Remember When Everyone Wasn’t in Contact With the Russians?

First it was reported that the National Security Adviser had discussed sanctions against Russia with the Russian ambassador.  Then it turned out that the President’s son-in-law and senior adviser had held numerous meetings with the Russian ambassador, supposedly to establish a line of communication with the Kremlin by connecting two cans with a really long string.  Then it was rumored that the President’s campaign manager had met with Russian intelligence officials, not “knowingly” but thinking they were landscapers giving an estimate on clearing brush in the campaign manager’s backyard.

A foreign policy adviser to the campaign denied having meetings with Russian officials, but then admitted meeting with the Russian ambassador, explaining that “meetings” is totally different from “meeting” because one is plural and the other is singular.  And it was rumored that the founder of a major security company secretly met with an unidentified Russian rumored to be close to the Russian President, and while it was rumored that the founder was not involved in the Presidential campaign, he was rumored to have been a major contributor, and was rumored to have been close to the President’s chief strategist, and was even rumored to be the brother of the President’s education secretary.

The Attorney General, when he was advising the campaign, had spoken twice with the Russian ambassador, but claimed he had done so not as campaign manager but as the result of a wrong number.  And a former adviser to the President admitted that he’d communicated with a hacker persona called “Guccifer 2.0” that may have been a front for Russian intelligence, but could have just as easily been a new operating system for men’s leather shoes.

This was all bad enough.  But then the mayor of my town was said to have spoken to the Russian ambassador about weakening NATO and adding a traffic signal at that busy intersection near the supermarket.  And my daughter’s math teacher was reported to have sold arms and protractors to the Russians for $250 million.  Our favorite pizzeria was temporarily closed while the FBI reviewed the sauce for microphones.  And even the greeter at our Walmart was questioned because a customer—exactly who was never revealed—testified that instead of “Hello, welcome to Walmart,” the greeter had said “Zdravstvuyte, dobro pozhalovat’ v’Walmart.”

A special investigator appointed by Congress issued a subpoena to the local library branch for “records of all patrons who borrowed War and Peace or any other ridiculously long Russian novel” (although that subpoena was eventually quashed by U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit).  And my paperboy was implicated after his smartphone was confiscated by federal agents working undercover (although they kept getting so many popup notifications to backup to the cloud that they gave up).  There were even reports that my neighbor had been in talks with Russian scientists about a new type of genetically engineered grass seed that would give him the nicest looking lawn on the block.

These reports, releases, revelations, and rumors pommeled me, one after another, for months.  I felt like I was living not in America but in a far-flung province of the Russian Empire.  Then one morning I woke up feeling especially lonely and sad.  I realized that everyone—from the very top levels of government, to those neighbors who leave their garbage cans out by the street even though it’s not garbage day—had been in contact with the Russians.

Everyone, that is, except me.

Remember When You Could Vote to Leave the European Union and Not Regret It?

Two weeks ago the United Kingdom voted in a referendum to leave the European Union.  It was a close vote and was based on a lot of false claims and promises that cannot be kept, such as the prediction that the English Channel will be widened so that all the swimming records will be invalidated.

As soon as the results were in and the markets went down instead of up, people in the UK started calling for a re-do of the vote, arguing that the first vote was a mistake because too many people thought they were just taping an episode of “House Hunters International.” Politicians who had not already been forced to resign over the Brexit vote promised that once the UK voted to undo the first vote then the UK would remain in the EU. There was a lively campaign both in favor and against the “Un-Brexit” and in another close vote the results were in favor of undoing the original Brexit.

The rejoicing was, however, short-lived.  By the first Brexit vote, the UK technically left the EU, and voting to undo that vote had no legal effect. The only way for the UK to return to the EU was for an affirmative vote to rejoin it, rather than voting to undo a vote that had already taken place.

The politicians who had advocated for the “Un-Brexit” vote were then forced to resign, and their replacements, most of whom had no political experience beyond elections for class president, now had to push for a formal vote to join the EU, called the “Brejoin” vote, a combination of “Britain” and “re-join” that was a little confusing to explain. After more campaigning and another close vote, the UK voted affirmatively to rejoin the European Union.

But then there was a joint meeting between the Council of Europe and the European Council, and once everyone understood that these were actually two separate entities, it was determined that Britain would not be able to re-join the EU until it was formally invited.  Some people asked why this legal snag was not mentioned earlier, and the only answer offered was that it had something to do with differing keyboard layouts.

In the weeks leading up to the pan-European “Brinvite” referendum, there was much campaigning on both sides. People on the “yes” side explained how allowing the UK back into the EU was the only way to end the Hundred Years’ War.  People on the “no” side warned that allowing the UK back would lead to increased amount of Shakespeare in schools. There was a healthy amount of false information on both sides and the experts predicted another close vote.

By the narrowest of margins the “no” vote won and those who were in favor of Brinvite immediately demanded a re-vote, claiming widespread voter confusion over mistranslations of “Brinvite” that led many to believe they were just voting on whether to allow Syrian refugees free consumption of oxygen. And of course the markets tumbled, but because the markets had already been tumbling, the new tumbling caused some markets to become stronger, and economists were quick to highlight this as proof that economists did not know anything.

There was another spirited campaign for the re-vote on Brinvite after the failed Un-Brexit of Brexit, and the debate was centered on what to call the vote.  Conservatives advocated for “Re-Brinvite” but liberals pushed for “Un-Brexit Secundum.” The argument over the name of the vote became so contentious that by the time the voting cards were printed up, the choices were just over what to call the vote. There were no euros left over to have the cards re-printed, and, in any event, the voter turnout for the “name of the vote” vote was better than for any European-wide balloting since the referendum to replace war-making with soccer.

The voter turnout was so great that, unfortunately, the votes are not fully tallied and the vote counters have all gone on vacation, which they call “holiday.”  Markets have completely shut down in anticipation of the final count.  We will keep you posted.  In the meantime, keep calm and…just keep calm.

Remember When Tax Evasion Wasn’t So Trendy?

The firm’s managing partner was not having a good spring. Every day there was another story about Mossack Fonseca and the Panama Papers, and generally making bad press for lawyers who earn their daily bread with offshore accounts. Just today there was a story about multibillionaire who was building a vacation home on the Moon but had not paid any tax since 1991.

An associate knocked at the half-open door and walked in.

“Sir, you wanted to see me?”

“Yes, yes,” said the partner. “Come in. Can you believe these stories? The way they write these things, you’d think that hiding assets to pay less tax was wrong. Don’t they know that tax evasion is what made this country great?”

“They should study their history, sir.”

“We need to come up with a response to this. This firm has been in this business two hundred years. Our first clients hired us to avoid taxes under the Stamp Act. We can’t very well just give up on our core business. But we can’t lead our clients into potential prison-situations, either. What we need is a creative solution, a way to hide assets that will not be noticed by the IRS or those nosey journalists.”

So began the great transition from hiding the clients’ assets in offshore accounts, to hiding the assets underneath beds.  The firm built a giant warehouse in the middle of nowhere, and filled it with beds, and stored the clients’ money under the beds.  The clients had no idea where the money was, thinking that names like “Queen Size with Headboard, LLC” were for holding companies.

To deflect any suspicion that might be raised by so many beds being shipped to a remote location, the firm established a bed ‘n’ breakfast on the grounds of the warehouse, and invited real, paying guests to sleep on the beds that, unbeknownst to the guests, hid the assets of the firm’s clients.

The guests however became very uncomfortable. They began to complain about the beds. “My bed felt like there was a large lump in it. I would like to be moved.” So the firm had to move these people to beds that did not have as much money hidden under them. This would be fine, unless the firm’s real client needed to stash assets in the middle of the night.

This happened more often than one would have believed. The firm would have to move the bed ‘n’ breakfast guest to another room while the additional funds were stored underneath the guest’s bed. The guest would usually be irate. “What do you mean you need the bed? I’m a paying guest! I was very cozy in there. I had the pillows set up just the way I like and now I have to leave so you can put someone else in there. Nice hotel you’ve got here – pulling a paying guest out of bed because you have someone more important who needs to sleep.”

Although the firm would give the guest its sincerest apologies and would even take a large percentage off the final bill, apologies and discounts go only so far in the hospitality business, and gradually the guest complaints for being moved in the middle of the night grew to such a large number that the government launched an investigation, believing that this was a case of discrimination against less-important guests.

It did not take long for the Internet outrage to arise. Hashtags like #SecondClassSleeper and #NoBedNBreakfast abounded and every day there were more and more calls from around the nation and the world for the President of the hotel to step down and for the hotel’s Board of Directors to adopt an “all guests are created equal” policy and be subjected to periodic audits and sensitivity training.

Of course there was no hotel president or board of directors because there was no hotel at all. It was just the law firm operating the hotel as a front for its asset hiding business on behalf of wealthy clients. The law firm’s management committee realized it had no choice but to admit that it wasn’t really a hotel. Perhaps they would all go to jail for tax fraud, but anything was better than sensitivity training.

When they did admit the truth, though, no one seemed as excited anymore. Once they realized this was just a boring tax evasion issue they tuned out. Even the government officials leading the investigation became bored and looked for someone else to bother.

But the law firm’s victory was short lived. Although the threat of government prosecution was past, the firm’s clients were disappointed in the business model. They had imagined their money in Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island corporations that existed not even on paper, but on pieces of onion skin. Once they knew that their money was just sitting under beds with strange people sleeping atop them, they withdrew their money and spent it all on greeting cards. The experts were all predicting a bear market that year anyway.

Remember When Greeting Cards Were Affordable?

“And when I’m elected President of the United States,” the candidate said to the adoring crowd, pounding the podium with every word, “I’m going to take on those greedy greeting card companies, and make them offer cards at a price that people can actually afford!”

The cheers were so loud that no one could hear the rest of the candidate’s speech. No one would have believed that the exorbitant price of greeting cards would become the biggest issue of 2016. But the candidate was the first to grasp the importance of affordable greeting cards to working families, and rode the resulting public response right into the White House.

In the weeks between the election and inauguration, the President’s transition team drafted legislation that certain member of Congress would be introducing on the first day of the new administration and new Congress. This particular representative owed his re-election to the President’s endorsement during the campaign season, which was made at great political risk to the President since the representative had been implicated in a “dollars-to-doughnuts” gambling ring.

With the legislation introduced, the first hundred days was marked by an intense effort to get enough votes in the House and in the Senate to guarantee the passage of the greeting card bill, which had been quickly nicknamed “Hall-Markdown.” Conservatives quickly formed a cabal against the bill and would not even allow the bill to be brought to a vote. Any time someone tried to call the bill to a vote, these obstructionists would sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” very loudly, so that no one could hear what was going on.

Finally one of the bill’s co-sponsors – a Congressman who as a child had been forced to make his own cards out of McDonald’s place mats because his parents worked for minimum wage and had to choose between food on the table and store-bought greeting cards – thought of hosting a combination pancake breakfast and gun show several miles away, and while the opposing representatives were stuffing their faces, the bill passed easily with only one “Nay” from a Congressman who did not eat gluten.

The bill was stymied in the Senate as well. One Senator who had accepted campaign contributions from several greeting card companies tried to filibuster the bill, but the President’s supporters broke the filibuster by telling the filibustering Senator that it was snowing outside, and then seizing the floor when the excited Senator ran to the window.

Even on the President’s desk the bill had trouble.  It passed the Senate just before 5 p.m. and was placed on the President’s desk late that night for signature, long after the President had retired to binge watch Season 3 of “Game of Thrones.”  The President met with foreign policy advisers early the next morning, and placed a thick confidential memo titled “More Middle East Stuff” on top of the greeting card bill and did not see the bill until just before it was set to expire along with all the President’s reward points.

At the eleventh hour the bill was signed into law where it was officially codified as the “Affordable Card Act” and ushered in new era of fairness and level playing fields.  No longer were people charged $5 or $6 or $7 for a birthday or Mother’s Day or Father’s Day card.  The Act created a new class of cards that cost only $0.99 apiece, the price proudly emblazoned on the back of each card next to a tiny picture of the President and the words, “You can thank me at the polls!”

I should know. I received one of these Hall-Mark-Down cards the other day.  And I don’t know quite how to say this, but the card just didn’t have the panache of the expensive ones.

Remember When Presidential Campaigns Did Not Go On Forever?

Presidential campaigns were going on forever.  No sooner would one president be sworn in than people would already start talking about the next president.  It was theorized that the problem was that the campaigns lasted so long that people got bored of all the candidates, including the candidate who eventually won.

So it was decided that the Presidential campaign would last one day.  No one was allowed to do any campaigning – no speeches, no debates, no visits to factories or bakeries or diners or ice cream parlors – until Election Day itself.

Several weeks prior to Election Day, anyone who wanted to be a Presidential candidate could sign up by paying a $2 fee to put their name in the hat.  Then, the day before Election Day, the Chief Justice of the United States would mix up all the names in the hat, and pick two.  These were the two candidates – one Democrat, and one Republican.  It did not matter what these candidate’s real positions were, or what party they had been affiliated  with during their career leading up to the Presidential race.  One had to be the Democrat, and the other had to be the Republican.

These two names were picked at midnight on Election Day, and the first debate was at 5:00 a.m.  The two lucky candidates had to quickly familiarize themselves with the platform that they were supposed to adopt.  The main task was to make sure that they didn’t agree on any issues.  So as they studied their positions from midnight to 5:00 a.m., they often called each other up.  “Hey, so are you against starting that war in whatever that place is?  Oh, you’re for it?  Okay, then I’ll be against it.  Glad I checked.”

After the 5:00 a.m. debate it would be time to raise money and run commercials slinging mud at the other candidate.  Given the little amount of time available to raise funds, checks could not be accepted because of the time required to clear.  Only credit cards, debit cards, and transfers between PayPal accounts would work as valid campaign contributions.

Then at 9:00 a.m., with all the money raised, the two campaigns would set out making TV and radio ads that would cast the other candidate as a totally incompetent and unethical hypocrite who cared more about himself or herself than the American people.  Because there was so little time to produce these ads, there was only time to take an existing ad and splice in the names of the candidates.  The ads were really identical except the two names would be in one order in one video, and the in the reverse order in other video.

Then at noon the two candidates would go on their book tours.  They would appear on talk shows with their new books where they discussed how their simple backgrounds and professional adversity had molded them into the perfect President.  Since there was only one day to appear on the shows, the candidates would have be guests at the same time, sitting at opposite sides of the host’s desk, each holding up their book and sipping from their mugs of coffee.  The host’s main job was to prevent the two candidates from talking at the same time, so the host would turn to one and say, “Now you talk,” while holding up a hand to the other, and then would turn to the other and say, “Okay, now you go.”

At 2:00 p.m. there would be another debate, usually featuring at least one scandal that had been leaked at some point during the day, and the targeted candidate would have an opportunity to look grim and admit that “mistakes were made.”  At 3:00 p.m. the candidates would eat a late lunch at a local restaurant, serving locally grown food on plates manufactured in China.  And by 4:00 p.m. the candidates would be shown at home with their spouses and children so that the American voters could see how ordinary and down to Earth they were.

Finally, at 5:00 p.m. the polls would open.  Americans could vote until 10:00 p.m., at which time the vote tallies would be open to legal challenge.  At 11:00 p.m. any legal challenges had to be ended, and at midnight the new President would be announced.

Everyone would watch the announcement with great excitement.  It would have been a very exciting 24-hours.  And just after the announced winner gave the speech thanking supporters and offering best wishes to the loser, the TV stations would automatically switch to a regularly scheduled program, and no one would speak of campaigns for the next four years.

Remember When the Internet Was Anonymous?

Today marks four years since I started this blog. Seems like just yesterday. Thank you all who have read this blog and taken the time to comment. I know that I don’t post as often as I used to, but I’ve got a few big projects I’ve been working, and I’m going to share one of them with you very shortly. In the meantime, enjoy this post.

The Director was sitting in his office, enjoying a pumpkin spice latte. He did not like pumpkin flavor, but it was the law of the land that pumpkin flavor must be consumed in the fall.

There was a knock at the door and an intern entered.

“Sir, I’m sorry to bother you. But do you remember when we demanded that all social media websites turn over all of the personal information and preferences of their users? Well now they say they are not producing the information.”

“They’re not? I was afraid of this. All right, time for Plan B.”

“Sir, you don’t mean…”

“Oh, yes, I do. House calls.”

The media at first was skeptical of the government’s new program, whereby they sent government agents to canvass the neighbors, door to door, asking the inhabitants for their personal information. Many pundits thought it an intrusion on people’s privacy, while others thought it a patriotic duty and a chance to expose themselves to some new germs.

Analysts on both sides, however, agreed that people would not want to reveal their personal information to an agent of the government who showed up at their doorstop uninvited and in most cases without even a bottle of wine or piece of fancy cheese wrapped up in nice paper.

So they were really surprised by the responses. People provided their names and ages, of course, and their email addresses and phone numbers, and where they like to shop, and what they think about the things that other people’s kids do, versus the things that their own kids do. They asked about music tastes and food tastes and whether they were more likely to choose a table or a booth when offered both at a diner.

The program was so successful and the responses so thorough, that the government turned it into a reality tv show.

“You know, usually I go for the booth. If I’m offered both, I go for the booth.”

“So you’d classify yourself as booth in response to question 19a?”

“Well, now, sometimes I don’t feel like a booth. I gotta be honest, I like booths. But sometimes – I don’t know – I just feel like a table.”

“So would you classify yourself as a hybrid booth/table? There’s a choice for that.”

“Well, you know,” he says with his finger in his mouth, and looking up at the ceiling. “Now that I think about it a little more, I’m not sure if I ever chose a table over a booth when offered both. I think I was thinking of something that happened to my mother. Maybe I really am a booth guy after all.”

In fact, so effective was the government program that the social media websites started offering the government money for the personal data of the citizenry, in hopes of offering content that would attract more viewers. The official answer was no, but then some Congressmen and Senators got into a bit of hot water over selling of personal data to social media companies, and had to do penance by reciting the 80s pop hit single “Safety Dance” a cappella, including all of the instrumental sounds, before every session of Congress.

Remember When Your School Got Its Own Tank?

I’m sure you’ve all heard by now of the school district that obtained an armored vehicle – actually, a Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle or MRAP if you want to impress someone – from the United States military through its Excess Property Program.  The vehicle was free, and the district had to pay just the cost of transportation, which was $3.95 for regular ground, or $5,000 for 2-day express.Tank1

I remember when my school got its first tank, the graduating seniors’ class gift to the school they loved so much.  At the dedication ceremony, the Class President, Class Vice President, and Class Risk Assessment Manager spray painted the sides of the tank with “Woo Hoo Class of Awesome!  To Thine Own Self Be True!”  There was an after-party, mainly for those three people, where they ate pizza and discussed what they were going to do with all their Barron’s review books.

Some concerned parents managed to have the tank classified as dangerous, so the school had to keep it under strict lock and key in the A/V room, along with the televisions on those tall skinny carts.  The School Tank, as it came to be called, was taken out for special events like Homecoming, where the Homecoming King and Queen would ride atop the military vehicle, holding flowers and wearing their crowns, and waving to the crowds in the stands.

The following year, a neighboring school district, a rival in football, basketball, and Monopoly, got its own tank. It was larger and shinier than ours, and at the Memorial Day parade, at which all high schools in the region could march in whatever formation they liked as long as it met federal safety standards, their tank got more cheers from the crowds of parents and siblings.

Over the summer, the school diverted some funds earmarked for social studies books and ordered up another tank. This one was bigger and shinier than even the tank that our rival had obtained. Next to our first tank, it was a giant. We started calling them Big Tank and Little Tank. At lunchtime now, the school paraded the two tanks, sometimes Big leading, sometimes Little, around the track. All students could look out the window and see the two tanks parading.  The tanks were driven by students, and for some reason this job attracted the same students who were in charge of the audio/visual technology.

At the Memorial Day Parade, Big Tank and Little Tank rolled down our town’s main thoroughfare in triumph. Parents and siblings cheered loudly and the day appeared to be ours. But then a sound…a buzzing chop-chop sound filled the air and all were quiet.

And then we saw it. A helicopter with a bad drawing of a wildcat – the mascot of our rival school – spray painted on the side.  The tank was rolling on the street, directly underneath the helicopter, with balloons floating from the nozzle of the gun.

This was absolutely the last straw. Classes were cancelled for a week while school officials sold books and some desks where the chair and desk are fused together to get another military vehicle. As we sat at home and wished we could be back in English class reading Wuthering Heights, we speculated on what the new vehicle would be. What could be more impressive than a helicopter?

The Warren G. Harding High School Air Craft Carrier was delivered via overnight courier. Since our physical school building was not that near the water, we had to be relocated to a coastal town on the bay. It was a lot windier but we didn’t get as much snow.

One night our radar caught a few blips off the coast of Madagascar. Our commanding officer, who was also the official wearer of the school mascot costume at home football games, ordered our battleship and guided missile cruiser – gifts of the National Honor Society and Future Business Leaders of America, respectively – in for a closer look.

“Identify yourselves,” Kevin said into the microphone, which no one except him seemed to know was not connected to the unknown ships.  “Prepare the guns,” he said to the crew, who were making posters for a pep rally. “This could get ugly.”

Our ships were moved into position and guns aimed. Now we were worried about the math test in third period and the possibility of war.

“Man the cannon!” Kevin said. “Ready, aim…”

“Wait! Wait!” said the Class Gluten-Free Bake Sale Coordinator. “What’s that on the side of the ships? I think it says…Go Wildcats?”

Yes, it was our dear rivals from the neighboring town. Looks like they had obtained for themselves a navy. Had it not been for the unsteady block printing and pathetic drawing of a wildcat on the sides of the ships, we would have launched on them and probably have had to make up our math test.  The near risk of war marked a turning point in the relationship of our schools, and I can safely say that today we are not rivals but allies.

Editor’s Note:  It turns out that the San Diego School District has returned the armored vehicle.  I hope they kept the receipt.