About unlikelyprofessor

Now 50 years old, I've been teaching in some respect since I was 18 years old. I now teach history classes at 2- and 4-year colleges, have retired from a 35-year career in rock bands, have 2 kids born 11 years apart, love to read sci-fi, ride motorcycles whenever I can, and am saving up for an epic journey to New Zealand and Australia.

Millennials aren’t killing the manual transmission – car makers are

We keep throwing around this whole “Millennials are killing” this and that, gnashing teeth, tearing hair, etc. What is it that’s really going on? Is it a fear of losing what we are comfortable with? Or a fear of progress?

When it comes to cars, though, it’s not Millennials killing off the stick shift. It’s the car makers themselves, working hard to fill our passenger vehicles with infotainment systems, climate control systems, heated and air-conditioned seats, lane assist, smart cruise control, side curtain airbags and every other safety feature and creature comfort known to man.

There just isn’t room left for the manual transmission in our head.  If we have to steer, look at the touch screen, talk on the phone, turn on our seat, and manage the kids in the back, there’s just no brain power left to shift gears too.

blur car car interior chrome

Photo by Scott Webb on Pexels.com

We have brought this upon ourselves by insisting ever more stridently that cars become little mobile homes on wheels.  We want every accommodation known to man or woman in our car – and that’s what is killing off the manual transmission.

Give Millennials a break, or at least blame them for what they’re really killing off – the old ways.

why taylor swift is re-recording her first six albums

I have to admit I don’t pay the most attention to Taylor Swift. I’ve never cared for her music, even when it was country-ish. Now that it’s pop-ish, I like it even less. I always respected her for having a hand in writing many of her songs, though, because it means she’s not just some pretty little singer, belting out whatever her producers tell her to so they can all make money.

No, she makes her money the old-fashioned way – writing songs, making albums, touring, etc. Like a real musician.

taylor-swift

Earlier this summer, a man called Scooter Braun bought Big Machine Records, the home of Swift’s first six albums. She was not happy about that deal, because it gave Braun control over the majority of her back catalog and a huge number of her hits.

The Braun deal for Big Machine pissed Swift off, not just because Big Machine offered her an insulting deal if she re-signed with them that would have allowed her to recover her first six albums’ masters one at a time as she recorded new albums for Big Machine, but because Swift has accused of Braun of bullying, rude and even unethical actions towards her. Suffice it to say Swift is unhappy Braun is set to continue profiting off her work.

The solution? She’s going to re-record her first six albums for her new label, Universal Music Group. What happens after that is this:

  • UMG will issue new recordings of Swift’s greatest hits to radio stations across the country, and threaten to pull all UMG artists from the station unless they agree to only play the new versions.
  • UMG will only issue new licensing agreements to film and TV projects that agree to use the new versions.
  • Every re-recorded album release will be accompanied by much hue & cry in the marketing world, with UMG (and probably Swift, too) encouraging her fans to buy copies of the new albums, which will no doubt come with bonus material such as extra songs (previously unreleased demos, remixes, whatever) as incentive.

From there, UMG and Swift will be making more money off her re-recorded hits than Big Machine is off the original versions. UMG is bigger and more powerful than Big Machine could ever hope to be, and everybody will quickly fall in line behind UMG’s demands. Scooter Braun’s purchase of Big Machine will not end up being the windfall he thought it would be, and it will remain to be seen if he ever recoups the $320 million he spent on Swift’s former label.

Music is music, but music is also business. Crossing Swift in the music business world is probably not the smartest move anybody could make. She has enough influence in the music business that she was able to force UMG into agreeing to pay Spotify royalties to all its artists – not just her. Read that again. ALL OF THE ARTISTS ON UMG get Spotify royalties now thanks to Swift’s contract with UMG.

Swift is not the first and won’t be the last artist to re-record music after switching labels or booting key band members.  Styx did it, Suicidal Tendencies did it, Squeeze, Def Leppard, ELO (aka Jeff Lynne), Dave Mustaine (as MD.45), Ozzy Osbourne (with the specific intention of pushing out Bob Daisley & Lee Kerslake’s contributions so they wouldn’t get any more money from albums sales), and more. In the case of Styx and Squeeze, they re-recorded all their big hits, then forced radio stations to stop playing the original recordings in favor of the new ones.

Like I said – music is music, but music is also business.

car myths last forever, apparently

Between Facebook and a non-technical employee at my (formerly?) favorite auto mechanic’s shop, I encountered two myths related to car repair I feel MUST be busted right here and right now.

1) Changing your transmission fluid will break or damage your transmission.
2) Brake calipers must be replaced in pairs.

Let’s take that second one first.

Brake-caliper-sticking

Brake disc and caliper photo from CarTreatments.com.

This myth, like many of those which plague motorcycle riders, is based in a car repair truth made obsolete by modern technology. Back in the 1950s and ’60s and even in the 1970s and probably the ’80s to a large extent, yes, you did need to replace your brake calipers in pairs most of the time. If one went bad, chances are the other one wasn’t far behind it, but more importantly, the braking system internals worked at their absolute best when the calipers operated at the same level. When your safety in 1962 relies on the performance of your brake calipers, you replace them in pairs.

However.

People … it’s 2019.  Braking systems are so advanced now they could probably control a moon landing. ABS systems are incredibly technologically sophisticated, and they adapt to the condition of the calipers on the fly, making hundreds (if not thousands) of adjustments a second as you mash the brake pedal in a panic stop.

In other words, your modern car can handle mismatched caliper operation better than you can possibly imagine. Replace the one broken caliper and get on with your life. The caliper opposite the broken one should be inspected for smooth operation, cleaned and adjusted if necessary, and if you’re really concerned about how your brakes function, flush, fill and bleed the entire braking system from stem to stern. Frankly, if you’d done that once a year anyway, your one bad caliper probably wouldn’t have failed in the first place.

On to the transmission fluid myth.

transmission

Transmission illustration from mckaysauto.com.

I went to my auto mechanic for an oil change this morning, and while I was there I queried the clerk at the desk about having my transmission fluid changed at my next oil change interval.

“Oh, you shouldn’t do that,” they said. “That will break your transmission.”

I want to point out that the person who said this to me was not a mechanic, but an office worker. I’m sure they’ve been exposed to a lot of information in the time they’ve been working there, but this is one myth that needs busted immediately, if not sooner.

Replacing the oil in your transmission – and that’s what “transmission fluid” is, oil – DOES NOT BREAK OR DAMAGE YOUR TRANSMISSION IN ANY WAY. PERIOD.

What damages your automatic transmission is the tens of thousands of miles you’ve driven it without having the transmission serviced. Oil in any closed system is supposed to do two things: lubricate moving parts and cool those same moving parts. That’s it. That’s oil’s whole job in the context of your motor vehicle.

You change the oil (and filter) for your engine every 5,000 or 10,000 miles (PS stop changing it every 3,000 miles – that frequency is another old practice that was once necessary but is no longer and has become a widely propagated myth). You do this to ensure long life and peak performance from your engine.

Why wouldn’t you do the same thing for your transmission?

If your vehicle’s manufacturer doesn’t publish a recommended transmission oil change interval, take it upon yourself to have your transmission serviced every 15,000 or 20,000 miles. Just do it. Your transmission will thank you. For what it’s worth, I change the transmission oil in my dry-clutch BMW motorcycles every 10,000 miles.

(PS There are two ways to change your transmission oil – a simple drain & fill and a more thorough flush & fill. The drain & fill only replaces about half of the oil, because the rest is inside the torque converter. If you do this, you’ll have to do two or three drain & fills to get most of the oil swapped for fresh. A flush & fill uses specialized tools mechanics have to force new fluid in and old fluid out of every nook and cranny, including the torque converter. Costs more as a one-time thing, but probably the same as doing 2-3 drain & fills, so you come out even if you’re doing it right.)

The reason the myth “changing your transmission oil breaks your transmission” persists is because people don’t change their transmission oil. They leave it in there for 100,000 miles, then panic and change it. The thing is … the transmission is already damaged, you just don’t know it yet.  Imagine what your engine would look like inside if you left the same oil in there for 100,000 miles, how damaged it would be.

Oils used in most passenger vehicles have detergents and other additives in it that, when fresh, will literally clean out the inside of your engine (or transmission). The filter catches much of those substances, and with regular changes, those contaminants are removed from the system. Only problem is you haven’t been changing your transmission oil – let alone the transmission oil filter.

That’s right – there’s a filter in there. It’s probably been clogged with goo for 30,000 miles or more, so the goo goes elsewhere in the transmission, sitting there all sludgy until you finally have your transmission serviced… which is when that sludge is broken loose and becomes free to clog or stick to parts of the transmission it’s not supposed to – and thus adversely affecting the performance of your transmission, which you then think is broken. The truth is, your transmission was going to break sooner or later. Changing the fluid just tipped the scale towards sooner – and it’s your fault, because you never had it changed!

(Here’s a skippable explanation of why: As the transmission fluid breaks down, it loses its lubrication capabilities. As that happens, the metal parts in the transmission wear, releasing bits of metal, which stay suspended in the fluid. The discs in the clutch pack will actually use those bits of metal to assist friction – so when you take away the contaminated fluid that’s been helping the clutch discs stick together and replace it with clean, fresh fluid that lubricates properly, yeah, your transmission will slip.)

2003-2006_Honda_Element_--_08-28-2011

Photo of Honda Element used under IFCAR [public domain] via Wikimedia Commons.

(I didn’t have time or the inclination, frankly, to tell the shop clerk my little van (Honda Element) has a manual transmission, which means it contains gear oil, not standard transmission fluid – and there’s no filter, either. Gear oil is different than transmission oil – has a different purpose, different composition, etc.)

If you don’t want your transmission to die simply because you have the fluid changed, then take care of your transmission just like you take care of your engine. For me, I change the engine oil every 5,000 miles. The automatic transmissions in my household get their oil changed every 20,000 miles, or every fourth oil change (unless the manufacturer has a specified interval). I do this primarily because I almost exclusively buy used cars, and chances are the previous owner didn’t have the transmission serviced regularly; it’s up to me to try to stave off failure by keeping the transmission running at peak efficiency.

(My manual transmissions get fresh fluid every 50,000 miles (Honda’s spec is 90,000 for “normal driving” and 30,000 for vehicles operated in harsh conditions or used for towing. I tow motorcycles on a somewhat regular basis and often sit in traffic, so I hedge towards the short end of their timeline.)

Don’t buy into the hype of the “sealed transmission” many manufacturers tout these days. “Lifetime fluid” is no such thing if you plan to drive a car for several hundred thousand miles. Sealed transmissions should have their fluid changed at 80,000 or 100,000 miles – granted, that is the lifetime of some vehicles.

Anyway, changing the fluid causing your transmission to break is a myth. Don’t believe it. Have your transmission serviced regularly and you won’t have any reason to buy into this particular myth.

(For a visual explanation – complete with a disassembled transmission – of this issue and a reinforcement of the mythological status of “changing the transmission fluid broke my transmission,” check out Chris Fix’s video “Can Changing your Transmission Fluid Cause Damage?” on the YouTube.)

Happy driving!

Rudy, Rudy, Rudy!

TL;DR version: Russia won the 2016 election, Trump is not going to be impeached, Rudy Giuliani is an idiot.

Here’s the thing I don’t like about Rudy Giuliani:  He says stupid shit and expects us to agree with him. Sometimes it’s not even the stupid shit he says, it’s the way he says it, like he’s sooooo smart and we’re sooooo stupid and if we’d just sit back and smile, we’d realize he’s sooooo smart and then everything will be all right.

What Rudy fails to grasp in this situation – and in case you’re just coming out from under your rock, I’m talking about his discussion with CNN’s Jake Tapper about the Mueller Report that went something like this, and I’m paraphrasing a bit:

There’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians… Any candidate in the world would take information… Who says it’s even illegal to get dirt on political enemies from foreign powers? I probably wouldn’t have done it, and I would have advised against it, but it ain’t illegal. Next question.

I’d like to take a moment to remind you that Rudy is Donald Trump’s lawyer, and of course Donald is the president of the USA.

OK let’s look at what’s in the Mueller Report real quick.  Mueller determined that Russian hackers, in some kind of officially sanctioned action, broke into Hillary Clinton’s email server(s) and extracted thousands of emails.  Most were boring shit like who was donating money and which staffer was tasked with picking up Hillary’s dry cleaning, but some of them had juicy stuff in them – discussions about political rivals, campaign plans, etc.  Stuff any political opponent would cut off his remaining testicle to get ahold of.

Said Russians, working on behalf of said Russian government, then provided these emails to various third parties, including Wikileaks and, apparently, the Trump campaign.

You can tell Rudy either was never a criminal attorney or if he was, he sucked at that job. It’s black-letter law that accepting the proceeds of a crime makes you guilty of receiving stolen property, itself a felony almost anywhere in the country.

There is no magic place in the world where hacking somebody’s email server isn’t a crime, so possessing email data retrieved in a hack is an actual, tangible crime.  Possessing it AND lying about possessing it compounds that, and then trying to cover up that you possessed it and lied about it is some logarithmic pile-on shitheap felonization of the political process.

Let’s step back a second though and say … ok, it’s not a crime to possess something stolen from somebody else.  We’ll just snap our fingers, but instead of wiping out half the life in the universe, we’ll make possessing stolen property not a crime anywhere in the world.

It’s still heavily, dearly and absolutely fucking immoral.

Compound that by KNOWING the stolen data came from an avowed enemy of the American people and you have a massive moral failure on the part of the Trump campaign.

Rudy is therefore wrong.  There may be nothing illegal about taking dirt on Hillary dug up by Russian hackers at the behest of the Russian government, but it certainly, surely and absolutely is WRONG to do so.  We all know this. You know we all know this.  Apparently the only person who doesn’t know this is Rudy Giuliani, a fucking New York lawyer.

People – well, Democrats – are now saying they’re going to impeach Donald.  No, they’re not.  They may start impeachment proceedings – that is the prerogative of the House of Representatives – but a “super majority” (i.e. 2/3rds) of BOTH CHAMBERS OF CONGRESS have to vote to convict in an impeachment proceeding, and we all know the Senate, filled as it is with boot-licking Republicans, is never going to support impeachment proceedings against Donald. It’s just not going to happen.  The Democrats calling for impeachment are delusional, and the ones on the sidelines not telling them to shut the fuck up are just as bad as the Republicans who will vote against impeachment just because their party says they have to.

Donald Trump is not going to be impeached.  Get over it. Move on.

The thing most people are glossing over here is the actual outcome of the 2016 presidential election.  You probably think Donald won and Hillary lost. In actuality, Russia won and the citizens of the United States lost.

White houseRussia is our enemy, of that there should be no equivocation.  They succeeded beyond their wildest dreams in sowing discord, chaos, disharmony, hatred and divisiveness deeply into our society and they are reaping the rewards.

This has nothing to do with Donald’s suitability for office.  Whether he’s good at the job or not is immaterial.  The fact is Russia wanted him in office because they knew he would be more disruptive to the US than anything they could have actively done themselves.  Russia basically gained four years of unfettered access to the globe with little possibility of repercussions.  Then they’ll enjoy at least another 10 to 20 years of heightened influence as the US tries (and I’ll bet largely fails) to rebuild its reputation around the world.

I think deep down we know it, too, and because we hate losers so much, we’re now stuck in a downward spiral of self-loathing.  No empire lasts forever, and it truly sucks when you come to the realization that you live in one that’s dying.

understanding tariffs and how they work

Tariffs have been big news lately, part of the news cycle that overhypes everything Trump-related for the glory of clicks and views. It’s a little crazy, and it’s a bit hard to understand everything related to tariffs, so I’m here to give you a little basic info.

A tariff is a tax, that’s the bottom line. Tariffs are levied by governments, which is why they are a type of tax, and they are levied specifically on goods of one sort or another.  Traditionally, tariffs are levied on imported goods, that is, items made outside the United States and brought into the country to be sold to Americans for fun and profit.  Another word for a tariff is a duty; while the two words have slightly different connotations when it comes to imported goods, we use them as equivalents for each other. I’ll be using tariff throughout this post.

(You can read another post I wrote about tariffs, “protective tariffs, motorcycles and the beef lobby.”)

The first tariff in US history came from the Tariff Act of 1789, and indeed it was the first law of any sort passed by the new government established by the US Constitution (also created in 1789).  The new US government needed to not just boost, but create an economy that would sustain its efforts, and they still (to a certain extent) held a grudge against England.  It’s no joke that England was an economic powerhouse in the late 18th century – the British Empire legit ruled most of the world at that point.  However, the new US government found itself needing to promote business and manufacturing at home, so that’s where the impetus for the Tariff Act of 1789 came from.

The US and UK signed a treaty in 1783 that ended the American Revolution; one of the aspects of that treaty allowed the British unfettered navigation of the Mississippi River.  This greatly benefitted the British, but did not benefit the Americans much.  The British pushed the favor by passing the Navigation Acts (in 1783), which forced non-British ships – especially American ones – to pay heavy duties (i.e. taxes) when they offloaded their goods in British ports.  The Brits followed this law up with two others that further restricted American goods getting into British hands, so the Tariff Act of 1789 was in part a retaliation against this sequence of laws enacted by the British Parliament.

The Tariff Act of 1789 required foreign ships offloading goods in US ports to pay 50 cents per ton, while US-registered ships paid just 6 cents per ton.

Here’s an easy way to understand the situation.  Let’s say you make sails, and you charge $5 for a ton of sails.  You can sell your sails in America for $6 a ton and do well.  If you make your sails in England, and ship them to the United States, your distributor/importer has to pay $6.50 for one ton of sails.  If you make sails in the US (and transport them via ship), your distributor has to pay $6.06 for their ton of sails.

boat-classic-clouds-173910There’s the kicker, then. If you, as the distributor, sell both US- and UK-made sails, you can sell them to retailers at the same price, $7 a ton.  If you do that, you make just 50 cents on the UK-made sails, while raking in 94 cents on the US-made sails.

Let’s take it a step further, though, because what retailer makes just 50 cents on something?  No, as the retailer, you’re going to sell your UK-made sails for $10 a ton. This ups your profit to $3.50 a ton, but you can justify that higher price because those sails are made in England, and of course everybody knows British ships are awesome and they have been ruling the oceans for decades, so UK-made sails command a premium for their real or perceived quality difference over US-made sails.  Raising the price of the imported sails enables you to absorb the cost of the tariff.  Get this, though – everybody knows there’s a 50 cents-per-ton tariff on UK-made sails, so you can charge $10.50 per ton and now you’re making $4 per ton in profit without anybody complaining, because they know that 50 cents is going to the government, which of course is protecting you and American business/industry.

Jump back and look at the US-made sails, though.  Sure, they’re slightly inferior quality to the premium UK-made sails, but ships gotta have sails, right?  Instead of selling them for $7 a ton, you can sell them for $8 a ton, which gives people the impression they’re still getting a deal over the UK-made sails, but now you’ve upped your profit to $1.94 per ton, and because of the $2 per ton price difference, you’re likely to sell more US-made sails than UK-made ones, which improves your overall bottom line.  You can even up the price to $8.50 a ton, which still keeps them $2/ton below the cost of the UK-made sails (profit now $2.44/ton). You can safely buy fewer tons of UK-made sails, knowing you’ll sell more US-made ones at the now artificially higher price.  Plus you can feel good for supporting US industry!

There’s some lessons in there to unpack.

  1.  Tariffs are taxes charged to import goods into a country.
  2.  Tariffs can be absorbed by the importer or passed on to the consumer.
  3.  Because tariffs artificially raise the price of imported goods, domestic goods can be priced high and still look like a bargain to the consumer.

Think about this, though: What distributor in their right mind is going to eat the cost of the tariff?  That’s not good business, especially if your margins are razor-thin, like they are for many goods.  We’re talking mere cents of profit, with businesses relying on volume to really make money.  Wouldn’t you, a smart business owner in a capitalist economy, pass the cost of the tariff straight on to your customer?  Yes, you would, because you need to maintain your margins for your business to succeed.  You were already selling your goods for as low a price as you could, so you can’t really absorb the cost of the tariff.  The importer passes it on to the distributor, the distributor passes it on to the retailer, the retailer passes it on to the consumer.

Thus, the most important lesson of all: THE CONSUMER PAYS THE TARIFF.

This is not unique to the United States.  European consumers pay their tariff costs, Chinese consumers pay their tariff costs, Indian consumers pay their tariff costs and so on, just like American consumers do.

You might be wondering who benefits from higher tariffs, or really from tariffs at all. The government levying the tax is who benefits.  They collect the tariff up front at the ports.  They collect taxes on the money made by the distributor, the wholesaler and the retailer.  They then collect a sales tax when the consumer buys the product.  The government benefits every step of the way from tariffs, and that, my friends, is the whole reason tariffs exist in the first place – no matter where you live, no matter what form of government you are under and no matter what types of goods you’re buying.

Remember that.

cash-coins-currency-40140

done with the state of the union address

Once upon a time, I was a rabid football fan. I spent nearly every weekend holed up here or there, ingesting endless hours of college and pro football to the point where I knew the names of some of the key players’ wives and mothers just from hearing them so much.
podiumThen one day, the NFL players started complaining about how they were being treated and their pay rates. I read article after article about the issue and discovered I gave absolutely zero fucks about how bad these players who were being paid millions of dollars a year to play a game – granted, a brutal and punishing game – felt they were being treated by team owners and the league.

I believe everybody should be paid a fair wage for the work they do, and playing in the NFL is definitely work, so don’t get me wrong – these guys SHOULD be paid. I had to take a hard look at what my fanaticism said about me, though, and I decided that supporting that many millionaires with my time, effort and loyalty was unwarranted.  I gave up the NFL and focused on college ball.

Not long after that – maybe a couple of years – I started paying attention to how much college players are exploited by the NCAA sports-industrial complex, which essentially commoditizes young men and turns them into entertainment revenue without truly compensating them. Sure, they get a college education, but if you want to know how that works, you should take a look at NCAA Division I football graduation rates.  Without getting too much into it, the NCAA basically functions as a feeder league for the NFL and since I gave up the NFL, I felt like a hypocrite for continuing to support the NFL by being an NCAA football consumer.

What I noticed after walking away from NCAA football is how much free time I had on the weekends.  It was amazing.  Watching football had become the equivalent of a part-time weekend job for me, and bailing on it gave me time to do numerous rewarding things with my life, like spend time with my family, play music and ride motorcycles.  I haven’t watched the Super Bowl in close to 10 years and haven’t seen an NCAA bowl game in at least 8 – don’t even get me started on the NCAA’s “playoff” system.

I told you all that to tell you this: I’m walking away from the State of the Union address.

For the last 6 or 8 years or so, I haven’t been watching the SOTU because I haven’t had cable TV and am not interested in sitting in front of my computer to stream this annual event.  I satisfied myself by poring over transcripts of the address, as well as the enemy – er, opposite party’s retribution – um, I mean rebuttal – and basing my analysis on WHAT was said rather than HOW THEY SAID IT.  I felt removing the viewable event aspect of the SOTU helped me better understand what was being said without bias derived from facial expressions, hand movements, etc.

That’s over as well now.  Not SOTU for me, no more. It’s not that I don’t care about the country or our politics, because I do.  Rather, it’s that the SOTU has slowly become political theater, an opportunity for the president to grandstand, pontificate, bloviate, obfuscate and outright lie to the American public.  You might think because of the timing that I’m talking about Trump, and while I am, it’s not just him.  Trump is just the latest, worst offender when it comes to the SOTU.  Obama, both Bushes, Clinton, even Reagan all used the SOTU podium in a joint session of Congress to deliver a cheerleading chant rather than a substantive, thoughtful statement on the progress being made by and challenges to our society and its grand democratic experiment.

Add to that the opposite party’s “rebuttal” that follows directly on the SOTU’s heels and you have more political theater.  The other party isn’t listening to respond, they’re just waiting for their turn to say “NO – THAT IS ALL WRONG!” and do the same thing the president has done – bloviate, pontificate, obfuscate and lie to the American public.

From 2019 on, then, I will not be putting any of my time or attention into watching, listening to, reading, reading about or discussing the State of the Union address.  Instead I will pay attention to political events and issues that actually matter, that can serve to have some positive effect on our society and give us the opportunity to learn and grow rather than just listen to partisan rhetoric that gets nothing done and takes us nowhere.

unpacking the state of the union address

Everybody’s in a tizzle over Nancy Pelosi disinviting the president from delivering the traditional State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.  Then everybody got in a tizzle over Donald Trump just cancelling the whole thing instead of finding another venue from which to deliver the speech.

If you ask me, it’s all more examples of Donny and The Nance acting like children instead of leaders, but that’s a discussion for another time.

This whole the president delivering a speech in front of a joint session of Congress thing is a tradition, anyway, not law.  George Washington addressed Congress, as did John Adams, but Thomas Jefferson said fuck that noise and sent his update to Congress in the form of a hand-written letter. Seems Jefferson felt the whole ritual smacked too much of what the kings of England used to do, so he ditched it.  Once the speeches started back up, they weren’t even called State of the Union addresses until Franklin Roosevelt started calling them that during the Great Depression. The name is catchy and it stuck.

For about 100 years after Jefferson ditched the speeches, presidents submitted written updates to Congress, not giving speeches at all.  That changed in 1913, when Woodrow Wilson gave his speech before Congress.  This was a big deal, not because Wilson was addressing Congress, but because everybody could see Europe headed towards war and Wilson wanted to push his agenda of neutrality.

The reality of the situation is this: the US Constitution requires the president to inform Congress “from time to time” about the state of the union.  Bottom line is that the president is required to do this, but there is nothing mandating it be an annual update, or even done regularly at all.  Congress has to agree to allow the president to give a speech to both chambers – aka a “joint session” – and that’s where we are.

Congress doesn’t have to allow the president to give the speech in their building, and the president doesn’t have to give a speech, let alone even submit an update to Congress on anything resembling a regular schedule.  Those two things – the speech part and the annual part – are simple traditions established by previous presidents and Congresses.  Sometimes there are even two updates given – one by an outgoing president at the end of his term and another by the incoming president at the start of his.

Some interesting facts for you – Jimmy Carter was the last president to submit only a written update, in 1981; Warren Harding delivered the first update broadcast on radio, in 1922; Harry Truman delivered the first update broadcast on television, in 1947; post-address commentary was added to the television broadcast for the first time in 1968 – Lyndon Johnson was president then; Bill Clinton delivered the first update streamed live on the internet, in 1997; the first response to the update given in Spanish was done by Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM) in 2004; only one scheduled update has been postponed so far – Ronald Reagan pushed back his 1986 update due to the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger; only one scheduled update has so far been indefinitely postponed* – Donald Trump did this in 2019.

* This was initially written as “cancelled,” but Trump’s 2019 address has not been cancelled, but rather postponed indefinitely.