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The wife and I have done a ton of renovations to real estate this year:

  • The wife replaced the bathtub walls and counter in her rental condo
  • I replaced the tub and tub-walls in my rental condo
  • We replaced the master bedroom’s bathroom in the house where we are living
  • The wife’s parents sold a house and the wife is acting as the power of attorney, and had to oversee a whole bunch of required upgrades before we could sell
  • I am on the Board of my condo association, so not only do I manage my own property but help manage the entire complex
  • We are looking to do some more renovation work of the main bathroom in the house where are living, not mention fixing up some drainage issues (and not to mention taking care of another drainage problem earlier this year, as well as adding insulation to the undercarriage of the house)

Whew. That’s a lot of work.

However, what I’ve found is that I’ve gotten good at noticing when something is done well and when it’s done cheaply, and not been impressed with expensive housing.

Across the street from Microsoft, there’s a $1.7 million house for sale. It sold last year, and the wife and I went to look at it. At the time, we were like “Wow! This is a nice place! We’ll never afford it of course, it’s way too much money.”

But this year it was up for sale again. The previous owner who bought the year before had to move back to the east coast, and put it on the market for $100k above last year’s price. The wife and I went to check it out again.

We were not impressed.

While some parts of the house were nice, the walls had been drawn on by kids and it wasn’t totally cleaned up. The master bathroom was nice, but it gigantic. It was the size of a large bedroom, and the walk-in closet the size of a small bedroom. I said to myself “What a waste of space.”

But it’s not just that, the other bathrooms had cheap plastic tubs installed. The counters were okay, but just… okay. Indeed, most of the house was adequate, but for $1.7 million I expected way more. We remodeled our own bathroom this year and were trying to keep costs down, and all bathrooms in this $1.7 million house – except the main one – were no nicer than our new one.

Even now when the wife and I go snooping in open houses during the summer or fall, we’ve started getting pretty good at seeing if something is well-built or not. And there’s a lot of overpriced junk out there. It’s pretty clear that real estate prices are driven primarily by location, and not by quality. This is doubly true in Seattle where houses go for even more than they do on the east side of the lake.

I feel like if I wanted to go into real estate development, I could be pretty good at it since I have some experience at it now. For sure, I’d need to get a lot more training under my belt, but if I’ve gotten this far just doing it haphazardly, I could become a real expert if I did it full time.

Of course, if I get a degree in diplomacy, when exactly when I have time for that?

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I’m currently writing this on a Tuesday, and two weeks ago on a Wednesday, I got sick. That means it’s been 14 days. It started as a sore throat, and then a stuffed + runny nose the next day, and then a cough two days later. The sore throat and stuffed/runny nose went away the same day.

The cough has lasted 11 days so far.

When I first get sick with a sore throat, nobody notices. And when my nose is stuffed and runny, because I’m at home or at my desk at work most of the time, no one notices. But I’m feeling pretty miserable. However, after the sore throat and runny/stuffed nose go away and the cough moves in, that’s when people start getting concerned about my health because that’s when they notice. But I’m feeling much better in this state despite having a cough.

I get offered cough candies, tea, and other home remedies now that I have this cough. I could have used those before, actually. I’m not convinced they help, either. When you get sick, your body responds by lining your throat and nose with lots and lots of mucous. That’s why your nose gets stuffy and runny. After the virus has been killed, your body is still producing it in lower quantities, but it all runs down the back of your throat and makes you cough. It’s your body’s way of responding to its own defenses.

But it’s still annoying.

 

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About a year and a half ago, we got Esmerelda, the younger cat in the household. When she first arrived, she was super needy. She kept crawling into my lap while I was eating, she kept shoving her face under my hand at night, and she meowed around the house when she wanted attention.

Well, that didn’t last.

Nowadays, she doesn’t need attention at all. In fact, she requires so little attention, I’ve nicknamed her “The Hermit” because she mostly stays in an upstairs bedroom and lazes around under a chair. She only occasionally comes out for attention, and that’s late at night (and maybe in the morning while we are eating breakfast). Otherwise, she pretty much hangs out there and we don’t see her unless we go in there to bug her. Contrast that to Ruby who almost always has to be in our vicinity, and there’s a strong contrast between the two cats.

Of course, it’s not always that Zelda doesn’t want attention. Once in a while, she will jump onto my lap and stay with me. Usually it’s for less than five minutes, but in a blue moon she’ll stay for about 40 minutes. In addition, roughly 2 days out of 7, I’ll wake up in the morning and she’ll be sleeping on our bed.

Finally, late at night, she’s figured out that when the wife comes home, she starts meowing loud, as if to say “Let’s play with the stick under the blanket!” She has figured out that I’ll play with her at this game after the wife comes home. She starts to meow at roughly 9:50 pm.

So, she still likes attention some of the time. The below pictures are four separate occasions.

Beaners_collage

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Remember that episode on the Simpsons when Homer went to clown college?

It all started when the first day of the month, Homer declared it was new billboard day! He sees ads that he found desirable (such as for food), but then saw one for Clown College. He says in disgust “Clown College? You can’t eat that.” He then drives off, determined to ignore the billboard.

Yet he can’t get it out of his head. In everyday situations, Homer images himself at Clown College, taking the classes to become a clown:

Homer_Simpson_Clown_college

Even when eating dinner with his family, he images them not as table mates, but as clowns:

Homer_Simpson_Clown_college_eating_dinner

Homer_Simpson_Clown_college_eating_dinner_family_clowns.PNG

Finally, he gets up from the table and declares – seeming out of no where to the rest of his family – “You people have held me back long enough! I’m going to Clown College!” He then gets up and leaves the table.

I bring this up because over the past few months, I’ve been getting more interested in politics. I’m not sure what the catalyst is for this upsurge in interest [1], but here we are. I try to stay away from editorials, and instead I’ve done a few things:

a) I started subscribing to the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) daily newsletter, and I browse through the articles. The CFR is mostly non-partisan and provides a roundup of news from around the world. I even play to join the CFR if I can get a few members to recommend me (Note: I currently know nobody on the CFR).

b) I subscribed to Foreign Affairs, a newsletter and website that discusses foreign policy as it affects the United States. They are articles written by industry people with a lot of expertise. It cost $40 to sign up, and I read it most days

c) I listen to the podcast The President’s Inbox. This is put on by Foreign Affairs, and every 2-4 weeks they have a new episode of issues facing the President of the United States. One episode was on North Korea, another on jobs training, another on the impact of the US withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and so forth. The President’s Inbox is also non-partisan.

d) I clicked on an ad from Norwich (online) University about getting a master’s degree in diplomacy, or perhaps in international relations. I had no interest in this until a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been poking through it. I thought to myself “Hmm, it could be interesting to be a diplomat.” This is especially true when I saw that you could specialize in cyber diplomacy. I’m like “Well, I like geo-politics, and I’m skilled with cyber-space, and now they’ve merged these two together and created a course about it?” There’s a big need worldwide for cyber diplomacy because cyber security is such a difficult topic, and there aren’t that many people in general with the necessary skills. There’s even fewer who would want to do government work.

The drawback of this is that while the course can be completed in 18 months, and is done on your own time and is online, for me to go into diplomacy would be a pay-cut, probably 25-40% (I don’t know why the software industry pays me so well, but they do). And that’s for a mid-career level diplomat, not someone who starts from the bottom which I would probably have to do. Another drawback is that the tuition for those 18 months is $30,000. That’s a lot to shell out. While I could afford it, it would be a big investment for a repayment that is less than what I get now. And getting the wife to sign off on it is another big challenge.


So, it’s (d) that keeps sticking in my head. I’m like “A masters in diplomacy? How is that going to help me? This advertisement has no effect on me whatsoever!”

I just hope I don’t make an outburst like Homer Simpson during a meeting at work one day.


[1] Just kidding. It’s the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States.

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Today, I went to a church picnic, and afterwards a group of about 12 of us went to play a game of ultimate frisbee. We played for a bit, and after about 30 minutes when some of the other players dropped out, I was the oldest one playing – at the ripe ol’ age of 38.

If you’re not familiar with the game, it’s fast-paced like soccer or hockey. But the rules are kind of like football. You have two teams, and you advance by tossing the frisbee to each other. You have to stand still when you throw it, and if the frisbee hits the ground the other team takes possession. The object is to get the frisbee into the other team’s endzone. There is a lot of running back and forth with little stoppage in play, you’re moving around for most of the time.

I gotta tell ya – I hike as much as I can ; I walk 10,000 steps (at least) every day; I take 11 flights of stairs at work and sometimes do the entire 28 while on a break without stopping; I watch what I eat; but this game was something else.

I was able to run back and forth at full energy for a couple of end-to-ends, but it wasn’t long after that I started getting tired and couldn’t go full out. I could stay on my feet, and didn’t black out, but my body was not letting me sprint back and forth to get open and cover people.

Ultimate will do that to you, because there’s so much turnover in play, and it’s not like football where the play ends after every one. It’s continuous, so it’s more like soccer, but faster paced so it’s more like hockey. But whereas hockey has substitutions of players and stoppages in play, ultimate doesn’t so in that regard it’s more like soccer.

My team was playing against a couple of people who played in college, so that team destroyed us. I was no competition. I am not an athlete, and I never was, but that was clearly obvious this time around, too (as usual). The only sport I’m decent at is floor hockey, and to a lesser extent football, and to a lesser extent badminton, but to a great extent hiking (which is an activity, not a sport).

I think to myself “Could I have played continuously back in my twenties?” And the answer is “I don’t know.” As I said, not only am I not an athlete, I never was. But over a decade ago I feel like I was able to go longer without getting tired. Or maybe I never played a sport where I had to be on the entire time (the exception is sponge hockey where there were some games where I had to play the entire time, and during those games I got just as exhausted).

Still, playing with friends was a lot of fun and I would do it again. Anytime.

Even though I’m still the oldest guy on the field.

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The wife and I the other day went down to Mt. St Helen’s. This is about a 3-hour drive from where we live.

The city of Seattle is heavily Democratic (capital D). Yet once you get out of the city and drive in any direction for an hour, the political orientation changes. There are lots of Trump supporters.

Along the way down, we saw a big billboard (privately owned, I think) that said “Higher taxes create jobs how?” The unstated argument is that raising taxes is bad for the economy and doesn’t create jobs, and lower taxes is a good idea and creates prosperity.

So I thought I’d take a stab at answering this question.

First of all, nobody who wants higher taxes wants them at 100%

So let’s throw that away. Everyone knows that if the tax rate is too high, the economy stops because no one will work.

Second, it’s a matter of who is being targeted with the higher taxes

In any economy, there is the poor, the working class, the professional class, and the rich. We’re not just talking about the 1% who have incomes starting over $450,000, but the highest sliver of that whose incomes are over $5 million per year. That’s usually who is being targeted for higher taxes although typically it applies to earners over $450,000.

Third, it has to do with increasing consumer spending

The United States’ economy, and most western economies, is built upon consumer spending. Someone has to sell stuff, and someone has to buy the stuff that’s being made. If I build 10,000 widgets, but nobody buys them, that’s bad. It puts no more money in my pocket, and if nobody can afford my widgets, then they can’t take advantage of my widgets’ awesomeness.

The theory behind tax increases

The idea being tax increases is that you take some money from the wealthy and give it to the poor, working class, and professional class. This could be in the form of a direct transfer payment, but usually it’s in the form of services. So, a government might take the additional revenue from taxes and spend it on improving public transit, or on roads, or on daycare, or on health care.

The result is that a poor, working class, or professional class person that normally would have spent an extra $5 on a subway ride, or $1000/month on day care, has extra money in their pocket. They decide to spend it on something else, be it goods that are necessary (household items) or luxury goods (mid-to-upper end vehicles).

The net result is that because people are spending less on one area because the government is subsidizing it, they get to spend more on another area. That means the people that sell stuff have more customers to buy their stuff.

The theory behind tax cuts

Tax cuts have to go to the wealthiest people. The belief is that a wealthy person will take the money they receive in tax cuts and invest it to start new business and generate more wealth for everyone – new jobs, new innovation, new spending on business.

A poor, working class, or professional person doesn’t get enough back in taxes to be able to invest it. For the poor and working class, any new additional income is likely to be spent on consumer goods and services. For a professional person, the money will either be spent, saved, or invested in the markets depending their financial situation. This is similar to a tax increase on the rich in that both are intended to be stimulative. But in these cases, the tax cut money has not gone to creating more wealth in the economy by starting a new business.

No, only a wealthy person who gets a big tax cut can take it and invest directly in the economy. For you see, a wealthy person already has all (or nearly all) of their needs and luxury items. This is because of the decreasing utility of money. All of us need a certain amount of money to buy food, shelter, transportation, cat food, and other requirements. Then we all buy some luxury items. But eventually that tapers off and additional money doesn’t make us happier, that is, we don’t spend it. But given enough additional money, and then maybe a wealthy person decides to take a risk and start a business to grow the economy. It takes a certain amount of money to get started, running a business isn’t cheap. It’s difficult and requires a cushion.

That’s why you have to give tax cuts to the rich if you want them to grow the economy.

Which one is better?

Economists have measured both of these. Both are intended to stimulate the economy. A tax cut does put additional money into everyone’s pocket, and they spend it – but not equally.

The poor and working class spend their extra money. The professional class frequently does, and the wealthy sometimes do, but sometimes they save it. If someone wants to save their extra money, that’s fine. It’s a smart thing to do, Americans don’t save enough. But from macro-economic perspective, it’s bad. Our economy is built on consumer spending, not consumer saving.

If the government now suffers a reduction in revenue, it either has to cut services or run deficits. If it cuts services, then the poor and working class who were using them now have to use the small bit of money from tax cuts to spend on those cut services whose fees have increased. They have no additional money. So the government has to run a deficit and sells bonds in order to finance itself, but as the deficit grows, it can increase inflation. That, too, can erode the buying power of consumers whose incomes have to grow fast enough to keep up with inflation. In 2017, that’s happening for the professional class, but not the poor and working class.

So, if you compare the two:

  • A tax increase on the wealthy that results in the government providing more services for the middle class gives us more consumers who can spend money. Because of the marginal utility of money, the wealthy don’t experience a noticeable degradation of their lifestyle
  • A tax cut on the wealthy does not necessarily result in the wealthy creating more jobs. Much of the time, they save it which is good for them but not for the economy as a whole. The middle class does notice a degradation of their lifestyle as they now have to spend more money on services that they previously didn’t have to spend on

Therefore, as long as it is done right and the rates are not too high, a tax increase on the wealthy does more to stimulate the economy than a tax cut for the wealthy.

And that’s how I would answer the billboard’s question.

 

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Am I seriously doing another blog post? Yup, I guess so.

Myself and some friends were talking about President Trump the other night, I just can’t help myself. I articulated why I have problems with him.

There are many dozens, or even hundreds of reasons to oppose President Trump. But there are two meta-issues that I think undermine the United States in particular, and western society in general.

1. The refusal to divest himself from his business interests

Before the election, then-candidate Trump took a lot of heat from his business interests, and he said he would divest himself from them. But he never did; he said he would let his sons run the day-to-day business, but that he would remain invested. Unlike other members of cabinet who put their interests into a blind trust (e.g., Secretary of State Rex Tillerson), Trump did not.

This is problematic.

The office of the presidency in the United States is not supposed to be used to serve your own personal interests. The president has a lot of power, and therefore can use his office to enrich himself – at the expense of the nation.

For example, he owns a suite of hotels all across the United States, and internationally. He could push for hosting conferences, and foreign governments who travel to the US, to stay in his hotel. He can imply unfavorable treatment if they don’t. And if others want to play ball, they’ll do it. In this way, President Trump would have leveraged his position of power for personal gain, regardless of whether or not his interests align with the United States’ interests. The office of the president is supposed to align first with the US, regardless of whether they are in the interest of the office holder. In fact, even if they are opposed, the president is supposed to put the interests of the country first, not his own. Can you imagine a foreign government offering to spend a large chunk of money on Trump’s hotels in return for favorable treatment by the US government?

This is double confounded by the fact that President Trump refused to release his tax returns, and only leaked the ones that were favorable to him (the 1995 return which shows him declaring a $1 billion loss, and the 2005 return where he paid about $35 million in income tax [mostly due to the Alternative Minimum Tax which his first budget proposal wanted to do away with]).

But because he refused to release his tax returns, we don’t know all of his financial holdings.

And this sets the stage for future presidents to refuse to divest themselves of their financial interests and truly abuse the office of the presidency for personal gain. The precedent the president has set has lowered the bar for future behavior that will be more shady and nefarious. The abuse of office in this manner is how dictators in banana republics operate.

I think this is why President Trump never released his tax returns; it will show that there is something shady going on, and mostly like there is Russia involvement in some way. Perhaps it’s due to financing and special deals (as his sons have said in interviews), but my hypothesis is that the reason Trump is acting all weird when it comes to Russia (e.g., giving them favorable treatment in return for nothing geopolitically), and not disclosing his tax returns, is because he is planning to personally profit during his time in office and that he has to pay Russia back.

2. His administration’s undermining of the geopolitical order set up after World War II

The United States was viewed as isolationist – or at least non-interventionalist – during the first part of the 20th century.

And in Europe, the force driving the continent was a mixture of nationalism (“my country is better than your country”) – and the concept of the balance-of-power.

The balance-of-power was (formally) set up after the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon changed the continent by mobilizing all of France and steamrolling over Europe before finally being defeated for good in 1815. To counter that, at the Congress of Vienna, the major powers (Russia, France, England, Austria, Prussia) established a system where entire countries would ally with each other to balance out the other, so any country that tried to invade another would be forced to deal with the other country’s allies. That is, if England and Prussia were allied with each other, then France couldn’t just invade one – they’d have to fight both. This system worked reasonably well because each country knew that a war would require massive resources and victory would incur heavy losses, making the cost/benefit ratio look unattractive.

But in the late 19th century, countries started devolving into nationalism. First Germany reunited with a series of wars, culminating with the Franco-Prussian War where they became the leading power of the Europe. The balance-of-power still held until World War I when Germany, buoyed by nationalism, instigated the war to end all wars. Which it was, until nationalism reared its head again, and World War II claimed 50 million lives.

After World War II, the world powers decided that the concept of the balance-of-power wasn’t good enough, so they instituted a system of integrated alliances. By creating trade unions based upon political and economic interconnectedness, it would create less hostility between countries. Countries are far less likely to go to war if they are both part of a political union that encourages trade; why would Country A invade Country B and incur the price of war, when they could just trade for the goods they want?

This is the foundation of the United Nations, but more importantly the European Union. Greater integration has increased the unity of Europe where the two worst wars of the past 100 years started, and also increased its stability. Nationalism doesn’t make sense, and that’s why it’s important to keep the EU together. The United States helps guarantee global stability by supporting the EU.

Yet President Trump and Co. are actively undermining the European Union:

a) He has clearly preferred to align with Russia whose geopolitical goals are to be a regional power, and their geopolitical goals are to weaken Europe so they can’t be a counterbalance to Russian influence

b) He has (well, had) undermined the Europe Union by endorsing hardline nationalists like UK-independence leader (at the time) Nigel Farage and saying he should be the UK’s ambassador to United States, and endorsing French nationalist Marine Le Pen. Both of those individuals are actively working to break up the EU.

If the EU does break up, then what happens next? It means we revert back to divisions based upon national borders, which leads to nationalism in place of greater political and economic integration. And that’s what led to the last great war in Europe. Peace is not achieved lightly, and undoing one of the things that led to it (another being more democracy) is a negative.

I think that’s bad for global stability; it’s bad for Europe, and therefore bad for the United States.


And those are the two meta-reasons why I oppose President Trump’s agenda.

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