Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Our Dog, Zed

Zed is our 11 year old Yorkshire Terrier. His full name is Zed of Woods End. Woods End is a place in West Virginia near Timberline Four Season's Resort where we have owned a vacation home since before we got Zed. It is one of his favorite places because, unlike our Charlotte neighborhood, he can run free here without too much chance of being hit by a car. Zed is very sick right now. He has been diagnosed with complete, or nearly complete, kidney failure and we have been watching him for the last month or so as he loses weight, appetite and interest in almost anything. Last weekend we had contemplated euthanasia. But on Monday morning he woke up closer to his normal self and was so good that we decided to bring him with us to West Virginia for what might be his last week up here. There must be something in the air in West Virginia. I know I have always felt happy and relaxed here but I put that down to the scenery, the golf, the skiing, the good times with friends, etc. As soon as we arrived after a really easy trip that Zed had no trouble with, he was running around, barking at everything that smelled or moved and in short being his old self. He gobbled down dinner like he hadn't eaten in a week. And, truthfully, he hadn't eaten much in the last week. Yesterday he kept running between the couch where he sleeps and the back door where he stands to bark until we let him out so he can bark some more and then come back in to sleep again. He went on walks, off leash, checking out smells he hadn't smelled in months (I'm not sure when he was here the last time). In general, except for the extra sleeping he was pretty close to normal. I don't know how long the West Virginia effect will last but we are both really glad we decided to bring him up here. It gives us a few more days of "good old Zed" and it seems to be good for him too. He still isn't eating much and he still sleeps a lot but he doesn't appear to be in pain or other distress. We know that when we leave on Sunday or Monday we won't be back until probably Memorial Day and it is unlikely that Zed will be with us, barring a miracle, by then. But we will have had this week with Zed and all his barking and running and kisses. And that is something that I would not trade for anything!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Unemployment Insurance in North Carolina

Well, it finally happened to me. After 45 years of working I got laid off. It happened in October and with very little notice. I was not prepared. However, every cloud has a silver lining and this one had a few. First, my old firm contracted with me to finish the projects I was working on when I got laid off. So, I had steady work until Thanksgiving. Then, since no one hires anyone in December I decided to use that month to rest and recuperate and prepare for 2014. We restarted the Loudoun Consulting website, got new business cards and updated resumes. And, we spent a week in the Bahamas and a week skiing in West Virginia and some travel to various family members to round out the Holidays. I also signed up for unemployment. Something I had never done. In North Carolina it is very easy to do. There's a website. Answer some questions, keep track of where you are applying and every week submit a form that says you are still unemployed. The trick is, unless you have a ton of savings you cannot live on the unemployment insurance weekly stipend. The maximum number is $350 per week before taxes. The maximum time you can draw is 20 weeks. Total $7000 and then I guess you rob banks! I'm not sure how the numbers were arrived at but I do know that NC owes the Federal government a ton of money that they had to borrow when unemployment was at its peak. The state raised the premium it charges business and lowered the benefit with the goal of reducing that debt. And then they spend the rest of the time explaining that by doing this it will encourage people to get off unemployment (well that is definitely true!) and perhaps take a job that is less than ideal. I ended up thinking of my unemployment payment as "mad money". I mean it didn't cover a car payment or my utilities. We could pay for groceries with it. Without savings, I'm not sure what would have happened. Certainly we would not have been able to make house payments, credit card payments, car payments, insurance payments. I worked very hard to find a new position and I was very fortunate in that I secured a new consulting job after 10 weeks. But if I had been looking for a full time job I would still be looking. I also happen to work in a field where my specialty is in demand. I'm happy to be a consultant / contractor. The new job I have is for 18 months and then I will need to repeat the process. But, I will know that my 18 months are up and be able to plan for the that event. Maybe one more and then I can retire. What about people who aren't as prepared? How does someone with kids in college deal with this situation? Why have we as a nation decided that people who aren't working are lazy? Why do we begrudge giving a helping hand to those who got stuck in an economy not of their making? If we don't give people a helping hand when they need it, what are they supposed to do? People should not have to give up their lifestyle or go on welfare or pull kids out of school or have their credit ruined because they get laid off - unless they got laid off for stealing! You know, 150 years ago if a family was in trouble, people would come together and help each other until that family was back on its feet. We were a smaller nation and the numbers weren't so large and it wasn't as hard to do. Now, we need government to act as the honest broker and we seem to be convinced that our government cannot do anything right because its too big or wasteful. Well, guess what? Our government is us! It's not a machine. Its people just like you and me who are trying to do the right thing for the most part. Whether its unemployment insurance, health insurance or our military, the government has to be that honest broker. But - we as a nation have to make a decision on how we are going to treat our friends and neighbors who fall on hard times. Do we help them with meaningful support until they are back on their feet or do we just go through the motions?

Sunday, February 12, 2012

D is for Democracy

In this election season (which seems to get longer and longer each cycle) I have been thinking about all the stuff we hear from the candidates as they vie for our votes. As I reflect on the vast gulf that divides our country (frankly the views of the candidates are literally 180 degrees apart) it occurs to me that what makes our country unique or nearly unique, among the countries of the world is that we can have this kind of discussion every 2 years and still survive as a country.

Think about the places we read about in the Mideast as the "Arab Spring" unfolded. People rose up and demanded change and had to fight their governments to get it. And now, after that bloodshed, there are some of those countries discovering that they simply traded one tyrant for another. In our country, whether Obama wins re-election or a Republican takes over, the country will survive. There won't be riots in the streets and the Army won't be called out to put down rebellion.

I guess the miracle of Democracy is that when a people really embrace it, even when they don't get their way they can still live in peace. They may continue to try to convince the majority that their views or ideas are better, but it is done in the context of a discussion - not rebellion. Clearly in today's hyper-charged political environment the down side is that neither of the major parties have enough votes to advance their agenda. Both sides have enough to stop the other so literally very litte of substance is getting accomplished. However, eventually, that will change. People will tire of the bickering and choose a side that the majority thinks has the right ideas. This year may be that year. If the Republicans select a very conservative candidate to go up against a pretty liberal President there will be a clear choice. The role of the government is in the balance. Should the government lead the way in setting up programs that protect the weakest among us or should it play a role that minimizes interaction with people?

One side would have us believe that government is evil. The other side that government has to set the rules or else greed will rule. As in most things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately of late, we don't elect people in the middle.

Maybe this year?

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Like most people, I have been following the Republican Primary Process very closely. As an independent voter with a distinct leaning towards Democrats I have been sort of reassured by the inability of the GOP to put any credible candidate out there for us to look at as an alternative to the President. Don't get me wrong, I am not unhappy with President Obama. I happen to be a great fan of the AHCA (aka "Obamacare") and you can read why in my last blog (H).

What startles me the most is that the field that has been running is so bad. Aside from Romney who I firmly beleive is a moderate who just says he is a conservative because he has to in order to get those votes, there is not a credible candidate. Let's review:

Herman Cain - Exciting guy with no experience in politics (you really have to have some) who, it turns out has a whole cemetary full of skeltons in his closet. Did he really think no one would find out? BTW, I don't think that past mistakes are necessarily a disqualifier - lying about them is and not learning from them is fatal.

Michelle Bachman - For a while she was called Sarah Palin with a brain. She seems to be well educated but again her experience is really very limited and the fact that she is "the social conservative" in the race does not qualify her for the Presidency. What does "social conservative" even mean? She goes to church? Is God-fearing? Or is it code for "let's cut the budget on social programs designed to help the weakest among us?"

Rick Santorum - Another "social conservative" Rick wasn't even able to keep his seat in the Senate.

Ron Paul - So here is a guy who has some good ideas (let's quit fighting wars that don't have anything to do with us) and then some nutty ones (eliminate the Fed, cut the government by a third in year 1). Frankly, when our country had 13 states we could get by with a limited Federal government. In the 21st Century that just is not the case. We cannot have vast differences in services or standards because Alabama doesn't value education as much as New York or Mississippi can't afford the same unemployment benefits as New Jersey. Corporations have proven over time that given the opportunity they will lie, cheat and steal to make money.

John Huntsman - Probably the best qualified guy in the GOP field and a decent man. But he is not willing to "say anything" to get elected. As a result he is in the margins.

Newt Gingrich - Here is a man who, when he was Speaker, decided that he would block anything that Clinton tried to do (sound familiar?). The difference was that Clinton didn't blink and they eventually found ways to do things that they were both able to claim credit for. Then he presides over the impeachment process for the immoral actions of the President all the while doing the same thing himself. I do not get what it is that draws the Republican fringe to these guys but I hope he never adds the mainstream to his following. Oh yeah, let's fire judges we don't like.

Rick Perry - Nice looking guy who is a mile wide and an inch deep on knowledge. I have not heard anything out of his mouth that makes any sense except maybe a flat tax proposal that everyone is talking about anyway but that will never pass because it would increase unemployment by probably 5%!

Mitt Romney - He is a moderate who is trying to convince people he is conservative because they are the part of the GOP who are active in primaries. But, he will also "say anything" to get the nomination.

Based on what they say, there is not a single thing that President Obama has ever done that was good or correct. Extending the SS tax cut is not good because the Congress could only agree on 2 months. That is not his issue - it's theirs. Helping the Libyans gain their freedom because he either did too much or not enough (seriously - there are Republicans that say both of those).

In an interview, Newt Gringrich says that Obamacare is no good. His plan would have people either have insurance or have to post a bond to cover any injury or illness that sent them to an ER for treatment. So, isn't that sort of the same as everyone has insurance or there is a "tax" to cover the same costs? Either way it is an individual mandate.

On every major issue of our time, these people all say essentially the same thing: If there is a weak group out there let's get them. Send the illegal immigrants home. No education for the children of illegal immigrants. No healthcare benefits to illegal immigrants. Now the current rage is state issued voter ID cards to combat voter fraud. When was the last time that voter fraud was a big problem in the US? Incredibly, in SC, they decided that ID cards issued by the State universities are not sufficient to allow you to vote (college kids, hmmm, who do they vote for?) but a license to carry a handgun is. People who have been voting for 60 years (interestingly, mostly black and poor) can not vote anymore until they get their State ID. But wait, you need a birth certificate. Who has that? It's insanity.

I hope and pray that there will come a time again in our country when both parties (and maybe even a third one) will field credible candidates with ideas that have some possibility of working to solve our problems without doing it on the backs of our weakest citizens.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

H - Healthcare in America

On October 28 I had to have shoulder surgery. Outpatient shoulder surgery. I checked in at 10am, they took me in to the room at noon and woke me up around 4pm. I remember nothing from the time they said we are going to give you two .......

I fell down on December 11, 2010 on ice in my driveway in WV walking the dog. I landed hard and knew I was going to be sore. What I didn't realize is that I would be sore for 10 months. I finally decided to get it looked at in July and by September I had an xray and MRI under my belt. By the way, an MRI with Valium is way better than one without! Anyway the doctor said I had a bone that needed to be "trimmed" and we scheduled it for October 28 - the Friday after a long planned annual golf outing. Not a moment too soon as it turns out because by the time the outing was over, I couldn't move my arm.

So, I have a wonderful health insurance plan. I don't know the legal definition of a "Cadillac Plan" but if this is not it then I don't know what it. My wife and I pay less than $300 a month. We have a deductible of about $2500 and a maximum expense in any given year of $7500. Co-payments are normally 10% except for preventive care which has no co-payment.

For the surgey above, I paid $300 for the doctor in advance, $150 for a sling for my arm and $150 to rent an ice machine/shoulder pack - a great idea and worth every cent. When I checked in to the hospital they charged me $200 ( I thought). When my credit card bill came there was a charge not for $200 but $2000! Naturally I called. I mean it is almost Christmas and I had plans for that credit card. Low and behold, I was told that in fact the surgery (not including the surgeon who I had already paid for) was $29,000 and some change. My first comment was "wow, we really do need Obamacare!" Maybe it was my second comment.

So here is my point for all of you who do not think we need some sort of national health insurance plan. If I did not have this great policy and if my credit card could not have handled the $2000 what would happen? As far as I can tell only two choices are possible. Either I don't get fixed or someone else pays. Since this was elective surgery I suspect it would be the former. But what if I had fallen and broken by shoulder or my back or my neck? My insurance would have protected me. What if I didn't have insurance? What if I couldn't pay the premium because I got laid off during this recession? Do I die? Probably not. I'd get a trip to the hospital, get repaired and be given a bill I have no hope to repay when I checked out. That bill would eventually get written off and the next guy to have surgery who has insurance would get a $29,000 bill for 4 hours of service. If any of you don't think that a fair amount of that bill is to cover the losses that a hospital sees everyday from people with no insurance, then you really need to see me about a bridge I have for sale.

Medical costs are insanely high. Part of it is inflation. Part of it is research. Part of it is crazy malpractice insurance rates. Part of it is people who don't pay.

I can't fix inflation and I don't want to stop research. We can fix insanely high judgements for malpractice and we can fix it for people who don't have coverage. If your workplace doesn't offer insurance, then there should be a publically sponsored policy that you can buy into. If you can't afford the rate, we should use tax dollars to help you until you can. At the end of the day, those tax dollars are going to pay one way or the other. It's just a matter of whether its a surprise or not!

Having a way for the government (and I don't care if it is a state or the federal governement as long as the coverage is consistently good) to help provide this need, this basic human right in my opinion, is why we have government in the first place. Why band together and give government the right to raise an Army to defend us if after the war we don't care if our citizens live or die? It makes no sense.

"We the people" are in this together. Some of us have been blessed, or lucky, or worked really hard or all three. Some of us have not. Even if the government subsidizes a basic minimum coverage it won't be great. But it might keep some kid alive. That kid might work really hard and go to college. He might become a doctor and find a cure for cancer and save us so much money the country gets paid back for his health insurance. Or he might become a soldier and save the lives of 50 comrades. Or he might become a Senator and be the guy or girl who leads them out of the partisan abyss be are in and back to leading our country.

Every time I see a homeless person I know that it is just by the grace of God that it isn't me. Sure I worked hard but I was also given opportunities. Some people are not given those opportunities because of where they are from, where they went to school, their color.

My insurance rates went up this year. I don't care. I can afford it and I hope some of the increase is because of the new requirements brought about by the Affordable Health Care Act, aka Obamacare. If one poor kid or mom or grandfather benefits from my increase then it is worth it to me. People in our country used to look after each other. Even the Bible says that we are our brother's keepers. No one can do it alone. Almost everyone needs a hand sometime. Let's not demonize the poor, uneducated, unemployed or homeless. Let's help them. You'd be surprised at what the payback may end up being in the long run.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The New Congress

So, I have no issue with reading the Constitution on the first day of the new Congress. Might be a good idea to do every time to make sure that all of our Members of Congress have heard it at least once. There's a really good article in there about Congress Declaring War. Anyway, I digress.

So the most important thing that had to get done was the Repeal of the "Job Killing Health Care Bill?" The most important thing? In the whole country? And for what? The Senate probably won't even bring it. If they do, it likely won't pass. If it does it will get vetoed. Why not focus on the specific things that they have concerns with, that they might actually be able to get approved? It doesn't make good TV or newpaper copy. I am convinced that the leaders of the Republican Party are just angling for something else. If they were really serious about making a difference I think there would be some more reasonable approaches to problem solving.

For example, one of the AHCA provisions calls for companies to create 1099's for anyone who they pay $600 to during a year. So, that has one purpose - it helps the IRS collect more taxes. Those taxes help to pay for the health care insurance costs. Now, if I earn $600, I owe taxes. If no one reports that I earned $600 there is no way to identify me. Sort of the same issue with cash tips that often go unreported, or the guy who paints your house and gives you a discount for cash. Not a new tax, but better enforcement of existing law. Now, I agree that filling out 1099's is an additional burden on companies. However, I have to think that there might be a way where the creation of a check to a vendor can be made to create a record somewhere so that at the end of the year that 1099 can be generated by some automated tool. I know that I go on line and create W2's each year on the SSA site. It doesn't take too long and I'm sure that someone somewhere is going to develop an application for 1099's. I don't know how much tax revenue that is going to generate, but it seems to me that it is worth looking into.

Anyway, that's just one example. Instead of repealing a law that hasn't even come fully into effect yet (and by doing so, undoing all the parts that have) leave it alone and work on things that are more important. Things that both parties can agree on. Let's see:

1. End the people killing wars in the Middle East. They are costing us a fortune, are never ending and given that we have not declared war on anyone, they seem on the face to be illegal. Honestly, how do you wage war on a disorganized group of anarchists? They are criminals, should be treated like criminals and that's that. Giving them the status of a worthy advasary of the United States and the free world just gives them standing they dont deserve.
2. Fix the economy. I heard an interesting commentary the other day. It goes something like this. If I am a company president who has had to lay off 1000 people in 2008, I have probably figured out how to run the company without those people by 2011. So I am not hiring anyone until my company grows a lot. And that won't happen until people start buying my stuff. And that won't happen without jobs that pay well. Kind of an endless circle. So, figure out what it takes to bring some new jobs to our country. Tax policy comes to mind. That doesn't necessarily mean lowering tax rates. Lowering tax rates means that companies and people get to keep more of their money but it doesn't create a job. But if we had tax policy that said if you add 100 jobs your tax rate goes down, well maybe that would. Or, how about a tax holiday for a company that starts a new division that is making batteries that power cars? Wny not start letting us build nuclear power stations again? Construction jobs, maintenance jobs, operator jobs and it saves oil. If demand for oil goes down then the price of gas might go down. If that happens people have more money. Maybe they will buy something?
3. Use stimulus money the right way. As much as we hate it, we need public works programs. We need the internet to be expanded everywhere. We need bridges rebuilt. We need road expanded. All of these things need people to do them. No stimulus money should be given to any project that doesn't create jobs and if it takes $1,000,000 to create one job, that is the wrong project.

Anyway, there are people smarter than may who should be able to figure this stuff out. Every law that this new Congress passes (or even considers) in addition to the Constitutional Citation should also have a Job's Creation Citation that spells out how this law will create some number of jobs.

Well, that's what I think of the new Congress.

Monday, May 3, 2010

C: Center Right or Center Left?

I had an interesting conversation with a friend the other day. He is very Republican and he thinks I am very Democrat. But we talked about what we agree on which was important because we had been talking, well not really talking, about we didn't agree on.

Here's what we agree on - the deficit is too big. People should have health insurance. (We did not agree on whether it should be mandatory!) Unemployment is too high. We don't like taxes. Financial services should have some regulation.

He says the country should be center-right. I think the country should be center-right. We never defined center-right. Here's what it means to me. I won't try to say what it means to him - I really don't know. It might be the same.

What it means to me is that those people on either extreme are probably wrong about almost everything. On the left its people who think more government is the answer to everything. Center-left is that some govenment is really necessary. They don't think the government has the answer to everything but they do think that government is required for a lot of stuff. Defense. Trade. Regulating industries that left to their own devices would destroy the country for a few extra dollars.

On the right, its the people who say that government can't do anything right and should be as small and powerless as possible. Center-right is that some government is really necessary. They don't think that the government has the answer to everything but they do think that government is required for a lot of stuff.

I think the difference is how do we pay for it. On the left there is not as much angst about a deficit. On the right there is.

For me personally, I think being in the center (or a moderate) means that we feed our hungry, we house the homeless, we protect the weak. If we are center-right we figure out how to pay for it. If we are center-left we don't make the painful choices - we do it all. Wait though - the center-right won't make painful choices either. They want low taxes, a war in the Middle East, minimal government and I don't think they want little kids to starve or be homeless. The center-left wants the rich to pay more taxes and the war in the Middle East to go away.

So I am Center-Right because I think we should balance the budget. But I also think we should have a fair tax system, feed the hungry, house the homeless and take care of the least among us. I think that we only go to war when our national survival is at stake. And only if we declare war like our Constitution requires. War is a state between two countries. This "war" in the Middle East is not a war. It's a money pit. If we weren't there we'd have a lot more money to care for the hungry and homeless and taxes would not have to be raised to do it. Or at least not as much.

My guess is that all the noise that we hear is between the 20% on the far right talking to the 20% on the far left. The 60% (probably split down the middle) in the center (whether right or left)never really get heard. We need to be. They believe that our people and our country come first. They beleive that war is not a football game where we cheer for good plays and moan when the pass is intercepted. War is politics gone awry. Homelessness is politics gone awry. Hungry children is politics gone awry.

There is not a lot of difference between center-right and center-left. There is a lot they have in common. It is time for that part of the country to take the country back. So, when you vote, think about the people you are voting for. Are they the 20% on either extreme who are keeping us apart and yelling about our differences or do they fall into the 60% in the center-right / center-left who are looking for the areas we have in common and trying to work out the small differences that define us?