: the person that wrote that shares my concerns and my goals. We both care deeply about climate change. We both want positive change. And I, ahem, recently bought an EV.

I have seen this play out in so many ways over the last few years. Drive a car? Get yelled at. Support the wrong politician? Get a shunning. Not speak up loudly enough about the right politician? That’s a yellin’ too.

The problem is, this doesn’t make friends. In fact, it hurts the cause. It doesn’t recognize this truth:

It is more important to recognize what direction people are moving than where they are.

I support trains and transit. I’ve donated money and written letters to politicians. But, realistically, there will never be transit here. People in my county are unable to move all the way to transit. But what can we do? Plenty. We bought an EV. I’ve been writing letters to the board of our local electrical co-op advocating for relaxation of rules around residential solar installations, and am planning one myself. It may well be that our solar-powered transportation winds up having a lower carbon footprint than the poster’s transit use.

Pick your favorite cause. Whatever it is, consider your strategy: What do you do with someone that is very far away from you, but has taken the first step to move an inch in your direction? Do you yell at them for not being there instantly? Or do you celebrate that they have changed and are moving?

The Rightward, Establishment Bias of Lazy Journalism

Note: I also posted this post on medium.

I remember clearly the moment I’d had enough of NPR for the day. It was early morning January 25 of this year, still pretty dark outside. An NPR anchor was interviewing an NPR reporter — they seem to do that a lot these days — and asked the following simple but important question:

“So if we know that Roger Stone was in communications with WikiLeaks and we know U.S. intelligence agencies have said WikiLeaks was operating at the behest of Russia, does that mean that Roger Stone has been now connected directly to Russia’s efforts to interfere in the U.S. election?”

The factual answer, based on both data and logic, would have been “yes”. NPR, in fact, had spent much airtime covering this; for instance, a June 2018 story goes into detail about Stone’s interactions with WikiLeaks, and less than a week before Stone’s arrest, NPR referred to “internal emails stolen by Russian hackers and posted to Wikileaks.” In November of 2018, The Atlantic wrote, “Russia used WikiLeaks as a conduit — witting or unwitting — and WikiLeaks, in turn, appears to have been in touch with Trump allies.”

Why, then, did the NPR reporter begin her answer with “well,” proceed to hedge, repeat denials from Stone and WikiLeaks, and then wind up saying “authorities seem to have some evidence” without directly answering the question? And what does this mean for bias in the media?

Let us begin with a simple principle: facts do not have a political bias. Telling me that “the sky is blue” no more reflects a Democratic bias than saying “3+3=6” reflects a Republican bias. In an ideal world, politics would shape themselves around facts; ideas most in agreement with the data would win. There are not two equally-legitimate sides to questions of fact. There is no credible argument against “the earth is round”, “climate change is real,” or “Donald Trump is an unindicted co-conspirator in crimes for which jail sentences have been given.” These are factual, not political, statements. If you feel, as I do, a bit of a quickening pulse and escalating tension as you read through these examples, then you too have felt the forces that wish you to be uncomfortable with unarguable reality.

That we perceive some factual questions as political is a sign of a deep dysfunction in our society. It’s a sign that our policies are not always guided by fact, but that a sustained effort exists to cause our facts to be guided by policy.

Facts do not have a political bias. There are not two equally-legitimate sides to questions of fact. “Climate change is real” is a factual, not a political, statement. Our policies are not always guided by fact; a sustained effort exists to cause our facts to be guided by policy.

Why did I say right-wing bias, then? Because at this particular moment in time, it is the political right that is more engaged in the effort to shape facts to policy. Whether it is denying the obvious lies of the President, the clear consensus on climate change, or the contours of various investigations, it is clear that they desire to confuse and mislead in order to shape facts to their whim.

It’s not always so consequential when the media gets it wrong. When CNN breathlessly highlights its developing story — that an airplane “will struggle to maintain altitude once the fuel tanks are empty” —it gives us room to critique the utility of 24/7 media, but not necessarily a political angle.

But ask yourself: who benefits when the media is afraid to report a simple fact about an investigation with political connotations? The obvious answer, in the NPR example I gave, is that Republicans benefit. They want the President to appear innocent, so every hedge on known facts about illegal activities of those in Trump’s orbit is a gift to the right. Every time a reporter gives equal time to climate change deniers is a gift to the right and a blow to informed discussion in a democracy.

Not only is there a rightward bias, but there is also an establishment bias that goes hand-in-hand. Consider this CNN report about Facebook’s “pivot to privacy”, in which CEO Zuckerberg is credited with “changing his tune somewhat”. To the extent to which that article highlights “problems” with this, they take Zuckerberg at face-value and start to wonder if it will be harder to clamp down on fake news in the news feed if there’s more privacy. That is a total misunderstanding of what was being proposed; a more careful reading of the situation was done by numerous outlets, resulting in headlines such as this one in The Intercept: “Mark Zuckerberg Is Trying to Play You — Again.” They correctly point out the only change actually mentioned pertained only to instant messages, not to the news feed that CNN was talking about, and even that had a vague promise to happen “over the next few years.” Who benefited from CNN’s failure to read a press release closely? The established powers — Facebook.

Pay attention to the media and you’ll notice that journalists trip all over themselves to report a new dot in a story, but they run away scared from being the first to connect the dots. Much has been written about the “media narrative,” often critical, with good reason. Back in November of 2018, an excellent article on “The Ubearable Rightness of Seth Abramson” covered one particular case in delightful detail.

Journalists trip all over themselves to report a new dot in a story, but they run away scared from being the first to connect the dots.

Seth Abramson himself wrote, “Trump-Russia is too complex to report. We need a new kind of journalism.” He argues the culprit is not laziness, but rather that “archive of prior relevant reporting that any reporter could review before they publish their own research is now so large and far-flung that more and more articles are frustratingly incomplete or even accidentally erroneous than was the case when there were fewer media outlets, a smaller and more readily navigable archive of past reporting for reporters to sift through, and a less internationalized media landscape.” Whether laziness or not, the effect is the same: a failure to properly contextualize facts leading to misrepresented or outright wrong outcomes that, at present, have a distinct bias towards right-wing and establishment interests.

Yes, the many scandals in Trumpland are extraordinarily complex, and in this age of shrinking newsroom budgets, it’s no wonder that reporters have trouble keeping up. Highly-paid executives like Zuckerberg and politicians in Congress have years of practice with obfuscation, and it takes skill to find the truth (if there even is any) behind a corporate press release or political talking point. One would hope, though, that reporters would be less quick to opine if they lack those skills or the necessary time to dig in.

There’s not just laziness; there’s also, no doubt, a confusion about what it means to be a balanced journalist. It is clear that there are two sides to a debate over, say, whether to give a state’s lottery money to the elementary schools or the universities. When there is the appearance of a political debate over facts, shouldn’t that also receive equal time for each side? I argue no. In fact, politicians making claims that contradict establish fact should be exposed by journalists, not covered by them.

And some of it is, no doubt, fear. Fear that if they come out and say “yes, this implicates Stone with Russian hacking” that the Fox News crowd will attack them as biased. Of course this will happen, but that attack will be wrong. The right has done an excellent job of convincing both reporters and the public that there’s a big left-leaning bias that needs to be corrected, by yelling about it every time a fact is mentioned that they don’t like. The unfortunate result is that the fact-leaning bias in the media is being whittled away.

Politicians making claims that contradict establish fact should be exposed by journalists, not covered by them. The fact-leaning bias in the media is being whittled away.

Regardless of the cause, media organizations and their reporters need to be cognizant of the biases actors of all stripes wish them to display, and refuse to play along. They need to be cognizant of the demands they put on their own reporters, and give them space to understand the context of a story before explaining it. They need to stand up to those that try to diminish facts, to those that would like them to be uninformed.

A world in which reporters know the context of their stories and boldly state facts as facts, come what may, is a world in which reporters strengthen the earth’s democracies. And, by extension, its people.

The world is still a good place

At times like these, it is easy to think of the world as a cold, evil place. Perhaps in some ways, it is. I saw this quote from Fred Rogers floating around today:

When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of “disaster,” I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

Sometimes I think that Fred Rogers’ wisdom is so often under-appreciated. What he says is true, very true.

I know what it’s like to fear for my child’s life. And sometimes the shoe has been on the other foot, when I have been one of the helpers.

Many of you know these last few months have been the most difficult in my life. And despite having gone through the deaths of three relatives, nothing has quite compared to this.

I can not even begin to express my gratitude for all the care, compassion, and love that has come my way and towards the boys. People I barely knew before are now close friends. Random strangers have offered kindness and support. I have never before needed to be cared for like that, and in some ways perhaps it was hard to let myself be cared for. But I did, and all that caring and generosity has made an incredible difference in my life.

Most of us don’t see our pain on CNN or BBC, but that doesn’t mean it’s less real. And it doesn’t mean there’s nobody that cares. Open up to others, let them care for you. Things can and do get better.

The people in Newtown did nothing to deserve this. No matter what evidence is found, they will never get an adequate answer to “why?” Children have been frightened, families torn apart, lives ended, for no reason at all.

But they will survive the terrible pain. In time, they will find happiness again. And they will feel love and compassion from people around the world — something to sustain them in their grief. I am certain of this.

I recently read this quote, part of a story about a dying cancer patient:

“Don’t forget that it doesn’t take much to make someone’s day.”

Yes, the world is still a good place.

Crazy Enough?

So far this year, I’ve read somewhere in the neighborhood of 5000 pages. As I’ve started to read more, I’ve started to watch TV, movies, and Youtube less, because they are simply boring and shallow in comparison. War and Peace, in particular, deeply touched me. Lately I have been reading the Wheel of Time series, which has its own unique characteristics.

Whether an epic (or super-epic, such as Wheel of Time) novel, or the Sherlock Holmes series, or nonfiction works, there is something magical about reading a book. We often see characters, real or fictional, that rise from obscurity to do great things for the world. We are transported in time and place to a time or place we will never be able to experience, perhaps because it is long past, or perhaps because it never was. But in any case, we can be inspired.

I am reminded of this quote:

“The people crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that do.”

If someone told me that a street vendor in Tunisia would, in less than a year, cause the overthrow of 4 dictatorships and reform in a handful more, I would have, yes, thought that was crazy. And while Mohamed Bouazizi isn’t a household name in much of the world, he managed exactly that. But not just him. It took crazy unarmed people to occupy Tahrir Square, some to die, for progress to be made in Egypt.

This story is written all over history. People have done the impossible, have defied all odds, through sheer belief that they could. Civil rights have been granted due to the leaders we all know, but also due to the millions of marchers we don’t. Changing the world doesn’t have to mean that the world knows you. It just has to mean that you love the world, as Tolstoy pointed out:

Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists, only because I love. Everything is united by it alone. Love is God, and to die means that I, a particle of love, shall return to the general and eternal source.

Whatever your stance on religion, this is a powerful quote. Sometimes particles of love might look crazy. But isn’t it then that they are the most alive? Isn’t it then that they are the greatest hindrance to death and despair?

Geeks, Hobbies, and Free/Open Source: Feedback Wanted

I’ve been thinking lately about ways to improve ways in which I interact with Free Software projects, and ways in which they interact with me. Before I proceed to take steps or make suggestions, I’d like to see if others share my traits and observations.

Here are some questions I have been thinking of. If you’d like to help give me anecdotal evidence, please post a comment below this post. Identify the question numbers you are answering. It helps me if you can give specific examples, but if you don’t have the time or memory for that, no problem.

I will post my own answers in a day or two, but the point of this post is listening, not talking, so I’ll not post them immediately.

Hobbies (General – any geeks)

  • H1: To what degree do you like your hobbies to be challenging vs. easy? If something isn’t challenging, does that make it a good, bad, or indifferent candidate for a hobby
  • H2: To what degree do you like your hobbies to be educational or enlightening?
  • H3: How do you pick up new hobbies? Do you go looking for them? Do you stumble upon them? What excites you to commit time and/or money to them at the beginning?
  • H4: How does your interest wane? What causes you to lose interest in hobbies?
  • H5: For how long do you tend to maintain hobbies? Sub-hobbies?
  • H6: Are your hobbies or sub-hobbies cyclical? In other words, do you lose interest in a hobby for a time, then regain interest for a time, then lose it again? What is the length of time of these cycles, if any?
  • H7: Do you prefer social hobbies or solitary hobbies? (Note that many hobbies, including programming, video gaming, reading, knitting, etc. could be either social or solitary, depending on the inclination of individuals.)
  • H8: Have you ever felt guilt about wanting to stop a hobby or sub-hobby? (For instance, from stopping supporting users of your software project, readers of your e-zine, etc) Did the guilt keep you going? Was that a good thing?

Examples: video games might be a challenging hobby (depending on the person) but in most cases aren’t educational.

A hobby might be “video game playing” or “being a Debian developer.” A sub-hobby might be “playing GTA IV”, “playing RPGs”, or “maintaining mutt”.

Free/Open Source Hobbies

  • F1: Considering your answers above, do your FLOSS activities follow the same general pattern as your other hobbies/interests, or are there differences? If there are differences, what are they?
  • F2: Has concern for being expected to support software longer than you will have an interest in it ever been a factor in a decision whether to release source code publicly, or how public to make a release?
  • F3: Has concern over the long-term interest of a submitter in maintaining their patch/contribution ever caused you to consider rejecting it? (Or caused you to avoid using software over the same concern about its author)
  • F4: In general, do you find requirements FLOSS projects place on first-time contributors to be too stringent, not stringent enough, or about right?
  • F5: Have you ever continued contributing to a project past the point where your interest would otherwise motivate you to do so? If so, what caused you to do this? Do you believe that cause is a general positive or negative force for members of the FLOSS community?
  • F6: Have there ever been factors that caused you to stop contributing to a project even though you still had an active interest in doing so? What were they?
  • F7: Have you ever wanted to be able to take a break as a contributor or maintainer of a project, and be able to return to contributing to it later? If so, have you found it easy to do so?
  • F8: What is your typical length of engagement with FLOSS projects (such as Debian) and sub-projects (such as maintaining a particular package)?
  • F9: Does a change in social group ever encourage or discourage you from changing hobbies or sub-hobbies?
  • F10: Have you ever wanted to stop working on a project/sub-project because the problems involved were no longer challenging or educational to you?
  • F11: Have you ever wanted to stop working on a project/sub-project because of issues with the people involved?

Examples on F9: If, say, you are a long-time Perl user and have gone to Perl conferences, but now you are interested in Ruby, would your involvement with the Perl community cause you to avoid taking up the Ruby programming hobby? Or would it cause you to cut your ties with Perl less quickly than your changing interest might dictate? (This is a completely arbitrary example and isn’t meant to start a $LANGUAGE thread.)

Changes over time

  • C1: Do you believe that your answers to any of the above questions have changed over time? If yes, then:
  • C2: What kinds of changes have happened?
  • C3: What caused the change?
  • C4: Do you believe the changes produced positive results for you? For the community?

Review: Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves

Rick Steves is known for writing books, and producing public TV shows, about travel to Europe. He encourages people to get out of their comfort zone, advocates staying in homes instead of hotels, and giving yourself permission to struggle to communicate in a land of unfamiliar language. That way, you get to experience not just the landmarks, but the culture and history. That was the approach we favored in our recent trip to Europe, and after being there (and seeing tour groups), I think Rick Steves is right on.

On the plane to Europe, I read his Travel as a Political Act. This is not a guidebook, but more a book about the philosophy of travel. As usual with my book reviews, unless indicated otherwise, all quotes here come from the book. He starts out with this statement:

I’ve taught people how to travel. I focus mostly on the logistics: finding the right hotel, avoiding long lines… But that’s not why we travel. We travel to have enlightening experiences, to meet inspirational people, to be stimulated, to learn, and to grow. Travel has taught me the fun in having my cultural furniture rearranged and my ethnocentric self-assuredness walloped.

I read this book mostly on the plane to Hamburg, or the week prior to leaving. I can credit Rick Steves directly for encouraging me to strike up a conversation with a random German on the bus from Hamburg to Lübeck, which I’ll discuss here in a couple of days. Probably the biggest lament from Rick Steves is that the people that really ought to travel — the ones that are so sure that their ways are correct and best — are least likely to do so.

Make a decision that on any trip you take, you’ll make a point to be open to new experiences, seek options that get you out of your comfort zone, and be a cultural chameleon–trying on new ways of looking at things and striving to become a “temporary local.” … My best vacations have been both fun and intensely educational … Travel challenges truths that we were raised thinking were self-evident and God-given. Leaving home, we learn that other people find different truths to be self-evident. We realize that it just makes sense to give everyone a little wiggle room.

The book is set with an introductory encouragement to travel, followed by seven vignettes of different countries he’s visited, and descriptions of how it’s impacted him. He gave a lesson of the opening of the German Reichstag (parliament building), which he was present for in 1999. He was surrounded by teary-eyed Germans — and a few tourists “so preoccupied with trivialities — forgotten camera batteries, needing a Coke, the lack of air-conditioning — that they were missing out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to celebrate a great moment with the German people.”

He comments that we can learn from other countries — that no one country has a monopoly on good ideas, and it is plenty patriotic to insist what we adopt good ideas (such as drug policy) from other countries and adopt them for our own.

Particularly touching to me was the description and photo of a memorial in El Salvador, very much looking like the American Vietnam memorial — except that one remembering loved ones lost fighting the United States. How many Americans even know that we were involved in a damaging war in El Salvador?

A large part of his book was, for me, “preaching to the choir,” as this comment illustrated:

In the European view, America is trapped in an inescapable cycle to feed its military-industrial complex: As we bulk up our military, we look for opportunities to make use of it. (When your only tool is a hammer, you treat every problem like a nail.) And then, when we employ our military unwisely, we create more enemies…which makes us feel the need to grow our military even more. If an American diplomat complained to his European counterpart, “America is doing all the heavly lifting when it comes to military,” the European might respond, “Well, you seem to be enjoying it. We’re building roads and bridges instead.”

That’s a sentiment I’ve agreed with for quite some time already, and as such, some parts of the book moved slowly for me — though I imagine his target audience included people that had never seriously considered these arguments before. Then there were surprising facts:

by the end of World War I, an estimated half of all the men in France between the ages of 15 and 30 were casualties. When some Americans, frustrated at France’s reluctance to follow us into a war, call the French “surrender monkeys,” I believe it shows their ignorance of history.

And again, I’d agree with him on that point.

The vignette on Iran was particularly interesting, as he described his experiences in person, they sounded far different than the picture we often get in the media.

I have realized, incidentally, that I am terrible at writing book reviews. So rather than inflict more paragraphs upon you with this one, I’ll summarize by saying that this is a touching, informative, and motivational book, which I highly recommend. I’ll leave you with this quote:

Mark Twain wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” These wise words can be a reallying cry for all travelers once comfortably back home. When courageous leaders in our community combat small-mindedness and ignorance… travelers can stand with them in solidarity.

I didn’t travel to make some sort of statement or as a “political act.” But I was enriched in many ways by travel — of course the obvious ones of contemplating the history of a 900-year-old beautiful church, but also in seeing the different character of different cities, being with two families for a couple of days, and seeing different approaches to common problems. I am very glad I wasn’t shut off from this behind a tinted window in a tour bus.


Our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. . . Our security emanates from the justness of our cause; the force of our example; the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

– Barack Obama, inaugural speech, Jan. 20, 2009

This, right here, is why, for the first time in my life, I actually feel good about an American president. Why I have hope about our government for the first time in years. Why I’m glad I used a vacation day to sit on the couch and watch TV yesterday.

On the occasion, once every 4 or 8 years, that is a celebration of American strength, power, and pride, we see our new president speaking of humility, of peace, of moral leadership, this is something remarkable.

Past presidents have used occasions such as these to speak of crushing our enemies, of wanting people dead or alive, of grand government promises that turned out to triple the national debt.

Obama spoke of extending the hand of friendship to anyone that would unclench their fist.

He spoke that we had kicked the can down the road too far, and now we’ve reached the end of the road. We have to stop thinking that we can have everything: low taxes, expensive programs, and a large military, simply by mortgaging our future.

And he leveled with us: we all are in this together, and all have to work to make it better.

Conventional politicians assumed it would be political suicide to say even half of what Obama has said. Yet he went out there and did it.

He was blasted during the campaign by people on both sides of the political spectrum for being just “words”. He’s the first presidential candidate that meant what he said about bringing Americans, and their representatives, together. The shock in Washington has he invited — gasp! — both an openly gay bishop and an anti-gay evangelical minister to give prayers was telling. It’s as if people were saying, “Wait, he really MEANT that?”

Yes, he did. Let’s hope he can pull it off.

And as Rev. Lowry concluded with his benediction:

With your hands of power and your heart of love, help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nations shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid, when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream. . .

Let all those who do justice and love mercy say Amen. (amen) Say Amen! (Amen!) Say Amen! (AMEN!)

A Realistic View of the Economy

Yesterday, I read an article on CNN called From $70K to food bank.

It describes a woman who was laid off in February from a job paying $70,000 a year. “Weeks later”, with bills “piling up and in need of food for her family”, she went to a food bank.

The article proceeds to talk about the subprime lending situation at great length, which is largely irrelevant to this person’s situation.

Then we learn she applied for food stamps, but was denied. There’s a quote from this person about how frustrating that was, and general “tugging at the heartstrings” trying to make us feel sorry for this woman with two children whose mother moved in to help make the house payment. It seems to me that this is a correct decision; someone that can pay a $2500 mortgage each month ought to move into an apartment before trying to leech food or money from social service agencies.

And that’s where this story gets interesting.

She has an interest-only mortgage, and is managing to pay the $2500 bill each month.

If you’re not familiar with an interest-only mortgage, here’s how it works. The bank loans you money to buy your house — say, $200,000. This is a loan, and you have to pay interest on it each month, just like a regular mortgage. But with an interest-only mortgage, you never pay off the loan. You could be making monthly payments for 30 years and still owe $200,000. In general, the only ways to “pay off” this kind of loan is to sell your house, or get a conventional mortgage that pays off the interest-only loan.

Interest-only mortgages were largely banned after the Great Depression. Prior to that time, they were how mortgages normally worked. But there are several problems with them. One is that you have to pay on them forever, even after you retire. Another is that you can’t move unless you can sell your house for at least as much as the bank financed, even if you’ve lived there for 20 years. In times of declining housing prices and unemployment, that really stinks. People often default on the loans, and from a bank’s perspective, that really stinks, too.

Interest-only mortgages are usually used by banks financing construction (we had one for a few months when we renovated our farmhouse) or other short-term projects such as professional real-estate investors that buy old houses and fix them up to sell at a profit. Except for these things, in general, they should never be used for a primary house. It’s not in the interest of the bank or the homeowner.

But since you never pay off the principal, the monthly payments can be lower. It seems likely that this woman took a knowing gamble, buying a home more expensive than she could afford, and somehow found a bank willing to finance this. Problem is, both she and the bank took a knowing risk. If she ever ran into financial difficulties, she’d have to sell the house quick. But now the house is probably worth less than the value of the mortgage, so selling it won’t remove the loan — BUT it would let her pay off a large part of the principal, reducing her monthly payments and giving her some wiggle-room to buy food and pay off the rest of it.

It seems to me that she is unwilling to own up to the calculated risk she took, and wants society to help bail her out. Don’t get me wrong; I think we need to help people that run into hard times. We need to help make sure they still have the tools they need to find a job and a place to stay. But bailing out people that take huge financial risks shouldn’t be the job of society. Let’s help them land softly, but not be enablers keeping them in a home they never could — and still can’t — afford. Fortunately, I don’t think anyone in government (or running for president) is suggesting we should.

Not only that, but her bank shouldn’t have ever made that loan. Banks should be held accountable to not sell unwise products to people that rely on them for their primary residences.

Here’s another interesting point: in just a few weeks, she had burned through her entire savings.

This, unfortunately, is a quite typical situation for many Americans. My financial planner, and I think most experts, suggest that everyone ought to have 6 months of income in liquid non-retirement assets (savings accounts, investments, etc.) in case something like a layoff happens. Very few Americans have this.

And when it comes down to it, isn’t that part of the problem? The economy thrives on consumer spending. Or, put more starkly, overconsumption. If people start saving like they ought to, and stop feeling like they’re outcasts just for not keeping up with the Joneses and buying every last gadget or the biggest house, we’d all be in better shape — but the economy wouldn’t have grown as much.

The growth it would have seen, had we all been more responsible, would have been a lot more durable and recession-proof, I think.

Death sure is cost-effective, isn’t it?

I just read Death Be Not Proud (But It Is Cost-Effective) by Chez Pazienza. In his story, Chez talks about his stay in the hospital to have a marble-sized brain tumor removed. Across the room during his stay in neuro ICU, he saw a person far worse off than himself: staples all around his head, barely able to stay conscious, unable to speak. After a few days of this, Chez asked the nurse what had happened to the other person.

It was the same thing.

The difference? Chez had good insurance, and the other person didn’t. So Chez got the modern surgery with the latest technology, and the other guy got the Neolithic version. The other patient’s family came to visit, clearly heartbroken at his condition, not knowing whether he’d ever be the same. And knowing that even if he’d survive, he’d have years of physical therapy ahead of him.

Then there was the story of the girl whose insurance company denied a liver transplant, calling it “experimental”, sending her to her death. He says:

Regardless of what Fox business-creature Neil Cavuto may have to say on the subject, healthcare and profit are two thoroughly antithetical concepts. Giving CEOs the authority to stand on the edge of the arena and issue a final thumbs-up or down while we lay incapacitated or dying is like charging a lion with protecting the Christians.

I entirely agree.