Monday, January 31, 2011

procession of presidencies

I have this theory that our choice of presidencies for the last several years has been overall very predictable by the circumstances at the time. This probably isn't popular with the R's or the D's because it says that the next one will be just as predictable. But let me expound.

My theory starts in the early 1960's. JFK was a young, handsome president, everyone's Prince Charming. A beautiful wife and beautiful children. After his death, Johnson took over as president. When reelection came a year later, America's love for JFK held over to his successor and Johnson was elected in 1964.

In 1968, Johnson refused to run for reelection. America was tired of the war in Vietnam and wanted us out. After RFK's assassination, the Democrats chose Hubert Humphrey to run against Nixon. But again, the demand for change won out. After 8 years of increasing violence in Southeast Asia, riots in the streets and a seeming status-quo, Americans elected a Republican.

Nixon lived up to his promise of getting the US out of Vietnam. But his paranoia led to his downfall. Watergate is the single event most people remember about Nixon. Exactly what he did or what anyone else did seems irrelevant. Americans remember that despite his statements, he was a crook. After his exit from office, Gerald Ford became our first unelected president. Most Americans can't remember anything about him except that he pardoned Nixon. For that and more, he didn't stand a chance for reelection.

In 1976, the Democratic candidate was James Earl Carter. In response to the Nixon presidency, Congress went out of it's way to emasculate the role of the President. The economy was in the dumps and America was too. A small nation that most Americans couldn't find on the map abducted some of our citizens and held them hostage. This became Carter's defining moment. But it lasted longer than a moment and America went further into the dumps.

Tomorrow I'll conclude this story. You know how it turns out, but do you agree with my reasoning?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Climate advisor steps down - Who should replace?

I just read this news article that says Carol Brown, the president's climate advisor, is resigning from her post. Now you may be like me and didn't realize we had a climate advisor. But even though I didn't realize there was such a position, I'm impressed.

Obviously, this lady has done her job well. We in SC, have had more snow this year than in 4 average years and we're in the middle of a month long snap. Brown has advised away all effects of Global Warming in the two short years she's been in the job. (I'm assuming she took the job in 2009, I really don't know)

I have a suggestion to President Obama regarding her replacement. I think he has an opportunity to show his leadership skills, show is fiscal strength and show his climate change knowledge all at the same time. When he studies the matter and looks for a replacement hopefully, he will heed my advice. Next candidate for climate advisor? Nobody.

Monday, January 24, 2011

State of the Union Preview

About a week ago, I made a joke about a mayor's "State of the City" address. Unfortunately, I'm not sure the humor came through. But it seems like it must be a slow news cycle because all of the internet is buzzing about something that hasn't happened yet, President Obama's third State of the Union speech.

There's discussion on which Supreme Court Justices will show up. Last year, the president took the Constitution-required speech and added political comments criticizing the Supremes. If they don't show up, it won't be the first time, but it's sure to garner a lot of attention.

And there's a lot of talk about what the President will say. So I thought I'd lay out my predictions:

- One of the survivors of the Tucson shooting will be present and the President will early on offer support for Rep. Giffords. The President will talk about civility, words that heal and not hurt, etc. There will be a moment of silence for the Federal Judge and others who lost their lives.

- The President will talk about the Obamacare law, how good it is and how the congress should not repeal it. He'll vow to fight for the law

- The President will talk about jobs & the economy. He'll talk about how he inherited this mess and it's much worse than anyone thought. But he'll say that he's accepting responsibility for fixing it.

- The President will say something about the recent Chinese President Hu Jintao.This will be related to economics and will make the president look good.  (I think this will be something that no one expected).

- After 30-45 minutes of applause, etc, the President will spend 1-2 minutes talking about foreign policy, Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea and other countries of the world.

- There will be a Republican presponse to the State of the Union. They will focus on the economy, repealing Obamacare and say some nice things about Rep. Giffords and the Tucson shooting.

- No one will talk about gun control. It's a topic no one wants to touch.

- Republicans may talk about TARP and other past stimulus packages.

So, watch the speeches and give me a score.. If you want to make your own predictions, feel free, I'll score you also...

*Update* I'm also predicting Pres. Obama will speak preemptively about the debt ceiling. By doing so, he will box Republicans in a corner.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Running for president

About two years ago, I announced I was running for president. (see here) While I didn't garner quite enough votes to beat out then-Senator Obama, I did managed to spend a few blog posts detailing my ideas of what the next president should do.

It turns out, I may have started too late. I found this article today that says 76 people have already registered to run in 2012. Maybe I should throw my name into the hat once again?

From the article, it looks getting my name on the ballot in my home state. SC requires candidates to get signatures from 10,000 register voters. I know my mom will sign, that's only 9,999 more to go (I might be able to count on my wife, depends on if I took out the garbage last night - which I don't remember). It might be easier to start on the ballot in New Hampshire, where all you have to do is pay a $1,000 fee and fill out a form.

I'm already behind in my fund raising, one of my soon-to-be competitors, Randy Knill (gotta love that first name), from my neighboring state has already raised $349. That's about $348 more than I raised in my last election attempt. And the competition will be fierce, one of the candidates is Rutherford B. Hayes. My first thought was that he won the presidency before and he would be a little old by the time he was elected (he was 188 on his last birthday). But it turns out this Hayes is younger and no relationship to President #19. (This Hayes is only 42)

As a side note, I found out that the election of the first Rutherford B. Hayes was very close, a difference of 19 electoral votes. Additionally, 20 of the electoral votes were in question and could have changed the election all together. According to this article, Hayes was awarded the presidency in return for ending Reconstruction. South Carolina and Florida played a crucial role. I guess there were hanging chads in the election of 1876.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

House of Representatives votes to repeal Obamacare

Unless you missed the news, you already knew this. No surprise, this was what many representatives ran their campaign on. The vote was 245 to 189, with three Democratic representatives crossing party lines to join all 242 republicans.

Reports I had read called this "bi-partisan", but I'm not convinced. I haven't see all of the details, but sounds like this was almost 100% party line split. That disappoints me.

Reading this report from Comedy Central, I found an interesting line. Read it very carefully:

It's always adorable when the Senate reminds the House, "You're just a ginormous receptacle for Americans who actually believe in the delusion of representative democracy."

Sadly, I think the writer's correct. The Senate doesn't believe we should have the delusion of a representative democracy. I guess in 2 years, we have to show them.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Fist Time Home Buyer's Tax Credit - Payback Time

If you're one of the people who bought a home in 2008 and received the $7,500 tax credit it's payback time. (For those who purchased in 2009 or 2010 and received the $8,000 credit, this does not apply, as long as you still own the home). The original First Time Home Buyer's Tax credit was actually a loan. The $7,500 has to be paid back over 15 years, starting this year.

The loan is interest fee, so you only have to pay back $500 each year. Form 5405 contains instructions for the payback. You also have to pay back the credit (either $7,500 or $8,000) if you keep the house less than three years. In this case, the amount is due back in the tax year that you sold the house. The amount of repayment is limited to any gain you might have on the sale of the home. Some other exclusions apply, but read the form and instructions for full details.

It may seem unfair to the 2008 home buyer that he only received $7,500 and has to pay it back while the 2009 or 2010 home buyer received $8,000 and he gets to keep it. Fair or not, that's the tax law. It's possible that congress would change to law to forgive the $7,500 loan, but my guess is, it won't. The current congress is more interested in reducing the debt than helping one small group of taxpayers. The realtors who fought so hard for the credit have now moved on to new buyers and aren't likely to fight for a tax break for the buyer from three years ago.

One bit of good news is that the $7,500 was real money. If you had taken that money and invested in a small CD making 2% interest (I know that's hard to find now, but let's assume), you would end up with over $2,000 at the end of the payback time. Of course, the intent of the tax credit was to stimulate the economy, so it's better if you actually spent that money instead of bankrolling it.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

You're yelling so loud, I can't hear what you're saying...

In the last several days, there have been a lot of outcries from both left and right about the Tucson shooting. Unfortunately, I'm not sure if anyone is listening. Instead, both sides are shouting as loud as they can, trying to drown out the other party. In the end, no one wins and we all become a little more deaf.

In his speech, President Obama suggested that we should talk to each other in a manner "that heals, not in a way that wounds." Like many times before, I agree with the President. I hope he means what he says and (more importantly) I hope that he does what he says. He is our leader and he needs to lead. This means that in political speeches, he needs to stop lashing out at those that disagree with him. I saw a list of things he'd said about his opposition and I won't repeat it here. But my point is, if he wants things to change, he should lead.

We also need to find a way to listen to others when we disagree. For too long, that hasn't been the case (on both sides). Instead, we push the ideas completely aside and ignore the message. If a person is in favor of abortion, shouldn't we try to understand why? If a person is opposed, shouldn't we listen, instead of just saying they must be a religious fanatic? (and yes, I chose a very divisive topic to make my point).

And most of all, shouldn't we listen even when the other party is yelling?

A couple of examples come to mind. A year ago, I posted about Pat Robertson and his opinions on Haiti. Seems Robertson said some things (as usual) that folks didn't like. His real message included a call for help and prayer for the Haitians. Now who could disagree with that? Another example is the so-called Westboro Church. They protest at funerals. Yet when you listen or read some of the details of what they say, they aren't much different than those in mainstream churches. The MANNER in which they say it and the TIMING are all designed to inflame -- and they do that quite well.

Both of these are extreme examples of how the yelling overpowers what is being said. So are these people at fault or are the people complaining about them? Both. If it weren't for all the complaints, the people would (eventually) go away. In a free society, there will be those who speak out in an inflammatory manner. All we can do is ignore them and hope for some real leadership.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Donations for Haiti

This blogpost makes note of the anniversary of Haiti in a not-too-positive way. The blogger notes that the Red Cross raised $32million on text messages alone - $10 at a time. But the blogger also notes that there's very little accounting for where the money went.

One side note is the blogger mentioned that the Disaster Accountability Project asked 200 charities where the money went and only 38 responded. The blogger does give details on the 200 or the 38. This is one reason I believe blogging will never replace real reporting, but the blogger isn't trying to report, just to make a point.

The question to take away from this is how should we help countries like Haiti when disasters like this strike? Should we ignore them altogether as some in the comments have said? Why not go in, take over the government, fix everything and give it back? It would be cheaper.

Unfortunately, there are things like sovereignty that get in the way. And there's no guarantee that if we did this we could find capable people to accept it when we finished.

I'm a firm believer in helping these people out, and helping them in a small, direct way. Agencies like Samaritan’s Purse have a low overhead and directly help people. One of the commenters to the blog note that we should take in more water purifiers, porta-potties, etc. This is a win-win solution, US wins because we manufacture some of those things and Haiti wins because they need them.

There are several people who commented that the people can't be helped until the government changes. While that's probably true, there's little you or I can do to change the government. We can either continue to send money in useless ways or we can find better ways to spend our money (or we can just ignore the situation).

See also my post about the Haiti Relief effort and Pat Robertson here.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Should we treat congressmen like everyone else?

Yesterday, I posted some comments about the shooting in Arizona. One major concern I have is for the democratic process in this country, that congress will start interacting with constituents less than they have in the recent past.

Seems a congressman from my very state has already begun to think that way. Jim Clyburn, from the Charleston SC area, thinks congress should be treated differently than common people like you & me. It seems that Clyburn is uneasy going through airports (how that's related to a parking lot shooting, I'll never understand). Specifically, he said “We’ve had some incidents where TSA authorities think that congresspeople should be treated like everybody else." (see more about his time on Fox News yesterday in this post).

In looking at this, I'm reminded of two quotes from "The Miracle at Philadelphia", a book on the writing and ratification of our constitution. It said "in America, one saw a member of congress seated in a stage coach beside a laborer who had voted for him." It also said  "here the equality of man... was put into practice, accepted as an everyday fact."

Sadly, some in Congress see themselves as more equal than the rest of us.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Shooting in Arizona

Yesterday, I was studying with the television on when the news station broke into regularly scheduled news with news about the shooting in Arizona. For over 3 hours, the news program did not break for a commercial, but gave out the news as it came in.

They did some verification of the information, probably as best they could. Other news stations were quicker to give out information (they quoted NPR a couple of times and were wrong almost every time they did).

I've already seen some information from both sides showing how the shooting was the other sides' fault. At this point, it looks to me like the fault lies with one very deranged individual.

My immediate concern is for the families of those involved in the shooting. Rep Giffords and her family, Judge Roll's family and the family of Christina-Taylor Green, the nine year old girl who was killed.

Longer term, I am concerned about our American Democracy. Rep. Giffords was meeting her constituents when she was targeted. In the last election, a lot of congressmen and congresswomen had their town hall meetings broken up by people who wanted to make their points and ignored the other people in the room.

But I'm also concerned that we have come to the point where we are afraid to speak our minds for fear that some deranged individual will go off shooting at people.

Pray for the families involved and pray for our country.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

To itemize or not to itemize - that is the question

Ok, I'm not a poet. But someone asked me about itemizing deductions this week and I couldn't resist the title. So, should you itemize your deductions on your taxes? As always, the easy answer is "it depends."

For couples who file jointly, are under 65 and are not blind, the standard deduction is $11,400. That means you have to have deductions higher than $11,400 to make itemizing worthwhile. What can be itemized? Mortgage interest, state and local taxes (income tax or sales tax - but not both), real estate taxes, taxes on a new motor vehicle and gifts to charity are fully deductible. If these total up (or come close to) your standard deduction, then itemization makes good sense. In SC, taxes aren't high enough to force the issue alone, so mortgage interest and charitable giving usually are the factors that answer the question.

There are other deductions too. Medical and dental expenses that exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income is deductible. That sounds hard, but start by taking a look at your income and multiply by .075. If your medical expenses are more than that, proceed, if not, just let them go.

Years ago, someone told me you could deduct shoe polish. The logic was you polished your shoes for work, so it was a job expense. While I would question shoe polish under any circumstance, job expenses have to exceed 2% of your adjusted gross income. Most people that have a job that requires polished shoes have a high income and shoe polish won't come up to that much money.

By all means you should do the math every year to see if itemization helps you. Some people worry about being audited. My advise follows Will Rogers' saying "I'm happy to be an American and happy to pay my taxes. But I could be a lot happier for a lot less money." In other words, don't worry about being audited, do what's right, document your numbers and take every deduction that is legally allowed.

So what do you think? Will you itemize this year?

Thursday, January 06, 2011


It's that time of year again, the time when we all start looking at income taxes. This year, we get an extra 3 days to fill out the forms, they aren't due until April 18. That's because April 16 falls on a Saturday. Confused? Well, April 16 is Emancipation Day, a holiday in Washington DC. This marks the anniversary of the date Lincoln freed the 3100 slaves living in the District of Columbia.

Since Emancipation Day falls on Saturday, residents of DC will celebrate the holiday (by taking a day off work) on Friday, April 15. Since tax returns can't be processed on a holiday, they aren't due until Monday, April 18.

We may need that extra time, because many people are being asked to wait until mid-to-late February to file. This IRS bulletin indicates that anyone who 1) itemizes deductions, 2) claims the deduction for higher education or 3) claims the Educator Expense Deduction should wait. Of course, you can start your return earlier, but you'll do better to wait until the final forms are available.

If you don't fall into one of the three categories above, you can start on your 2010 taxes anytime. If your income us $49,000 or less, you qualify to have your taxes done for free by IRS trained volunteers. Also, the IRS helps the elderly with their taxes. And there are many websites that allow free filing for taxpayers.

So start gathering your receipts and get your taxes ready. There are only 102 days left.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Wal-Mart Part 2

Yesterday I posted a long blog entry about the video Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices. If you can watch the video with an open mind, I recommend it. Basically, it's 97 minutes of anti-Wal-Mart propaganda. In my post, I promised to give my opinions on Wal-Mart.

Personally, I don't like the store. Wal-Mart is all about low prices at whatever cost. As noted in the comments, they buy a lot of Chinese products, so buying at Wal-Mart sends a lot of money to China. I don't consider this a big deal, but would rather that money stay in a country friendly to the US. Of course, if a US company could make the same product as cheaply as a Chinese company, I have no doubt that Wal-Mart would switch. And I'm a strong capitalist, you go with the lowest cost product.

But Wal-Mart also seems to play some stock games. I've noticed that the stores have frequent stock-outs. I think there are a couple of reasons for this, one is that they are popular. Customers go in and buy all of an item and the store can't get it restocked quickly enough. Or, in some cases, I believe they intentionally have stock-outs in order to get you to come back the next day. And in some cases, they are trying to keep inventory costs down, so they let shelves stay empty.

Wal-Mart also favors low prices at the expense of service. Finding an employee when you're shopping is difficult, finding a knowledgeable employee is almost impossible. Ask where is an item and you'll get a better answer from the mom shopping with a baby than you will from an employee. When it's time for check-out, you'll see they have 28 registers and only 4 of them open (the local Wal-Mart has gotten better at this).

Wal-Mart is not on my list of favorite stores. But I still visit. They have everything. I can be (barring stock-outs) assured that I can go in one time and find everything I need. And if I'm out of town, they are usually easy to find. What do you think of the store?

Monday, January 03, 2011


For Christmas, my wife and I gave ourselves a Wii. More about that later, but one of the benefits of the Wii is the ability to stream Netflix to our aging, non-HD, non-digital, non-flat screen TV. So, we also reactivated our Netflix account and watched some movies. I've had some documentaries on my list for a while, so I watched "Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices"

Most of you who know me probably are surprised that I would even watch this movie. The trailers at the end give credit to, ACLU, ACORN and AFL-CIO along with a lot of others. Not exactly my top 4 BFF's. But I wanted to see what the anti-Wal-Mart movement is all about.

I initially thought the documentary was well done, however one error blew that away. In showing some newsclips, the video showed a story about a crime committed in a Wal-Mart parking lot in Taylors, SC. The newscaster was from one of the major towns close to Taylors and she accurately pronounced the town name. However, the caption super-imposed on the story said "Taylor, SC". Now a missing "s" might not be noticeable to those outside the upstate, but it stood out to me. My father was born near Taylors and I bought my first car in that area. My sister lives in that zip code and my daughter's in-laws are either in Taylors or Greer depending on the way the wind blows. My advice to Wal-Mart haters is to at least get the names of the towns right, it's important to some people.

The beginning of the video focused on towns laying down the red carpet for Wal-Mart. Later it talked about subsidies, in the form of towns paying for infrastructure: access roads, sewer, water, etc. It also talked about the small family businesses that were run out of business by Wal-Mart. I have to agree with this mantra to a certain extent. Towns and counties need to be very careful when enticing big business into the area. We've had some dispute about bringing a Bass-Pro shop to the area and I don't believe we should do it by giving away tax breaks we don't give to small businesses. The opposite side of this coin is the tax breaks we gave to big manufacturers (notably BMW and Boeing) that bring jobs and other business to the state. If a competitor to these big manufacturers wants to come to SC, we should give them the same tax breaks.

The video gave some stories that seemed to conflict with each other. For example, they would talk about the shortage of workers, forcing people to work longer hours and work on days off. Then they talked about how Wal-Mart doesn't let workers get enough hours and threatening them with replacement.

One part of the story focused on security in Wal-Mart parking lots. It was suggested that Wal-Mart have security patrols ride through the parking lot regularly. I don't know of any store that does this. I've been to malls in several cities, Costco stores, and grocery stores that have parking lots that could also be dangerous: no patrols. When there are patrols, the frequency is so low as to easily be missed. I don't see how this reduces parking-lot crime.

It was pointed out that Wal-Mart has cameras, but it was suggested that these were for anti-union activities. Maybe being anti-union has benefits? The Wal-Marts close to us do have cameras, and SC is far from a union hot-bed (although some manufacturing plants are unionized - a story for another day). One "security expert" said the cameras at Wal-Mart do nothing for security unless someone is watching them, however he completely ignored the deterrent effect. Also, even if someone was watching the camera, I don't believe they could stop a crime in process.

One part of the video focused on the discrimination that it claims is prevalent at Wal-Mart. When I complained about some problems at the local Wal-Mart, I was called back by a manager who was an African-American female. I guess Wal-Mart isn't as discriminatory in the south.

Most of the video focused on the way workers were treated: low pay and low/no benefits. I'm a believer in an employees right to work. If an employee doesn't like his job or feels he deserves more pay and/or benefits, he should get another job. If he doesn't have a degree that would allow him to get a better job, he should go back to school.

One aspect I found interesting was the claim that Wal-Mart encourages workers to seek out government assistance in the form of WIC and medicaid. By paying low-wages and offering no benefits, they are relying on government "subsidies" the video declares. Seems like a simple solution would be for the government to stop these subsidies and force Wal-Mart employees to look for other employment. This same argument would apply to subsidies for infrastructure mentioned above. But this flies in the face of more medicaid, Obamacare and more welfare. Maybe this is one inconsistency Michael Moore doesn't see.

The movie ended with a redeeming quality. It told communities how to fight Wal-Mart. Two communities were noted: Chandler, Az and Inglewood, Ca. These communities didn't want Wal-Mart to come in, so they had community meetings to educate residents. The processes they used were (mostly) above board and legal. The video shots did show one minister mis-quoting the Bible, but most shots seemed very clear. I'm all for communities voicing their issues this way, but I'm opposed to legislating a business out of business the way some anti-Wal-Mart'ers would do.

I did note the list of cities/towns where the video-maker claims Wal-Mart has been stopped. One interesting town listed was Belmont, NC. However, Belmont was also featured in the portion of the video on Wal-Mart's lack of environmental care. Seems that maybe Wal-Mart was not completely stopped. I also noted other cities that were listed that I believe have Wal-Marts (I'll check on these later). Cities determined to stop Wal-Mart need to realize that Wal-Mart may build 5 miles outside city and the area will still have the same problems, with none of the benefits.

Overall, the video was interesting and educational. I'm glad I watched it.  I think it requires an open mind when viewing and don't recommend it to everyone. I don't think Wal-Mart is a bad as they are made out to be and will post my personal views on Wal-Mart tomorrow. But for today, I think I'm going to watch another documentary...

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy New Year - 2011 style

I don't know about you, but I'm thinking 2011 is going to be a great year. I'm not usually one to make resolutions and this year I don't want to break the trend. But I have pseudo-resolved to do more blogging, more reading and maybe even a little more exercise.

I've set a goal of climbing Table Rock (a nearby mountain) by my birthday in mid-April. I'm planning to do the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance thing again this year (it will be my third year) and I'm hoping to certify at a higher level. I've done a little financial coaching one-on-one (or rather two-on-one and one-on-two) and want to continue with that as well.

From a job standpoint, I'm hoping this year will be better than last. In 2010, I started with a lot of questions and went through 6 months with no direction. To have ended the year as well as I did seems to indicate that 2011 will be even better.

How about you? Any resolutions, goals or predictions?