Monday, December 12, 2011

My response to Occupy Wall Street

Last week I published a summary of my interpretation of Occupy Wall Street. The movement has sprung up in many cities and appears to be similar in all of these. This is my response to those movements.

First, let me say that I get it. There's a lot of frustration out there. People are out of jobs and worse yet, they feel their future has been stolen by financiers who haven't been and won't be punished for their incompetence. People like Patrick Meighan have been arrested (read his story here) and jailed over non-violent protests. I know that there have been some criminal acts committed by some of the Occupiers, but that doesn't change the message these people are trying to bring (it doesn't excuse it, but that's a different story).

I also agree with parts of the message of the Occupy movement, the financiers should be punished. The banks should have been allowed to fail and the people creating the mess should certainly not be in charge of the business that I involuntarily bailed out. And like them, I'm not convinced that the system can work itself out - I'm just that cynical.

But I also know that we live in the United States of America, a country with a system of laws and that we have to obey those laws. Even if politicians and bankers committed fraud and theft, that doesn't give me the right to break laws. If someone refused to leave when instructed by police, they deserve to be arrested. When Mr. Meighan (same story as above) was arrested, he complained in his blog that in most situations of this type, "the police just give you a ticket and let you go. It costs you a couple hundred dollars." One thing that is different in his case is that he would have gladly taken the ticket and ripped it up and never left the park he occupied. Police have an obligation to enforce the law (which he acknowledges in his blog) and in that case that meant physically removing the Occupiers and cleaning out the park.

I also know that it's possible to move up in the world. I grew up in a not-too-priviledged environment. I won't go into the details, but my college was paid on a combination of scholarships and grants (until I lost the grant because I made too much in a below-minimum wage job). I have worked at one job or another (and sometimes two at the same time) since 1973. My father taught me that there is always a job available for someone who was willing to work. This past weekend, I heard that Scheider National Trucking needs to hire 41,000 and Pizza Hut needs to hire 28,000. These may not be jobs that people want or may not pay as much as their last job, but they are jobs. And they pay at least minimum wage.

I decided sometime back to adopt the slogan "Think Globally, Act Locally." What that means to me is to elect the kind of representatives who push an agenda of personal responsibility. I believe this is the only way (if there's a way) to fix our national problem. By encouraging people to work, even at low-paying jobs, to pay off debts and to support the family, politicians begin encouraging a way out. As for acting locally, charity begins at home, helping the people in your community. I can't help Mr. Meighan in LA, but I can help the single lady in our church who sells real estate and hasn't sold any in a while. I can help the people who will come to me in February through April to file their tax returns (without charging them) so they can get the refunds and credits that are available under current law. I can help the couple whose husband is in a wheel chair and unable to work.

So while I understand the Occupy movement, I can't say I agree with it. I believe that instead of protesting, the occupiers would be better of returning to work and starting their own personal recovery. That's my thoughts, what are yours?

Thursday, December 08, 2011

What is Occupy Wall Street?

I've been trying to wrap my head around what's going on in the Occupy Wall Street movement. It's gotten a lot of attention from the press, yet there seems to be very little understanding about what is really going on. Some of the bloggers I read have published stories about crime in the Occupy movement, stories that have seem limited airtime on national news. But my goal has been to avidly read every story I could find, to determine what it's all about. These people are exerting a lot of time and in some cases money, I'd like to find out why. In this post, I'll try to explain what I've learned. In a later post, I'll give my thoughts and opinion on that information.

Two of the best stories I've read come from Bloomberg Businessweek, both available online here and here. While there are more stories out there, these stories do a better job of explaining the movement than most. I encourage reading them. I also plan on reading a book described in the article titled "Debt: The First 5,000 years" by David Graeber, the so-called "Man behind the mask."

The article says that Graeber "as been an anarchist since the age of 16." What's unique is that Graeber would not mind being an anarchist. He admits that "most people don’t think anarchism is (just) a bad idea. They think it’s insane." But unlike most people, "Graeber’s father, (has) seen it work."

The Occupy movement is made of a lot of other individuals, each with their own view of what is going on. As a group, they are still trying to define what all of this means. But there are groups within the movement that have similarities and they attract people sympathetic to their views (I doubt we see many Reagan conservatives at these rallies). They are against money in politics and the crushing effect of "debt: mortgages, credit-card debt, student loans, and the difference in how the debts of large financial companies and those of individual borrowers" get settled.

If there is one defining trait of the Occupiers - it's that. It's the "where's MY bailout" story. Where's the bailout for the middle-aged man, who took out first and second mortgages, credit cards and bought the American Dream on payments, then lost his job in the 2008 fiasco and saw his interest rates skyrocket, while the Bank paid executives huge salaries? Where's the bailout for the college graduate who took out student loans, now can't find a job to pay them back?

The timing of the movement, amidst this overwhelming debt by individuals, bail-outs and unemployment has been the triggering action to bring these people together. Top that off with a conservative movement that wants to cut all forms of aid because they think it's the only way to recover and they hate big government and the movement ignites. The Occupiers "oppose cutbacks and austerity of any kind." (Wikipedia defines austerity as budget cutting, lower spending, reduction of benefits). This comes from the anarchy that Graeber's father saw in Spain after the IMF mandated spending cuts, austerity that is now being imposed on Greece, other nations and even individuals in the US.

What bothers me the most about watching the movement from the sidelines is the similarities between this movement and some movements I've watched from afar in Egypt, Libya and France. Movements in those countries started not as political movements, but as movements by unemployed. When large numbers of people become unemployed and can't find work to pay for basic necessities, they look for answers and frequently rise up against the government. Instead of answers, they see the government keeping them down. I've read other articles that compared debt to slavery, this idea feeds the movement as well.

At the end of the article, reference is made to a policy recommendation in Graeber's book calling for "jubilee" - a forgiveness of all international and consumer debt. I understand the term and have even written about it (although I referred to a city of refuge). I thought it was uniquely Judeo-Christian in concept, but the article says that jubilees occurred "in ancient Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt." The article goes on to say that the "alternative, ... was rioting and chaos in years when poor crop yields left lots of peasants in debt."

Is that where we're headed? Rioting and chaos (which we've already seen)? Is anarchy, or small democracy the answer? Must banks be run as non-profit organizations? Should all debt be wiped clean every seven years? I'm not sure I have the answers, but I'll give my opinion in my next post.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

When Hubert met Rose

This is the story of how my father-in-law was introduced to my mother-in-law. I've heard the story told numerous times and it always warmed my heart.

The story starts in 1955, when Hubert Lawrence became a widow. He and his 17 year old son Tommy were living alone after the death of his first wife Della. Tommy worked at a local mill as a doffer, someone who replaced bobbins in the machines where the (mostly) ladies were sewing. One of those ladies was Rose.

Apparently, Tommy had a mischievous streak. Something that he did aggravated Rose that day and she told him "I'd like to be your mother for just one day." It's never been clear to me if she knew his mother had died a few weeks earlier or not, but I can just imagine her pointing her crooked finger at him as she said it (her finger probably wasn't crooked then, but it was all the time I knew her).

That night, Tommy told his father that there was a lady at the mill who wanted to meet him. So Hubert went to meet Rose at the boarding house where she lived. When she told the story about his big shoes clomping up the stairs to the porch, you could hear the sound it made.

About five weeks later (sometimes this was as short as five days when Rose told the story) he picked her up in his car to take her for a ride. When she asked where they were going he replied "to get a marriage license." I guess that served as a proposal.

Her answer was a simple "oh, ok" (which I guess meant "yes") and a day later they were married at the preacher's house. Unknown to them at the time, her brother Claude got married the same day in the next state about 45 miles away.

Now some will question the romance of this short courtship, but somehow it must have worked. Hubert and Rose were married just short of 40 years before he passed away on Dec 3, 1994. She lived alone for 17 years and her blue eyes always sparkled when she told this story. On November 26, 2011, Rose met Hubert again in heaven.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Is China a treat (economically)?

A recent Bloomberg Businessweek article (available here) said that "China will soon overtake the US as the world's biggest economy." However, the remarks aren't all bad when you look at the facts. The authors point to a 10.5% annual increase in GDP in China since 2001 and a 1.7% annual increase in the US in the same time period.

However, looking at the GDP per capita (remember China has A LOT more people than the US), USA is at $47,600, China is at $4,400 (according to CIA World Factbook). Even if the growth rate continues at the same rate it has for the last 10 years, it will be another 28 years before China surpasses the US when you examine the dollars this way.

The article was interesting in the comments about the approach to expenditures. It points out that the US "spends, borrows and patches," while China "saves, invests and builds." Of course the current administration likes the term "invest" and "build," so the Chinese way makes sense for these parts (and they would like to ignore the "save" part.

Overall, I like Bloomberg, but you have to read the articles carefully.

My mom will be homeless at Thanksgiving

If all goes as planned, my mom will be homeless in just under two weeks. It's not as bad as it sounds, she's selling her duplex with the plan of moving into an assisted living center in the near future (in the mean time, she'll shuttle between my two sisters' houses). So for a while, she will be homeless.

Several years ago, several people asked mom where she was going for Thanksgiving dinner. They knew that she was widowed and her six kids were scattered across multiple states (and maybe even one of the Pacific Ocean island-nations depending on the year). They also knew that she visited her kids regularly and was seldom alone. She proudly responded that she was going to the Salvation Army. This horrified her friends who immediately invited her to their house for turkey. She laughed as she explained that she would be serving meals to the homeless. All of us kids were disappointed that she didn't come to our house, but we understood her need to serve.

Mom's always been one to see others that were less fortunate. Growing up we didn't have a lot, but when we outgrew clothes, we passed them to one of the local charities (if there was no one to pass them down to). She knew that there were people who could make use of them.

So, hats off to mom - I hope I can be the servant she has been.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

God helps those who help themselves

Did he really say that? Yes, he did. (see here for text). To be fair, it wasn't the president, it was his spokesman. And he corrected it later in the day. And many people use this same mis-quote much of the time.

The president actually said "God wants to see us help ourselves by putting people back to work." I think it's interesting that he thinks God wants us to help ourselves, but by that he means the government helping us. But then I've always said that we're not electing a theologian in chief. I occasionally had problems with the previous president's theology and I'm sure I'll have problems from time to time with the next president as well.

This all brings me to my point. Over the next year, many of the candidates will say things that they don't have a chance to think through. Look beyond that. What is he really trying to say? What does his record say? What does he say in position speeches and papers? Those really determine what the person will do if he reaches office.

I'm not surprised that President Obama thinks that God wants the government to step in and help people who need jobs. This has been his approach all along. You may agree with the idea and you may disagree. But you shouldn't be surprised.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The power of the consumer

Over the last few weeks, banks have slowly backed off their plans to charge fees for debit cards (I expected this. See here for my prediction) The consumer has the power to effect change.

The first time I saw a change like this was back in the mid 1980's. At that time, the country of South Africa was under increased scrutiny due to Apartheid (see details here). It was discovered that many business interacted with South Africa and a large movement was made to force these businesses to stop. One bank, which has since been merged into other banks, was heavily involved and did not change their policies.

After several months of trying to get the bank to change, a group emerged that petitioned the bank for policy changes. The group said that if the bank did not change, the signees of the petition would open an account at the bank and then close it the next day. And there were a lot of signees.

The day after this information came out, the bank "clarified" their position on Apartheid. They explained that they made loans to businesses in South Africa and not to the government. Their loans were actually helping the people of that country and would give them a chance to change the government.

The petitioners were unimpressed. Even with the "clarified" position, they vowed to go on with their opening and closing of accounts. They responded publicly to the bank and planned to start the following week. Before they started, the bank announced a change in policy and stopped making loans to businesses in South Africa. The consumer had voted and US businesses (largely) stopped supporting Apartheid.

By 1994, South Africa had elected it's first non-white president. There are a lot of side-stories that come out of this incident, but the story relevant here is that consumers have the power to change a nation. Without violence, threats or even name calling, consumers can vote with their wallets. Individuals can change too. You have the right to decide what services you want from a bank (or any company) and evaluate the cost. If it's too much, you have the right to change providers.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Help for homeowners

Yesterday, President Obama unveiled a "new" plan to help home-owners who may be able to benefit from re-financing (see article here). From what I have read, I think the program is good, but I'm not sure how successful it may be.

The program is designed as an aid to homeowners who want to refinance and take advantage of today's lower rates. Nothing that I have read says it will reduce the amount of the loan, only the interest rate. Let's say someone took out a loan on a $300,000 home in 2004 with a rate of 5.5%. If they had chosen a fixed rate, that's a payment of about $1700. If they can refinance to a 4% loan today, that's a payment of about $1430 and leaves $270 in their pocket.

So who loses the $270? Well, the new program is for people whose loans are owned by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mach, so they are obvious losers in the deal. Also, banks may lose as older loans are paid off earlier. However, banks will get some refinance $$ in their pocket as well as a better loan. If the old loan defaulted, banks were sure to lose.

So what is the down-side to the program? Well, refinancing costs money and some of that burden will be paid by the tax payer. I don't think that's a lot of money (compared to loan defaults), so I think this is a good program overall.

Trouble is, it doesn't address the amount owed. In my example above, I assumed the entire $300,000 would be refinanced. In reality, if they were current, they would only owe $262,000 at this point. But the problem comes in that the value of the house may have dropped. The house may only be worth $200,000 now and in that case, they wouldn't be able to refinance. under today's rules, but would be able to under the new rules.

The program looks like it helps out some people in certain circumstances and therefore I have no objection to it. I'm not overly excited, because it doesn't seem like it will affect many people. Maybe the president is trying to tackle the economic issues in small bites rather than a sweeping program that no one can pass.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The 9-9-9 tax and the flat tax

Herman Cain has gotten a lot of attention for his 9-9-9 tax plan. I've looked into one part of the plan and decided I can't support it. Your responses are appreciated.

The plan is close to the Fair Tax that was discussed a few years ago. I confess, I didn't study the Fair Tax as I felt it had near-zero chance of being passed. I was forced to go look at it some. From what I've read the 9-9-9 plan has not laid out all the details and someone pointed me to the "prebate" part of the Fair Tax for more information.

The problem is that low income people today pay no income tax and will be forced to pay sales tax under 9-9-9. This additional burden on low income people would be offset (under the Fair Tax) by a "prebate", money given to them at the beginning of each month.

However, there is no mention of what happens to the current EITC and it appears to be eliminated. For those unfamiliar, the EITC is a refundable tax credit given to low income workers. The amount of the credit is based on the family size and the amount a person works. As the person's income increases, the EITC increases until it reaches a mid-point. Then it decreases, slower than the increase, until it gets to zero. Think of a standard curve, slightly skewed to the right.

EITC has been touted as "workfare, not welfare" because it encourages people to work. If the person has no earned income, they have no EITC. None other than conservative President Ronald Reagan pushed this program. You may not think the EITC is fair or that some people pay no income tax is not fair, but that's not part of my discussion today. Today, the EITC is the law and it gives low income workers additional cash. Taking that away may be revenue neutral to the government, but not to individuals.

Any tax plan that involves eliminating the EITC should include a plan (tax or otherwise) to address program. If a candidate decides not to replace it, he/she should clearly state that.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The President's teleprompter is stolen

I know, this sounds like a joke. It's not. It's true. To be fair, it wasn't just a teleprompter, it was a truck which contained sound equipment, podiums and yes, a teleprompter. The truck was later found in a hotel parking lot several miles away.

This happened about 1/2 mile from the Hampton Inn where I stay when I go to Richmond. I promise, I was no where near where the incident occurred. As for other comments, on the advice of counsel, I have no additional comments at this time.

Click here for the story from Richmond Times Dispatch.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Marx to market (Bloomberg Businessweek 9/19-25)

I'm a little behind on reading, but this article in Bloomberg Businessweek caught my attention. Follow this link to read the article. While not mentioning the Occupy Wall Street movement, it certainly seems to apply (although I confess, I haven't read all of the details on OWS).

The article/editorial talks about how times have changed, yet we seem to be going back to some Marxist ideas and it says this in a not-negative tone. "You might even say the Bearded One (Karl Marx) has rarely looked better." The article notes that with "U.S. unemployment rate is still more than 9 percent" and Marx had predicted that "companies would need fewer workers as they improved productivity." Peter Coy (the author of the editorial) points out that the blue-collar workers' condition is "still a far cry from the subsistnence wage and 'accumulation of misery' that Marx conjured" but he adds that "it's not morning in America, either." The last line is a reference that few conservatives would miss.

The article also stresses Marx' point that "the proletariat isn't paid enough to buy the stuff capitalists produce (a point I disagree with - all of the unemployed have very nice cell phones, TVs, etc).

The editorial says that it's "time for another burst of enlightenment" and says we are facing a "crisis of capitalism". He thinks that "grasping the ways in which Marx was right is the first step toward making sure that... predictions of capitalism's downfall remain wrong."

Might it be that Coy is correct? Are the rumblings of the OWS group rumblings from Marx' grave? Are these people anti-capitalists? I'm certain that I don't know and am looking for answers

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Bank fees

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard the mess about bank fees. At least four of the major banks (Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Sun Trust and Regions) are planning to start charging debit card holders a monthly fee of anywhere from $3 to $5. Citibank is increasing the fees on checking accounts. The president has said that the banks don't have the right to certain profits (more on that later).

The banks say that they have to do this to make up for the lost fees charged to retailers. In theory, retail prices should come down as their fees go down (I'm not holding my breath). Consumers are complaining it's not fair. My suggestion is simple. Change accounts or change banks.

Most banks have some accounts that will still be free. Simply sitting down with someone at the bank or calling the bank can help you understand your options. Before you do, write down your expectations/requirements. Do you use an ATM? Do you use other banks' ATM's? Do you use your debit card? Do you keep a balance? Do you have other accounts with the bank?

Also, banks may have other options available based on your age (I found out I'm a "senior" at age 52 at one bank) or school status (student checking is often free). Smaller banks or credit unions may have benefits based on your employer.

If the bank has no free account that fits your need, consider changing banks. Tell the person you've talked to at your current bank that you're planning to look at other banks. Be prepared to follow through.

My honest opinion is that this fuss will not last if consumers start changing banks. They will find ways to keep depositors from jumping ship. But there's no reason you should pay fees. 

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The President's job speech - Reaction Part 2

This is a continuation of my previous post on the President's job speech. Part 1 is found here.

We are told that the President's bill (which was not released until days after the speech) will give companies an extra tax credit if they hire veterans. While this is a good idea, I'm not sure this will provide a lot of jobs and I don't think it belongs in a jobs bill. Was it added here so that the President could say that anyone who opposes this bill opposes veterans? I shouldn't be so cynical.

The bill offers "companies... a $4,000 tax credit if they hire anyone who has spent more than six months looking for a job." This is like the HIRE act I mentioned in Part 1 of my review, but it brings up an important point: why not limit unemployment benefits to six months as well? This way, you motivate both the employer and the employee.

The President promises us that the "typical working family will get a $1,500 tax cut next year." This is on top of the $2,000 we have already gotten. Anyone know where this comes from? It comes from Social Security payments we all make through payroll deduction. Someone should point out that this actually helps to remove the illusion that Social Security is anything but a tax.

President Obama promises that "the American Jobs Act will not add to the deficit." MSNBC (not exactly an anti-Obama source) in their fact-check of the President's speech explains this by saying "it will only be paid for if a committee he can't control does his bidding." To mis-quote President Truman, "the buck stops there" not with the current president.

Finally, about half-way through his speech, the President admits "this approach is basically the one I've been advocating for months." Nothing new. But pass this bill. Right away.

The speech goes on (my printed copy continues for five more pages), but as he said, there's not much new. The programs outlined are programs the President has been pushing for months or extensions of existing programs created and pushed with the last stimulus package. They didn't work then, and they won't work now. Congress should kill this bill. Right away.

Friday, September 30, 2011

The President's job speech - Reaction Part 1

Ok, I'm a little slow in posting my comments to the jobs speech. The President spoke three weeks ago, and I've just gotten around to starting my comments. My apologies if you were waiting. But I promise to complete this fairly quickly. The speech was long, I printed it and it took 10 pages. My response will be long too,

I commented right after the jobs speech that I was glad the President spoke. I should have also said I was impressed with his speech. I was amazed the first time I heard him speak at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. I knew then, that he was going places. He's a good speaker and has good speech writers.

When I read the President's speech (found here), my first impression was that he gets it. He understands. He used words like "an urgent time" and said that we "face an economic crisis." These are strong, but accurate words. He understands that "millions of Americans... don't care about politics," they just want the problem solved. And he understands that the problem is unemployment. If we fix this problem, we fix the economy (and most likely the deficit).

But I begin to have problems when he began to talk about a "compact." He accurately depicted "an America where hard work and responsibility paid off" and where "if you did the right thing, you could make it." But I'm not sure that's a compact. And then he followed by saying that "Washington has not always put [the people's] interests first." While I'm certain that part is true, I'm not sure what, if anything, Washington's role should be in the compact between people and their employers.

After this aside, the President returned to the track that I agree with. He says that "our recovery will be driven not by Washington, but by our businesses and our workers." These kinds of statements give me hope that he may actually see the right way to run this country. But then he began to give details on his plan - The American Jobs Act. He repeatedly tells Congress that they "should pass [this bill] right away." Only there was no bill. For four days. After he had delayed his speech for several days. But right away, they should pass it.

Once President Obama began talking about parts of the to-be-delivered bill, I noticed a familiar refrain. First, he talks about cutting taxes for small businesses that hire new workers. This is similar to the HIRE Act of 2010 that I discussed here. This didn't stimulate hiring then, is there any reason to believe it will work now?

Next the President talks about putting "people to work rebuilding... decaying roads and bridges." Can someone say "shovel ready?" While I do believe transportation costs affect the economy more than any single factor, I don't think that just because "construction companies... [are] waiting to get to work" we should throw good money after bad. This didn't work in the previous stimulus, it won't work now. We may need to rebuild our infrastructure, but let's not call it a jobs program.

President Obama tells us that the American Jobs Act will "repair or modernize at least 35,000 schools." While I agree our schools need help (see here and here for two recent posts on schools), the best help would be for Washington to step away and let the states manage them.

The speech goes on with a promise to "rehabilitate homes and businesses in communities hardest hit by foreclosures." Wasn't this tried before? Didn't we pass a Mortgage Reform Act to reduce foreclosures? And how's that working out?

(more notes on the speech to come. Please feel free to comment now or wait).

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Debt collectors calling your cell phone? * Updated *

Not many people know it, but debt collectors are not supposed to call your cell phone. That's part of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, but it may change soon due to the proposed deficit reduction plan. Certainly many people don't have landlines any more and this is the only way to contact them, however, it's not been widely publicized.

Everyone hates debt collectors, I suspect even debt collectors hate other debt collectors. They tend to make lawyers look good. But unfortunately, their job is essential and one way to avoid them is to pay your bills. I know, that's easy for me to say and a little bit callous. To protect the collectee, there are rules that collectors must follow. A lot don't and the FTC says there were 140,000 complaints against debt collectors last year alone. I suspect there were a lot more issues that never got reported. Many people won't register a complaint because they know they legitimately owe the debt. does a good job of explaining this change and lists some of the guidelines debt collectors are supposed to follow in this posting.

According to this report from Fox News, "apply only to cases in which money is owed the government." I guess we'll know more as the details come out

Friday, September 09, 2011

Let's Reclaim the Post-9/11 Unity

I was looking for the President's speech from last night. Before I found it, I found this op-ed written by Pres. Obama asking for Americans to "regain the sense of common purpose that stirred in our hearts 10 years ago."

In the op-ed, President Obama also notes "that our differences pale beside what unites us and that when we choose to move forward together, as one American family, the United States doesn't just endure, we can emerge from our tests and trials stronger than before."

Mr. President, I couldn't agree more. I promise to work towards the civility that you, and others have asked for. I'd like you to lead and stop blaming Republicans for everything as I saw in your speeches last week. I'd like you to use your leadership influence and ask those around you to stop bashing Tea Partiers, those in other (or the same) wealth class and whoever the target-du-jour happens to be.

I promise to do my part, will you do yours?

Thursday, September 08, 2011

The President's speech - American Job Act

The president's speech motivates me to start my blog back. I saw some things in the speech that I needed to comment on. I'll wait to comment in detail until I can read the speech, but some things need immediate attention.

My first comment - did you notice that there was no Republican response? Apparently, they read my blog post from January (here) A response tonight would have been premature as President Obama's speech had not been publi8shed. The R's could have written a speech a few days ago, making some guesses about what the president was going to say. Instead the let the president have his say. Hopefully this trend will take off and we won't have a response every time the president speaks.

My second comment is regarding the congressmen who were absent. One of my senators had indicated he would not be there. I think this is disrespectful. While I may not like the current president and don't agree with most of his ideas, I do believe he deserves a certain amount of respect because of his office. I intend to send him a note indicating my displeasure.

I noticed that the president said this bill would be paid for. However, the devil's in the details. He said he would challenge congress with paying for it as a part of their upcoming budget. To me, that sounds like he's hoping they will pay for it.

I noticed that the President did not blame Republicans, past or present, for the problems. Too often he has done that and too often while he's on the campaign trail he complains about Republicans. Hopefully, he won't do this when he starts pushing this bill.

Overall, I did like the fact that the President spoke. I believe this president has been reluctant to lead too many times in the past. Instead this time, he is introducing a bill. I may not agree with it, but at least he's started the process.

 I will be reading the jobs act in the near future and will publish my thoughts.

Friday, August 19, 2011

A different election?

In my reviewing the 2008 election, I saw it as a foregone conclusion. President Obama had been running for the office for over four years and was specifically groomed for the office. Anyone who doubts that should only go back to his 2004 speech at the DNC. He wrote books to carefully lay out his views and everything he did in the Senate was to head him in that direction.

It was a candidate who could not lose. He was in the party that could not lose. The political and economic wind was blowing at the Democrats' back and in the Republicans' face. The war in Iraq and to a lesser degree in Afghanistan made the Democratic candidate an almost foregone conclusion.

And he was pitted against a candidate who could not win. Sen McCain was not a strong candidate. He admitted openly that he was not an expert in the economy and was more interested in debating than deciding.

Now it's 2012 (well, will be soon). I just heard an interview on WLFJ 660 AM with Michelle Bachmann and I am impressed. (I'm hoping to find the interview on their archives and will post a link here if I find it). Her answer during the debate to the "submit" question was amazing. I've also posted recently about Gov Perry's approach to solving school problems.

It's still early, but it seems to me that the Republicans have a much stronger group of candidates than they did in 2008. Will this be a different election?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Rep Gowdy sees his term in office as a lost opportunity

Most of my readers probably don't know Rep. Gowdy. He's one of the congressmen swept into office last year on a conservative wave. He represents my part of SC, a traditionally conservative area, and beat out Rep. Bob Inglis in the primaries. I can't be certain who I voted for in the primaries, but I know I voted for Gowdy in the general election.

Earlier this week, Gowdy said he saw his first six months in office as "a lost opportunity." (Source: Greenville News). Gowdy acknowledged that be "really did not have a frame of reference because [he'd] never served in the Legislature before." And he noted that "There’s more civility in a criminal trial (his former job was a prosecutor) than there is in politics."

Well, Rep Gowdy, I guess I see this as a lost opportunity too, if you decide to give up. Let me remind you that there was a lot less civility in the primary fights in your discussions about then-Rep. Inglis (and most of it was deserved). Part of the reason I and others like me voted for you is that you had never been in legislature before, we were tired of the ever compromising status-quo.

That's not to say I don't believe in compromise, I do. But I also know (as do you) that we will not fix our budget problems simply raising taxes on one group of people. "Shared sacrifice" needs to actually be shared and that means cutting spending.

I'm going to trust that the Greenville News caught you on a bad day, after a budget battle that left everyone unhappy. And, having a deal that no one likes, is not necessarily a good solution (some people call that compromise - I call it a mess). Instead, I look to you and others like you to lead, to look ahead to what's coming and take the necessary action to really resolve matters, not just make it easier on some politicians until after the next election.

I sympathize with how hard your job is on a day-to-day basis. I know you don't "like the travel between Washington and [your] home in South Carolina, where [your] family is living." But as you said, you knew the job was in Washington when you ran for election. There is certainly "a role for a fact-centric ... hopefully persuasive, argument" in Congress like you dream of. Unfortunately, sometimes it will be uncivil. You knew that too, back at election time.

I hope you will take this as helpful criticism and go back and finish the job you started, the job you were elected to do. It will be hard, as we expect you to hold ground on reducing spending and many will paint you in a bad light because of that. But we are depending on you.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Payday loans in Missouri

I saw some articles today about payday loans in Missouri and it touched me off. Seems that in Missouri there are "325 McDonald's restaurants, 157 Starbucks coffee outlets and 1,040 payday loan stores." (as of 2010. source: Bankrate article). Now my personal opinion is that Starbucks is overpriced, but I'm thinking 10 times as many Payday lending stores as Starbucks is a little much. And you can always get things on the dollar menu at McDonalds.

In reality, the article was NOT drawing a conclusion about the number of McDonalds and Starbucks vs payday lending, it was just comparing numbers in terms that most people can relate to. The goal is to get you to say "gee, that's way too many payday lending stores." So why would there be so many? Well to quote a well-known bank robber who was asked why he robbed banks - "because that's where the money is" (Wikipedia). Payday lenders flock to Missouri because they know they can make a good profit. "The APR allowed by Missouri’s statutes of 1,950% based on a two-week loan of $10" (BBB paper)

The same BBB paper indicates there are some nursing homes that have payday lending companies at the homes. The article doesn't mention if they loan money to the residents (let's hope not), but they do loan to workers, then allow them to pay back with payroll deductions. I'm reminded of the Tennessee Ernie Ford song "Sixteen Tons" which said "I owe my soul to the company store." (Video here)

Payday lending companies like to point out that they loan money to people who need quick cash. The loans are very short term and the APR doesn't really mean much, most loans aren't kept open for a year. They also point out that their fees are lower than past-due charges and overdraft fees. In my research about three years ago (see here), I showed that these companies need to charge these rates to stay in business.

However, three years ago I also compared payday loans to crack cocaine. They are just as addictive and just as dangerous. The BBB article calls them debt traps. A couple of years ago, I commented that "this conservative who prefers less government interference spoke in favor of more government regulation and less payday loans." (here) My position is unchanged.

I still believe that the best payday loan is your own payday loan. Put $500 in the bank for the emergencies that come up. When an emergency comes up, pull it out, then put it back just like a payday loan. You'll save yourself large fees and maybe even gain a little interest.

Comments, even opposing, are welcome and will be published as long as they do not contain profanity, address this subject and are directed to me. If you want to call me an idiot, that's fine, don't call my readers names. You can debate their comments, but I will not allow them to be mistreated. Posting your real name and email address is not required, but appreciated.

Previous posts in reverse chronological order:

Friday, August 12, 2011

Blog changes

After my vacation mentioned a few days ago, I decided to open up my blog to all comments (previously, you had to sign in). My hope is to encourage more comments from all people, even people who want to remain anonymous. However, I've enabled moderation in order to filter out the garbage.

Well, it seems to have worked, I've received three anonymous comments in three days. Trouble was, they were all spam. The last one bothered me a little. The comment praised my general idea (gotta love that), but criticized my lack of specifics. As I read the note trying to decide whether to approve or disapprove, I chucked about the criticism, the comment itself lacked specifics.

What made me decide NOT to post the comment was the hot-links at the bottom for various websites. But it did make me think and decide to explain my reasoning for moderation and my approval process.

If I see a comment that is on subject (or even off subject somewhat), has no profanity and no advertising, I will publish it, whether I agree with it or not and whether it's praise, criticism or something else. I will allow a link to your blog if you include one, but I will check it out first (to protect my readers).

Readers - I encourage you to click on the "comments" in each blog post and add comments to the stream. A comment in the stream does not mean I agree with or endorse the ideas, but it does mean I've read the comment and feel it's clear of profanity and advertising spam. If the comment includes a hot-link, click on it at your risk, but I will typically comment on whether or not I checked it out.

Thanks again for your readership.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

More on education - this time with prison

Yesterday I posted some ideas on education. Thanks for the comments, both online and via email. After my post, I saw this editorial on the Cato Institute's website. Now before you go read it, I should warn you that these folks tend to be a little different. In some ways, they are ultra-conservative. In other ways, they are very liberal. They tend towards a libertarian viewpoint, where the best government is no government. (OK, maybe I overplayed that a little).

In this editorial, recognizes a little-know idea in Texas trying to fix a problem with a pipeline from school to prison. The article gives credit to Governor Rick Perry who is often mentioned by Republicans as a candidate for president. He most recently was in the news with a Day of Prayer for our country.

The premise of the idea is that too many of our kids get kicked out of school (suspended, expelled, etc) and end up in jail. My assumption would then be that the prisons teach these kids how to be "better" criminals and then they come back out, only to wind up back in prison for something serious. The programs mentioned take these kids and instead of kicking them out of school, gives them "guidance and rehabilitation services in or near their communities."

There's a lot that's NOT said in this article, for example no results are given. What happens to school discipline when these kids are NOT suspended or expelled? And what is the cost of these programs? (I suspect less than incarceration, but no facts are given).

Even with these questions, it still looks to me like this is a good idea and should be evaluated. I don't think SC has the same ratio of problem kids that Texas might have, but each state should look at the option. We just might end up saving a few kids in the process.

What do you think?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A fix for education

Last week I was on vacation and entered into a discussion about the debt crisis. Discussion moved over to the topic of education and specifically some ways to "fix" education. A close friend, who tends to be more liberal than me, offered some ideas I found intriguing. I promised to post them here to see if I got any response.

The first suggestion was regarding pay and benefits. As an SC teacher, my friend is an SC employee and she feels that the people who make decisions for SC education should be on the same pay and benefits plan. This would be somewhat tricky as some of the decisions are made by federal employees (US Senators and US Representatives, Department of Education, etc.), and other decisions are already made by SC employees (SC State Department of Education). But this is a good idea for all areas of government, put them on the same pay and benefit schedule as the people they govern.

The second idea she had was regarding office term limits. Specifically, any administrator - from principals on up - should be limited to 5 years in a particular position. After that time, they have to return to the class room. I specifically asked if this included our local district superintendent (who is well thought of in both conservative and liberal camps) and she answered yes. The idea is to make these people aware of the impact of their decisions.

So what do you think? Would this help education? Would schools do better or cost less? What impact would it have in your area?

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

What do you do with your money?

Back in the last century (1990's), I attended a 6-week workshop titled "Master Your Money." Maybe it was a symptom of where I was in my life at the time, but it struck me then, and several times since, as the best approach to personal financial management I've ever seen. That's not to knock some of the others like Larry Burkett or Dave Ramsey (who recently acknowledged both Burkett and Blue in his Great Recovery presentation). And I'm currently following Joe Sangl (see my post here), who credits Dave Ramsey for a lot of his ideas. But Blue's approach focused on tracking spending, not just budgeting. I was so impressed I took the course twice, then taught it around a half dozen times. The course is dated now, but still has some great ideas.

Ron Blue said there are basically four things you can do with money: 1) Give it away, 2) pay taxes {groan}, 3) repay debt and 4) spend it. Anything left over after these four constitutes your cash margin which can be used to accomplish your long range objectives. Only by increasing the cash margin can you really make a difference in your long term plans. Once Blue walks you through tracking your past expenses, he asks a Dr. Phil question - "How's that working out for you?" (Ok, he really didn't ask that back in 1990, but he could have). Blue asks you to look at each area of your expenditures and determine if you want that to go up or go down. Would you like to give more or less over the next few months? Do you want to spend more or less on eating out? Do you want to pay more or less in credit card interest?

Another focal point I learned from Ron Blue's course was that there are no independent financial decisions. Every dollar you spend at McDonald's is a dollar you can't spend on a new house. A dollar spent on wine can't be spent on books. And a dollar spent on cigarettes can't be spent on clothes. He calls this integrated planning and says it's the "allocation of limited resources to unlimited alternatives." (Joe Sangl says that Income minus Outgo must equal Exactly Zero or I-O=EZ - he's so proud of that idea he trademarked it).

A couple of months back, I told you (if you read my blog here) that you would probably earn $1million in your lifetime. The question is, what will you do with it? Dave Ramsey says you can go through life "like Gomer Pyle on valium" or you can track and plan your life. Which will you do?

Monday, August 08, 2011

Vacation - a time of rejevenation

Last week, I went to the beach (Myrtle) on a family vacation. We've done this before, but it's been a couple of years. With my wife, our five children, four children-in-laws, 5 year old grandson, four 2year old granddaughters, one 3week old granddaughter, close friends, their 5 year old daughter, 13 year old niece, sister, son's friends (age 21) and daughter-in-law's mother, we had a house full (for the record, not everyone was there all week).

The 2 year olds  behaved like you'd think 2year olds would behave, immeasurably cute one minute, complete melt-down when they were told no. Grandma and grandpa don't say no very often, so I suspect parents will have to readjust some this week.

As we did on our last big family vacation, we let our kids cook for us. Each one chose a night. This time, we also specified that they had to clean also (lesson learned 2 years ago). This worked well, with even the 21year old and his friends cooking (burgers, infused with bacon and cheese - my cholesterol is up).

One family member twisted my arm and asked for a photo shoot - posed pictures of their two year old. My goal is to do these photo shoots regularly for all of the grand-kids.

The family largely obeyed my censorship demand - no facebook or tweets about vacation until it was over (thank you very much). I felt it better if 99% of the US didn't know that we left our house unattended. Yes, we had a neighbor watching the house and we had two different people who came by while we were gone (for two very different reasons), but I still felt better not having the social network communities broadcasting my vacation plans.

As a result of a relaxing week at the beach, I plan to restart my blog - or reboot (a new use for a word I've known a long time from a description of the new movie Planet of the Apes - see here)

Over the next few weeks, expect to see posts on family, the economy, education (courtesy vacation discussion), politics and personal finance. As usual, I won't stick to a single topic. And your comments are always welcome.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Tax on corporate jets

I've been told that I have a mind like a steel trap - it's just that sometimes, it won't open (somehow, I don't think that was intended like a compliment). But this talk about a tax or corporate jets has been stirring around in my mind lately and it has sounded vaguely familiar. After a little research using my favorite search engine, I found the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1900 (OBRA-90).

Republicans and Democrats will remember OBRA-90 as the bill where President George H. Bush broke his "No new taxes" promise. According to this Connecticut Law Tribune article, it included "a new luxury tax on luxury autos, aircraft, jewelry and yachts." The thinking at the time was we can stick it the rich and make them pay dearly for those luxuries. After all, it would be fair, they have more money, why should they be spending it on frivolous items, when poor people can't buy gas and food? Not only would it stick it to rich, it would provide more tax revenue for the government to give to the folks who could buy gas and food.

However, the luxury tax didn't work out quite as well as expected - it "took in less than one half of the projected income." People who previously could afford these luxuries simply stopped buying them or - even worse - bought them overseas. "Boat Builders ... were particularly hard-hit with yacht sales dropping 77 percent and builders laying off an estimated 25,000 people." Wait a minute! A tax increase caused job losses? 25,000 of them? I thought the luxury tax was supposed to stick it to the rich? Instead, 25,000 boat builders, average middle class people, lost their jobs? Who'da thunk it?

Any new taxes on corporate jets is likely to have the same effect. Anyone who proposes these taxes needs to look back to recent history and explain why they think this time will be any different. Oh, by the way, OBRA-90 also "included the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990 which established the "pay-as-you-go" or "PAYGO" process for discretionary spending and taxes." (source) and we all know how well that has worked.

Side notes: I found out that none-other than Lion of the Senate Ted Kennedy supported the luxury tax (no surprise), then when his home state of Massachusetts was affected, tried to reverse course with the Kennedy Boat Building Investment Act of 1999. (can anyone say flip-flop?). I do not know if he was successful. I also found this George Will commentary written in 1999. In it, he said "But perhaps every quarter-century or so government--it cannot help itself--must go on a fairness bender, the memory of the hangover from similar misadventures having faded." - Let's see, the last time was 1990, this is 2011 - that's only 21 years. Maybe the cycle is shortening due to Global Warming....

In full disclosure I have to document that I have never owned a luxury car or yacht and never owned a corporate jet. I did own a canoe for a few years, but after it flipped on me once I decided to sell it. I think I had a net loss of $50 on the purchase/sell over a 3 year period. I did not claim the loss on my taxes.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

What would you do with $1million

I think I saw this question on Facebook recently (I never respond to these types of things) and today was reading a few financial blogs that explored similar territory. Most of us (myself included) like to daydream about what we'd do if Ed McMahon told us we'd won the Publisher's Clearinghouse or what we'd do if Bill Gates suddenly included us as one of his charties.

But it struck me that most of the people reading this WILL have $1million in their lifetime. If you work from age 25 (assuming a late start) to age 65 and make an average of $25,000 a year, you will have earned $1million. That's only about $12.50/hour.

So, what will you do with the $1million you will earn?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

How much trouble can we get into?

My friends over at ChristianPF did a blog post on why it's important to have $1000 set aside in an emergency fund. I commented that sometimes that's not enough and other agreed. I was reminded of the first time I saw this, although at age 10 I know I didn't understand it.

My older brother and his roommate were preparing to take me for a weekend of sailing on a local lake. They loaded up the sailboat, a tent and camping supplies for the weekend and the three of us (and their dog) were ready to go. Just before we left, my brother asked his room-mate how much cash they had. They totaled the bills in their wallets and my brother said "how much trouble can we get into?"

When we got to the lake, we took binoculars and found an island suitable for camping. We prepared to sail to the island and realized we'd left the rudder and daggerboard back home. Not good for sailing. We decided to paddle the sailboat to the island, my brother and I would set up camp while his roommate made a trip back home for the pickup. When the roommate got back, he flashed his headlights at us (no cellphones) and my brother set out paddling to pick him up.

Did you know there are laws preventing the use of boats on the water after dark without lights? In hindsight, this seems like a good idea, but at the time we didn't know. My brother was picked up by some sort of lake patrol who escorted him back to our island. Since I was watching I knew something bad was going on, so I picked the only defensive weapon I could find, an axe, and went to defend my brother. I'm sure the lake patrol thought it was funny, to be greeted by a 10 year old boy with an ax.

The fines were due immediately and my brother paid them. The lake patrol took him to get his roommate, which created another funny story, but not for today. The next day, we sailed the lake without problems.

The moral of the story is to always think "how much trouble can we get into?" Car troubles can easily run into hundreds of dollars and if you need your car for work, that's an emergency. Heat/AC troubles can exceed $1000 and in SC weather, a breakdown can be an emergency (and we frequently use both in the same week in spring/fall). The question of how much you need in an emergency fund is based on "how much trouble can we get into?" If you rent an apartment, you can probably get into less trouble than a homeowner.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Libya and the War Powers Act

It looks like Congress doesn't know what to do about Libya. On the one hand, they are frustrated that President Obama hasn't asked permission for his actions there, on the other hand they don't want to publicly say that he can do what he's already doing (see story here). The real question is, does the president have the authority.

The War Powers Act came into being when Richard Nixon was in power and the Vietnam War had been going on forever. John Kennedy sent troops there and the US never officially declared war. Congress tolerated it through his short time in office and through Johnson's. After Nixon became president, Congress decided to tie his hands.

Presidents since then have complained about the constitutionality of the law. But they also followed it. There seemed to be a delicate balance of power, not completely unlike what the framers of the constitution wanted. President Obama has stated that he didn't think the law applied, the biggest reason being that we don't have troops on the ground.

Actually, I support the president on this, but there has to be some caution. The next president (in 2012 or 2016) may be a Republican and may use this argument also. In fact, I've found myself agreeing with the president a lot more lately, his decision to surge in Afghanistan, his decision not to pull all troops at once, his decision to leave troops in Iraq, his decision not to close Guantanamo. I think he's come to the realization that this presidential job is a lot harder than he believed when he asked for the job.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Regrets, I've had a few... too few to mention

The subject line is from a song sang by many different people, best done by Frank Sinatra. It ends with the line "I did it my way." The song comes to mind every now and then, not for the ending, but for the line I put in the title, the line about regrets.

I've always said I lived my life without regrets. I think most people feel that way. The country group Rascal Flatts sings about it in their song "God blessed the broken road that led me straight to you." Even the bad things in life have a way of working out. Darius Rucker's song "This" says "maybe it didn't turn out like I planned, maybe that's why I'm such, such a lucky man" says the same thing. Without the bad things in my life, I wouldn't be where I am today. The things that don't kill you make you stronger. All of those kinds of ideas.

So of all the bad things that have happened in the past, all of the mistakes I've made and all of the really, really stupid things I've done, all of those were good? Is that the rational conclusion of all of this? Or maybe, just maybe I SHOULD have some regrets?

Just thinking right now, more to come....

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Is heaven just for Christians? Apparently atheists think so

All dogs go to heaven. You've seen the movie. You know a friend who is a different religion and you think they go to heaven. Or you believe that a loving God wouldn't send anyone to hell, so everyone must go to heaven.

Well, it appears the American Atheists disagree. This article quotes David Silverman the president of American Atheists as saying "Heaven is a specifically Christian place." The article basically says that the city of New York has renamed a street to "Seven in Heaven Way" to honor seven who died in the 9/11 attack. As a result, the atheists aren't happy.

Silverman said that "all memorials for fallen heroes should celebrate the diversity of our country." Now I would have thought that the memorials should point directly to those fallen heroes, but I guess I'm wrong. He also said "these heroes might have been Jews, they might have been atheists" which implies to me that he hasn't even tried to find out. It would be interesting to find out if he would change his mind about the street name if he learned that the seven heroes were all indeed Christians. I kinda doubt he would, atheists seem to want to eradicate every mention of heaven and God. Maybe we'll have to start calling these words the "h-word" or the "G-word".

But the one thing I took from this article was the atheists believe that heaven is uniquely Christian place.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Storage Wars - Local Edition

If you haven't seen the show Storage Wars on A&E, I recommend it. Basically, they auction of the contents of a storage room at one of these storage facilities. The people who had rented the room had stopped paying rent, so the facility auctions it to the highest bidder.

I've long wanted to attend an auction of any kind, and heard about a storage auction today at a local facility. I managed to get the time to go and wanted to see if it was like the TV show. I arrived a couple of minutes late, but didn't miss any action.

The first thing the auctioneer said was that if we were expecting any "buh-de-buh-by" type auction, that wasn't him. But he did a pretty good job. He explained the rules (you have 5 minutes to inspect the storage room, you can't touch anything, can't go inside), opened the door and moved out of the way.

The first unit was #616 and contained (as far as I could see) a couple of lawn mowers, a chain saw, some other lawn equipment, a couple of old (stained) mattresses and who knows what else. Bidding started at $300 (the first bidder started bidding before the official bids began). When the bidding was over, the unit sold for $475.

The second unit was #632 and it was not full like the first (and later) units. It looke like someone had closed out a florist shop or something. There were imitation ficus trees, lots of vases, some racks for holding clothes (or plants?). There was less interest in this unit, it sold for $325.

The third unit was #208 and contained a bed (frames & mattresses), an armoire, some end tables, a glass top coffee table (the bottom looked like a cat or something had gotten to it), a love seat and some living room chairs. and a clothes butler rack. But the prize in this unit was a grandfather clock. I looked and couldn't see a name of the manufacturer. I noticed that the pendulums were off, but in the clock itself. It's impossible to know if it was working. This unit ended up selling for $725.

Unlike the show, I didn't get to find out what was in the parts of the units that I couldn't see or find out the value of the units in the end. But it was an interesting day. I'll go to another auction and maybe buy something that time.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Thoughts on the death of Bin Laden

By now, you're probably tired if hearing about the death of Bin Laden. If you can stand some more talk, I want to share some of my thoughts.

1) I'm glad he's dead. I still wonder why it took so long. I'm not gloating, I actually would have liked for him to realize the error of his ways. But that wasn't likely. And now, he has finally realized the error of his ways. He knows the Truth.

2) I'm not upset that his body was dumped nor that he was given the Muslim equivalent of last rites. Part of me is, but in reality, I think his body should have been (and was by all accounts was) treated with civility. That's a lot more than he gave to others, but it's the right thing to do.

3) I'm glad the pictures of his body were not released. I see no value in it and a lot of possible problems. I wish the same had been done with pictures of Abu Ghraib. (Hat tip to Cal Thomas). But that happened under a different leader.

4) I've noticed that some newspapers are using the name Bin Laden instead of Osama Bin Laden. I think this is because of the tendency of people to say "Obama" when they mean "Osama". It's tripped up many a commentator.

5) All people, politicians, bloggers, etc. should carefully examine their feelings and what they say to make sure they are consistent. An example of inconsistency would be the comment in September of 2006 "[E]ven if [Osama bin Laden] is caught tomorrow, it is five years too late. ... And even to capture him now I don’t think makes us any safer."

This was followed this week by the same person with the comment "The death of Osama bin Laden marks the most significant development in our fight against al-Qaida. . . . (His) death ... is historic." (both spoken by Nancy Pelosi and reported here)

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Has President Obama evolved?

I've been wondering for some time that President Obama has changed in several ways since he first took office. His decision to send Navy Seals into Pakistan was actually "predicted" during the debates with Sen. McCain, so that doesn't really reflect a change. But his decision to use intelligence gathered at Guantanamo Bay, most likely as a result of "enhanced techniques" seems contradictory to his prior attitude.

Keeping Guantanamo Bay open was not entirely the President's decision, but he did not fight hard to keep his earlier promises. Troops have stayed in Iraq longer than he ever intended and he supported a surge in Afghanistan. President Obama even supported a new war (Libya) albeit not to the extent of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So my question is, has President Obama evolved in his thinking? Has he come to realize that maybe President Bush wasn't as far off the mark as the current president believed when he was campaigning?

And most importantly, if his attitude on these things have changed, can it be changed in other areas? Might we see a move to less government? Might we see the removal of Obamacare? Might we see a return to his campaign attitude of "it's above my paygrade"?

Monday, May 02, 2011

Ding Dong the wicked witch is dead *Updated *

I don't mean to minimize the death of Osama Bin Laden by the silly title. Instead, a part of me wants to celebrate, just as the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. After 10+ years of being America's Enemy #1, OBL has been eliminated.

My hat goes off to the Navy Seals who took care of the matter. I wish that Marcus Luttrell could have been in on the final operation (see his story here and I highly recommend this book).

I listed to most of the President's speech (TV/DVR errors made me miss part of the middle) and have read the speech this morning. I think he was "spot on". This is a significant event. There may be some reprisals from Al Qaeda (I expect there will be). The war on terror is not over.

I was especially impressed that President Obama took the time to call President Bush (and possibly President Clinton). The former president(s) deserved that. It's a show of respect from the current to the former.

There are lots of questions that should be answered. What took so long? Why did one helicopter have problems? Who will take over Al Qaeda actions and what will our attitude be towards him? But for today, and maybe tomorrow, we should all recognize that this event was significant. I listened to a local conservative radio personality this morning and was glad that he felt the same way. No bashing of the current (or former) president. No complaints. Job well done.

* Update * Just heard the Cal Thomas commentary on local radio. Thomas used the same title for today's commentary (5/4/11). I didn't know Mr. Thomas read my blog, but I'm pleased he used it. Hopefully he will share his fees for the day with me...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Obama Birth Certificate

News today is that President Obama has released his long form birth certificate. The LA Times is also reporting that a "self-annointed leader of the so-called "birther" movement" still has doubts (no one should be surprised).

I'm hoping this issue can now be put to rest. But I have one question: The issue has been going on for over 3 years, why release the form now? Why wasn't it released 3 years ago?

I suspect that instead of resolving issues, new ones will come up....

Monday, April 11, 2011

School budget problems resolved - Auburn, Maine

Auburn Maine school department has found a way to solve their budget problems. Details in the accompanying article are sketchy (non-existent), but evidently it's true. Rather than spend public funding on more books, more material for the classroom or even more teachers or aides, the school department has decided that the money would be better spent on iPads.

The iPads have apps for "learning your letters from books, that can be read, (and) finger painting your name" so it's easy to see why Superintendent Tom Morrill sees why "it's absolutely something we must do." It's amazing that anyone was ever able to learn their letters in the past.

I know you're thinking that iPads cost a lot of money, but these only ended up costing the school department a little over $700 each - 285 for only $200,000. You're probably thinking you could have bought a lot of real books for that money and maybe even some blank paper and real finger paint, but wouldn't that get the kids' hands messy? Why you might even have to buy paint aprons and how many of those can you buy for $200,000?

Hiring another teacher is out of the question. Hiring teacher's aides for the classroom is out of the question (you know, those people who only make about $15k each? 10 more teacher's aides won't do as good as an iPad). If the money had not been spent on iPads I'm sure it would have been spent on another administrator trying to Race for the Top (while sinking to the bottom).

This "cutting edge technology will boost literacy rates from 62 percent to 90 percent in two years" (or it's hoped it will).

I'm not sure what they did to solve their budget problems, but I think every school district in the US should fly to Auburn to see what they've done and immediately implement the same plan. Times being hard, trips will be limited to 3 days and district employees will have to fly coach...

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Memo to congress - thanks for doing your job

I say this almost sarcastically. Congress has finally done what they were supposed to do last fall. Apparently. There's still more haggling to come, the budget bill signed last night is really only for another week, the final bill will be hammered out in the coming week.

Understand that the main issue here is spending. We want it cut. It's not just because of the recent deficit (although that's what woke everyone up), we wanted spending to be cut before that. It's not just about the threats to cut military pay (which by the way were uncalled for), it's about planning and living by a plan. It's not about telling federal workers on Friday that they may not have a job on Saturday, it's about providing for the common defense and if a worker isn't doing that, he/she needs to find a real job that helps the US, not drags it down.

It's not about throwing women under the bus, it's about removing funding from an organization that doesn't fulfill the job it portrays to do and kills babies, protects rapists and hides pimps instead. It's not about which radio station you listen to it's about what radio station the government should pay for (I'll give you a hint - none) and which ones should be paid for with private funds (another hint - all of them).

I could go on an on, but I won't. Instead I'll say "Thank-you" to congress - "you did your job". However, most of us in the real tax-paying world understand that just doing your job once a year isn't enough. Now you need to go back in there and do your job AND MORE for the rest of the year. Remember, elections are coming!

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Budget crisis solution - Mr. Pruitt style

Watching the mess in Washington made me think of a solution. It involves Mr. Pruitt - the teacher I had for wood shop in the 8th grade. I think some of his teaching solutions would help out.

Mr. Pruitt taught at Hughes Middle School and at the time, only boys took the class (I think my younger sister was the first girl to take wood shop. Mr Pruitt retired soon after that, I don't think he could handle girls). 8th grade boys being what they were, they would occasionally get in fights. When this happened, Mr. Pruitt would put the chairs in a circle and we would all stand around while he encouraged the two boys to go at it. They would walk around with fists up, looking at each other. Mr. Pruitt would push one towards the other and they would both back away. As Mr. Pruitt would say, one was scared, the other was glad.

I think his solution to the budget crisis would be similar. He'd get a group of citizens to stand around the Capitol and let Congress go at it until they finished the job we hired them to do. He'd push the Democrats and watch the Republicans back away. One would be scared and the other would be glad.

At the end of the day, we'd have a budget. It might not be the best budget, but it would be a budget. And no one would be pointing fingers. I think Mr. Pruitt could solve a lot of our problems.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Schools on strike

I have to confess, I haven't paid much attention to the issues in Wisconsin regarding schools and government employees and the right to collective bargaining. Living my entire life in the south, in a right-to-work state, I'm not affected by unions and don't know a lot. It just doesn't affect my day-to-day living. I admit to being somewhat ignorant. As a kid, I remember wishing my teachers would go on strike and I could miss school (never happened).

That's not the point of this post, so don't comment on that please. The point is I read an article about universities in Wisconsin joining the union. As a parent of a young adult in a university, it made me think about what would happen if his university professors joined a union and then went on strike.

As a consumer, I can choose where to spend my money. I can buy groceries at numerous grocery stores. If one store goes on strike, I can honor their strike or go to another store. It gets more complicated with schools. And universities.

So my question is, if the university goes on strike, do I get a refund? When I send in my $$ at the beginning of the semester, I'm basically contracting with them for 3-4 months' worth of education (although it's somewhat questionable if he absorbs that much). Aren't they obliged to fulfill their end of the contract?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Is it time to rethink my economic ideas?

I'm not sure rethink is the right word, but I do believe I may change some of my ideas. I'm a supply-sider and always have been. Watching Micheal Moore's documentary on capitalism had no effect on me, I've been a capitalist since before 1973 (my first year with a W2).

But I recently did some research on the HIRE act of 2010 (Hiring Incentives to Restore Employment Act - details here). Most of the people I've talked to didn't know anything about this law, signed by President Obama a litle over a year ago. There were attempts to extend the act into 2011, but those failed.

Basically, the law gave a break to small businesses who hired an employee who had been unemployed for at least 60 days. Employers would not have to pay the 6.2% Social Security tax for those employees for the remainder of the year and would be eligible for an additional $100 tax credit if the employee stayed a year. One small businessman I talked to (who had never heard of the act) explained that if you hired two or three employees that way, you might be able to hire another worker.

Had I heard about this law early last year, I would have agreed that it was good. (Yes, I would have agreed that an Obama plan was good). I've heard of plans like this before and always thought they were good. It gets unemployed people back to work. That's good. They pay taxes. That's good. All good.

But I never heard about the act then. And neither did my small-business friend. And apparently, neither did a lot of other people. Was it a lack of publicity? Or a lack of enthusiasm? I suspect the latter. And I'm beginning to believe that acts like this have little or no impact on the economy. Unemployment went up most (all?) of last year, this act should have reduced unemployment.

So my question is, what CAN we do to increase employment?

Monday, March 21, 2011

What does Michael Moore have in Common with the Tea Party?

Over the weekend, I watched Michael Moore's documentary "Capitalism: A Love Affair". It was the first Moore film I've ever watched and you're probably saying "Why is a dyed-in-the-wool conservative like Randy even watching such a film?" Well it wasn't as bad (or as good) as I'd been told about his films and it was interesting to hear his opinions first hand, rather than through someone else's filter.

As expected, the film was very anti-Bush, but also took some shots at several Clinton and current presidential appointees. One had to listen carefully to catch them, but they were there. Senators Dodd and Frank (both with a "D" after their name) were shown in a bad light, so both parties were skewered. There were several anti-Obama ads played that talked about Socialism. To me, the tie-in was weak, but the attempt was to show that Obama is not a socialist.

There were some random, seemingly unconnected portions of the movie, it focused on GM shutdowns, foreclosures, a group called the Low Income Families Fighting Together (see here) and a sit-down strike at Republic Windows and Doors (see here). Moore also had a segment on the low pay for pilots. To me, the main (only?) tie in these stories was that unions were shown in a positive light in each case, standing up for the little man against the big-bad company.

There was a segment on dead-peasant policies. To be honest, this puzzled me. Dead-peasant policies exist when a company, (Wal-Mart was highlighted) takes out a life insurance policy on their workers with the company as a beneficiary. Then if the employee dies, the company makes money. I'm trying to figure out why I should care. Assuming of course, the company doesn't do something to hasten the final event. In my case, I'd like the challenge to show the company that they would lose money on the insurance, I'd outlive their interest.

This makes me wonder about the business model of the life insurance company. Surely they have the actuarial numbers to show that over a large number of people, Wal-Mart can't make money in this game. Otherwise, the insurance companies are charging too little for this policy.

There was praise for FDR and his attempt to pass a 2nd Bill of Rights. The film said that Germany, Italy and Japan have these in their constitution. Frankly for me, that doesn't speak well. I for one, am not interested in emulating any of those countries. (As a side note, the film ends with Moore making the dramatic statement that he's not leaving the US, I'm guessing he's heard the people suggest he move to whatever country he thinks is better).

The movie ended saying that Capitalism is evil and should be replaced by democracy. It showed some companies that are run purely democratically. One was a small engineering firm, the other a bakery. It would be interesting to read more about these companies (sorry, I didn't get their name), to see how they got started, how did they manage their funds. How do they pay their CEO and how do they recruit given their democratic approach. I don't recall the companies names, so that research won't get done by me.

One of the questions I kept asking was about protection of property. Suppose I own a house and decide to sell it to you. After you've been in it for a few years, you find you can't make the payment. Shouldn't I have the right to foreclose? If you can't pay me what you owe me, can't I at least get my property back? Moore's film kept showing reasons that the big banks shouldn't be allowed to foreclose (and some were legitimate), but what happens to the bank's property rights? Do we stomp all over those? That question was never answered.

Oh and lest I close without answering the title question - what DO Michael Moore and the Tea Party have in common? Both are solidly opposed to TARP and think the whole fiasco was created by the Treasury Secretary and Wall Street. I wonder, will Moore show up at the next Tea Party Rally?

Friday, March 18, 2011

It's an odd month - Have you checked your credit report?

I decided a few years ago that I was going to check my credit report regularly. Each person is allowed to check once per year with each of the three agencies, and rather than pull them all at once, I like to spread them out. Combined with my wife, we can pull a credit report every other month. So, if you pull reports in odd months (January, March, May, etc), you'll be following my plan.

While there is a commercial with a catchy tune and funny costumes, regardless what they say their credit report isn't free. You end up signing up for a service. Instead what you want to do is go to Once there, you'll fill in your state, then some basic information. One option I highly recommend specifies that on printed reports, only the last 4 digits of your social security number are printed. You may not print your reports (I do), but there's no sense printing on paper, on disk or even on the screen your full social any more than required.

Next you'll select one of the three agencies. This could cause some people some grief. "Which one do I pull first?" you might be saying. The answer is simple - any one you want. If you haven't pulled a report in the last year, my suggestion is to take the one at the top. If you've pulled that report, take the second on the list. The order may change, so don't count on it being the same next time, write down which report you pulled.

Once you've selected an agency, you'll be taken directly to that agency. Here you'll be asked some questions to verify that you really are you. You may be asked about old addresses, old accounts, details on your mortgage or recent credit changes. It might be best to have access to your records at this point, to know what your mortgage payment is, who your banker is and where you have accounts.

Once you get your credit report, you should review it carefully, If you find mistakes, you should call to find out details on the mistake. If you want the information corrected, don't settle for a call, write the owners of the account. My approach is to write to the owners first, then write to the credit agency if I don't get resolution. You could write to both at the same time.

I keep a copy of the credit report, at least until I pull another one from the same agency (a year later). You may decide not to keep a copy on paper, but I'd recommend keeping a copy on disk in that case.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How to un-elect your local politician

Seems that in Florida, voters have gotten wise and un-elected their Mayor. Seems the Mayor was "politically tone deaf during troubled economic times", easily shown by raising taxes and raising the pay and benefits for public employees.

Citizens of Miami-Dae have overwhelmingly voted to kick this Republican, soon-to-be former Mayor Carlos Alvarez, out of office. Over 700 of the 809 precincts have reported in and 88% of voters favored the recall vote.

We should all take note of this action and we should print a copy of the article and mail it to our politicians. They can be un-elected.

(Full article is here)

Monday, March 14, 2011

Happy Pi day

Ok, I know I can be a bit of a nerd, but when two of the people in my family don't even get it when I send a text that says "Happy Pi Day", something's wrong. They had even seen comments (likely on Facebook, likely from teachers) talking about celebrating Pi Day and still didn't get it.

For those who don't know, Pi is one of those "special" numbers in math. They seem to turn up over and over, so someone, somewhere named it. Pi is used to determine the area of a circle. Most have heard the joke, Pi are squared - no Pi are round.

Anyway, the value if Pi is 3.14. Today is 3/14. Notice the similarity? Today, I was reminded of Pi day by an entry on Wikihow explaining how to celebrate Pi day. What better way than with a pie? They show some pictures with the symbol for Pi on the pie. Or maybe the numbers for Pi on the pie. Either approach is acceptable. If you want to get technical about it, you should celebrate the exact minute, at 1:59 today.

While I've never celebrated Pi day before, I think it's a good idea. We've celebrated Ground Hog day at my house along with some other obscure holidays. Any holiday focused on a desert can't be a bad idea. So, maybe I'll go out and buy a Pi (or is that buy a pie?) today. Apple sounds really good right about now.

Happy Pi Day everyone!

(I should also wish my brother and his wife a happy birthday. I wonder how long it took them to find someone with the same birthday to marry?)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Western Sky

Today I saw an ad for This is a company owned and operated by Native Americans. The ad offered about $2500 in a loan. They will put the money in your checking account overnight. No collateral is required and there are no fees for early pay off.

I was curious, this sounded suspiciously like payday loans I talked about here or the Cashwell company I talked about here. When I found their website, I saw that they claim to have lower rates than payday loans. From looking at their rates, they are lower than Cashwell.

But they aren't cheap. For a loan of $2525, you'll pay a $75 fee right off the bat. Then you start paying almost 140% in interest. If you pay it off over the required 36 months, you'll pay over $10,000.

The website explains that Western Sky operates "within the boundaries of the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, a sovereign nation located within the" USA. I don't know if  that means they operate under different rules. I wonder if they can pursue US citizens who don't pay them in the same way US companies. Or maybe they get to play under US rules in some cases and their own rules in other cases.

It would scare me to work with a company that might not operate under US laws. It would scare me even more to pay 140% interest. (I should note that this was their least offensive loan. If you only borrow $1000, you'll pay almost 195% interest)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Bullying about road rage

Yesterday, I asked for statistics about the growth of road rage. So far, I haven't seen any (if you have some, please post here or on yesterday's post). But I have a theory and the theory is related to road rage. Let me explain.

Sometime in 1987 or 1988, some news reporters on TV coined the phrase "road rage" to describe the anger some drivers felt towards other drivers. AAA talked about how bad it was and called for investigations. Psychologists searched for reasons to explore the phenomenon. And police officers dutifully began reporting it when they saw it.

Road rage was real, but did these TV reporters create the wave that spread? Not just by encouraging copycats, (which they did) but also by reporting on something that had been there all along. The term didn't exist in 1986, so the statistical count was zero. The number of reported incidents incidents had no where to go but up. (for more on this media invention see here)

So, are we seeing the same thing with bullying? Certainly it is real and has been around a LONG time. But are we 1) creating copycats and 2) counting a problem we never counted before? Doesn't change the seriousness of it and I for one am glad parents are aware of it, but it doesn't make it a national problem.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Bullying statistics - Historical data

Has anyone seen any statistics on bullying that cover the growth? Specifically, if we look back 1, 2, 5, even 10 years ago, is bullying more prevalent today than it was then?

All of the numbers I've seen indicate how bad it is now, or stats from 2009 or some other year. The numbers are staggering and I don't mean to minimize them. I'm just looking for some historical perspective and haven't found it yet.

If you find a link, post it here.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

What a difference a bank makes

This morning I called my small "home-town" bank because my debit card is broken. This bank has a feature where they transfer an extra $1 into savings every time you use the card. But they charge me a monthly fee of $5. Each time I use the card, they deduct 50cents from that fee, so if I use it 10 times, there's no fee.

Another reason I signed up for this account is that in March of this year (which started today), they are going to give me a bonus and match all of the dollars they've transferred to savings. I think in my case that will exceed the service charges I've paid.

Anyway, back to replacing my debit card. Martha at the bank was very nice and was ready to send me a new card. Then she told me there was a $5 charge. I told her to hold off.

Then I called one of the big credit card companies and told them that the card I have for them is broken (I'm rough on cards in my wallet). Michele was very nice and offered to send one out right away. I talked to her about the rewards program and she offered to upgrade my card in two different ways. The first was no charge (I pay no annual fee now) and would give me trip cancellation benefits (not a big deal, but if it's free). The second would give me more rewards, but cost an annual fee of $59. I declined the second and accepted the first.

My point here is this: people like to bash the big credit card companies and praise the little guy, but my experience is the opposite. What's your experience?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Should I itemize on my taxes?

One of the most frequent questions I get from the folks who come to me to have their taxes done is "Should I itemize?" A lot of these clients don't even know what the question means, but they ask anyway. And the answer I always give is that we will look at their situation and determine the best answer, because the answer is different for everyone.

To explain what it means, the IRS gives everyone a standard deduction. You can choose to take the standard deduction or itemize. Typically, you will choose which ever gives you the best tax break (while it sounds silly, there is at least one good reason not to choose the best, but I'll ignore that for now). This deduction is the amount of your income that is not taxable. Supposed you're single and make $50,000 a year income. You won't have to pay taxes on the entire income, the first $5700 is not taxable.

The standard deduction as mentioned about is $5700 for single people or for married people who file separately. For married people who file together, the deduction is exactly twice the single deduction or $11,400. There is another class of people, Head of Household and their deduction is $8400. I won't go over those choices in this blog post, I'll assume you know which filing status you fall into.

In order to decide on itemizing, you can simply look at your items and see the total. If they total more than the standard, you're better off itemizing. So what items are significant? My experience is that home mortgage interest is typically the larges. If your home is mortgaged, you should get a from from your bank that tells how much interest you paid.

People of faith also tend to have charitable contributions. And of course we all pay state taxes, you can choose to deduct your state income tax or state sales tax. Don't forget real estate taxes and property taxes on your automobiles. If the total of all of these items exceeds the standard, by all means itemize.

There are two other areas that are common: Medical expenses and miscellaneous deductions. Each of these is subject to some minimums. For example, medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of your income are deductible. For the person listed above making $50,000, that's $3750. If your expenses are less than that or are covered by insurance, you can't deduct them. If your expenses are higher, you can only deduct the difference. For example, if your expenses are $5000, you can only deduct $1250.

For miscellaneous expenses (job travel, union dues, etc), these have to exceed 2% of your income.

I purposely omitted Casualty and Theft losses as they aren't that common. By all means you should study the law yourself and not take my comments as always true. But hopefully, this will help you decide if you want to itemize.