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Tim Pawlenty didn't lose because of Trump

Last night Tim Pawlenty lost the Republican primary for the Governor's race.  Since then, every article I've read has emphasized how Pawlenty must have lost because he called President Trump "unfit and unhinged."  I think they're all wrong.  In fact, that comment was one of very few moments of courage and lucidity.  Most of the rest of Pawlenty's career has been marked by callousness and incompetence, and the reason Pawlenty lost is that Minnesotans know it.

Minnesota is not a very Trump-y place.  He lost the caucuses to Rubio.  He lost the election to Clinton.  His style and Minnesota's style are fairly well incompatible.  Minnesota has its share of conservatives, but they tend to be the soybean farmers that Trump is fucking over instead of the hedge fund managers and real estate developers that are doing the fucking.

Pawlenty looks, on the surface, like a boring guy who's probably related to a lot of soybean farmers and not many real estate developers, which helped him win the Governor's race once and barely, just barely eke out an encore run.  But in his second run, in 2006, he won by less than a 1% margin.  This is likely due to the fact that he pissed of people of both parties equally.  After promising not to raise taxes, he raised "fees" and claimed that he'd kept the promise.  After promising to keep a balanced budget he had to borrow from the state's school budget to make ends meet.

And it's not like things got better.  I was a student at the University of Minnesota during his tenure.  When Pawlenty took office in 2002, tuition was $5536.  When he left in 2010 it was $12,288. The state's predicted budget deficit for the biennium as Pawlenty was leaving office was $6.2 billion.  To make that work he borrowed $1.9 billion from the state's K12 schools.  And those "fees" he raised (not taxes!) were on cigarettes.  So hit up the addicts for money, "borrow" money from the kids, and leave a huge deficit?  It turns out the real reason Pawlenty lost is...

He's a total Baby Boomer politician.  He made a huge mess, claimed  victory, and then waltzed off to take a gig making $3 million a year lobbying for banks.  That's not anything to do with Trump.  It's Pawlenty being a shitty politician. 

Jeff Johnson didn't beat Pawlenty because he was more closely aligned with Donald Trump.  Jeff Johnson beat Pawlenty because a fire hydrant wearing a MAGA hat could have beat Tim Pawlenty.  And there's one simple reason - Pawlenty was a really crappy governor, and Minnesotans remember.

Is an LJ a social medium?

When Jessica and I went to Costa Rica in December 2017, I brought a work computer. That's not great, and I wish I didn't have to, but I didn't end up having to do almost any work and it was a nice little distraction tool. The sun in Costa Rica sets pretty early in December, leaving several hours of darkness before you really want to sleep, and it's good to have a link to the world to catch up on the news, make sure nothing is falling apart at work, and even watch an obviously-pirated version of the 1996 drama/romance remake of "Romeo and Juliet."  (Before you call for my IP lawyer card - burning a copy of the movie in Costa Rica doesn't infringe any US copyright laws that I'm aware of, so I'm looking the other way.)

While generally having a good time, dipping in the pool, hiking, surfing, chasing monkeys and exploring new beaches, I noticed something that everyone knows, really. Social media sucks. It's not fun, it's not informative, and it's addictive.

I joined Facebook in its infancy, back in 2004. Back then, it was all college students and you couldn't join without a specific ".edu" email address. You could use it to find out what was going on on campus, join college-style debates on just about anything, or see the grainy, 1 megapixel photos of fun your friends were up to (not to mention, this was back when the idea of candid photos of the cute girls in your classes on the internet was a novelty. creepy? maybe. true? undoubtedly. And because it was just 18-22 year olds on the site, the photos were way more risque than anything posted today. I'll stop now before being branded a creepy old man.).

Since then, three awful things have happened that destroyed social media.

First, Facebook expanded, going for ever-bigger audiences. It opened to non-college-educated audiences. This reminds me of the line from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Glaxy: "In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has widely been regarded as a bad move."  Creating this huge universe of people's mums and dogs and companies who all want to sell people shit all the time crowded out the voices of interesting people and made the site general rather than niche. General makes for good ad revenue, niche and exclusivity makes for a good website.

Second, other companies figured out this was a thing. Twitter, Instagram, Reddit (is that a social media?), and Snapchat all became "essential."  So there's enough to bounce around between that you never really know whether you've missed a new post or maybe you just need to check one more time.

Third, Facebook & friends decided they needed to actually make money on stuff, and marketers piled on. Companies and news feeds predominate on social media, hawking news of dubious authenticity paid for by unknown parties and products you've already bought but still have cookies for on your browser. And if you write nasty things about them, your mom and your boss will see exactly what you've written within the hour, because everyone's online all the damn time.

And there you have it. We've managed to muck up a platform for parties, debates, and racy pictures of our college crushes so that it's become a constant source of addictive advertising and shame. Humanity is truly an awful beast.

So while in Costa Rica, posting pictures of our daily expoits, I noticed that the evening ritual of looking at Facebook just made me angry. And ultimately, I didn't know why I was blasting photos of vacation onto this platform where people click "LIKE" and then move on half a second later to argue about whether organized garbage collection is Marxism and whether Hillary Clinton actually killed a man in cold blood and look at these twenty-seven photos of my ugly child eating a chocolate cake with his hands (I don't care what anyone says, children eating cakes are hideous. It's the worst. Please stop it.).

So I quit. I left without notice, and I have no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, no Snapchat (I never did have one of those). I do have LinkedIn, which annoys me, but I figure going there once a week might help me find a job at some point.

It's been nice. Nobody tries to send me goddamn Facebook Messages anymore, they have to call or text or email. I find I am more focused, less distracted, and less irritable. I care about the news less. I read more.

Others have talked about starting meditation or writing novels or running marathons in all the time they freed up.  I don't have any of that.  Instead I have something a lot simpler and a lot better. I have my sanity back. After almost 14 years of Facebook, I'm remembering what it's like to lead a more normal life.

2017 Recap

My last post was in 2016, and it's now 2018.  Oops.

Last time I wrote, I was thinking pretty hard about early retirement.  That continues to be true for Jessica and me, but at a little less of a day-to-day enthusiasm, and more of a day-to-day grind.  2017 was a really busy year for me, and since attorneys are paid based on what they bill that meant it was a very good year financially, too.  Meanwhile the stock market jumped 20-some percent.  It's easy to not fixate on finances when everything's coming up aces and you're overwhelmed with other things anyway.  We've been making really good progress and all indications are that we will be financially independent in less than 10 years, depending on raises, stock market performance, and what have you.

The new tax law is pretty great for us in most respects (since we're white, heterosexual, affluent people, Republican laws are basically written for our benefit, after all).  The one wrinkle is that we'll probably never itemize deductions again.  This means things like charitable giving and mortgage interest payments have to be considered for their own merits, without a substantial discount for tax benefits.

Meanwhile, though my own lifestyle hasn't inflated seemingly at all, the lifestyles of those around me has.  Attorneys at my firm are excitedly acquiring iPad Pros.  They're really cool work tools, and I would love to have one, but the version I want would run well over $1000.  Hard pass.  Still other attorneys donate to food drives, legal aid drives, DACA application fees for poor kids, a coworker's charity bike race across the Alps, you name it.  How does one find the middle ground between supporting every cause and going broke, and being a total Scrooge who never supports anything?  More than ever, I feel the need to hide my transit-taking, home-haircut-receiving, discount-grocery-frequenting, consignment-store-shopping ways from colleagues who don't seem to have the slightest inclination to hold back any portion of their six-figure incomes.

2017 was a good year for travel, in which Jessica and I took a week and a half to putter in the Costa Rican jungle, checking out the local assortment of monkeys, driving to little towns with big beaches. I discovered my favorite place on earth, a small town on the Pacific accessible by fording a river in a 4x4 vehicle. I also got a chance to explore Washington DC a bit, which is good as it appears work will be taking me there every few months.

 I've also fallen in love and out of love with social media this year.  In an attempt to understand Instagram for a work project, I signed up for an account.  Later, for some reason or another, I also signed up for a Twitter account.  By the end of the year, I've totally forgotten the Instagram login information, cancelled my Twitter account, unsubscribed to Nextdoor (which I barely used anyway) and even nuked my Facebook page. It's been a month since I logged in to Facebook and the muscle memory still makes my fingers go "f-a-enter" occasionally when I'm bored and not thinking. I now have no social media presence whatsoever, unless you count LinkedIn (and you shouldn't count LinkedIn). Facebook has definitely been the weirdest thing to quit, since I had it for so long (over 13 years!). There are many connections that I lost the day that I deactivated that account, likely irretrievably.  But ultimately, scratching the itch of that curiosity seemed not to be worth it if I could avoid the hours every day spent glazing over the same content I'd seen before.

Honestly I don't know that I've gained any time back in my day, so much as reimagined how to spend down time.  Whereas before any 30-second gap could be filled with a quick Facebook scan, now it's filled with something else or, heavens forbid, actually just empty.  Much like white space on a page, I haven't noticed a change in the substance of my days, but they seem to flow better. I also don't engage with stupid or angry people nearly as often, since they congregate on neighborhood pages of all types and in the comments sections of news outlets' shared stories.  Good luck corrupting this brain, Russian Bots, because I can't hear you.

I'm attending meetings of a new chess group, signed up for a woodworking class, and have hopes to get to London and Ankara this year if things go well at work, plus a vacation with Jessica if I'm lucky.  Our house projects are complete (the master bathroom, renovated to studs in 2017, was our last big planned house project) and I'm still puttering away at replacing old wiring and fence boards.  2018 seems like it could be a good year as far as interesting hobbies and work, saving bongo bucks for retirement, and seeing more bits of the world. 

So that is it.  I've become an even bigger curmudgeon.  Traveling to remote places to get away from kids these days with their iPad Pros and their social medias and their profligate spending. 

Where to stash?

Well, another boring money post. There's so much garbage financial advice out there on the Internet, most of it just copied from one source to the next and presented as new. Then there are questions that I can't figure out the answer to, because nobody addresses them at all. For example, what happens if you stuff a retirement account, and then can't get at it? Qualified retirement accounts like 401(k) and Traditional IRA won't let you pull anything out until you're 59.5 years old, and if your plan is to save as fast as possible and retire early then there's no way to access it. There is the "SEPP" loophole, by which "Substantially Equal Periodic Payments" can be withdrawn, but this is a mightily small door and if I were to quit working at 40, then the loophole is closed when I'm 42... well, I'd be in some trouble.

So what's a guy to do? To get the tax benefit I need to stuff those accounts, and to have any cash before 59.5 I can't use them. Amortization to the rescue!

There's a fun equation for amortization.

Typically, this being America, people use it to figure out their payments on a loan. But it turns out, it works in reverse too, to figure out how long a lump of money P will last in the bank while pulling out monthly payments A. And I know how many months until I can access that sweet retirement account money, so I just set n to be the number of months between now and when I'm 59.5. End result:

Amount I can withdraw monthly until age 59.5 = [(Invested money)*(interest rate/12)*(1+interest rate/12)^(number of months remaining until 59.5 minus 1)]/[(1+interest rate/12)^(number of months remaining until 59.5 minus 1)]

Right now, assuming a 5% return, my number is in the low hundreds (topping out at $350 before we paid off our kitchen remodel. Sigh.). That's actually overly optimistic, since much of it is cash for monthly expenses and does not get a 5% return.

Retirement accounts, on the other hand, look deceptively smaller than they really are. The equation is a bit simpler, but two-part. Assuming no more contributions starting today (I'm simulating retirement scenarios, after all) the account grows until age 59.5 without any losses:

Account value at 59.5 = Current account value * (1+interest rate)^(number of years to 59.5).

From there, we assume withdrawals of no more than 4% to be self sustaining:

Monthly income = Account value at 59.5 * 0.04/12.

Right now, our cost of living is about $4000, and two thirds of that is a mortgage that we won't have in 30 years. The projected monthly income in retirement already exceeds $4000. So basically, we have all the post-59.5 cash we'd ever need, already saved. But does it make sense to stop contributing to retirement accounts now? I'd lose the tax benefit, the employer match, and risk the effects of runaway inflation. For now, I'll keep putting money in and hope SEPP still exists when I need it.

Snapshot recap

Progressive just sent me my offer to re-up for the next 6 months. From what I'd read online, the typical story is that some poor soul drives super carefully, gets a discount through snapshot, and then gets told at the end of the trial period that rates have gone up by 5% more than that discount in his or her area. Thus, the "discount" is in fact totally wiped out.

That did not happen to us. We are quite pleased, in fact.

Snapshot measures three metrics: number of hard brakes, number of miles driven per week, and "high-risk driving time."

For the first factor, anything over 7mph deceleration in 1 second will cause the Snapshot device to emit an obnoxious beep indicating you've made a hard stop. 7mph/s is not a whole lot of braking. If you drive like a normal person, stopping when a light turns yellow unexpectedly would definitely get you a beep. Decelerating onto an offramp would get you a beep. Stopping for a pedestrian would get you a beep. Stopping for a deer on a rural highway would get you a beep. Sudden slowdowns for traffic jams, construction, or accidents? Definitely a beep, maybe two. You see, it's every second of deceleration that counts, so one long sustained brake could count as 2, 3, or even 4 hard brakes. Most people writing about this on the Internet indicate a couple of hard stops per day of normal, careful driving.

We averaged 0.49 hard brakes per week. We accomplished it by driving 22-25 mph in residential areas where there might be kids, dogs, or traffic lights. On the freeway, 50mph is a good speed. We left oodles of following space between us and the cars in front of us. We left way more time to get anywhere than a normal, rational human being would.

The next is miles of driving per day. This one is kind of inelastic for us, because Jessica needs to get to work and back each day and transit to her workplace is nearly non-existant. But, we really cut down on unnecessary trips and combined errands. We averaged 132.92 miles per week, and Snapshot's recommendation is less than 30 miles per day, so we met their criteria anyway.

The final one is "high risk" driving time. This is, I think, driving between midnight and 4am. Basically, if you drive to clubs and bars, driving home will get you dinged. Over a 6 month period, we racked up a total of.... zero. Because nightclubs and late nights at bars are stupid and pointless. Come over to my house, where there's no cover, the beer flows freely (in both senses of the word), and you don't have to figure out how to get that 21+ stamp off of your hand before going to work or anywhere else that people are likely to judge you.

We got a 22% Snapshot discount for our next renewal. I took advantage of Progressive's "pay in full" discount again to lock that in for another 6 months, at $42.58 per month. Before I started this experiment, I was paying $118.08 per month to Liberty Mutual. So, we're saving over $450 every six months, for exactly the same coverage.

Adding to this insanity is that we had our first ever collision in the last few months. We got rammed by a young driver, and Progressive had to pay for a rental car and a few thousand dollars of repair. But, the other driver was found to be 100% at fault, so apparently our goose wasn't cooked for it (and subrogation got our full deductible back!).

I know I sound like an obnoxious millenial, proselytizing about car-free living, but DAMN if having one car isn't the best. Especially when we're careful to get competitive insurance rates, we save so. much. money. Driving the way we have to win over the hearts and minds of the Snapshot folks, with no braking and no speeing, compounded by the fact that we have a Prius, means we've been getting 62-63 mpg fuel economy. I calculate our vehicle expenses at:

$42.58/mo. for insurance
$20/mo. for gas (probably a bit higher in winter when fuel economy drops)
$250/mo. depreciation

The average American household spends $9004/year on transportation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Having one car, driving like a granny (at least while Snapshot is watching!), and buying a fuel-efficient ride means we're way under half of that, even with our shiney new car with lots of depreciation. Without Snapshot, we'd be over half of that.



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August 2018