Monday, November 19, 2018

Broke, USA


"Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds, nineteen shillings and six pence, result happiness. 
Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery."
- Wilkins Micawber, in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

With that quote begins a fascinating book from 2011 that I just became aware of.   Broke, USA by Gary Rivlin details the abuses of the consumer finance industry in exploiting the working poor.   It is a good book, although a depressing read.  And the big problem with the book is that it is not aimed at the working poor, who likely will not be able to plow through its many pages of sad reading, but rather at the middle class, in explaining to them what is going on.

The initial profile in the book is a case in point.  A poor but decent person moves back to his hometown in retirement with his wife.  They buy a modest house for $60,000.  His wife gets sick, and he refinances the house to pay bills.  HFC sticks him with a loan at over 13% interest, plus a home equity line-of-credit at nearly 20%, and the whole deal is laden with junk fees and mortgage insurance, which is a waste of good money.

The sad thing is, the guy thought he was getting a loan at 7.2% and relied on verbal promises by the closing agent that that is exactly what he got.  He either didn't bother to read, or was unable to read, the not-so-fine-print on the many documents, one of which should have disclosed the interest rates on the loans in pretty clear terms.

So you know how it plays out.  With his mortgage rate nearly doubled, and medical expenses piling on, he loses the house and ends up in a trailer (where, ironically, he started out years before in Florida, before moving back to his home state and buying a house).   And in a way, you can see why the poor live in trailers - they are a very simple financial transaction, if not a favorable one.  The prospect of losing your trailer is not as scary as losing your home.

(Of course, the first mistake he made was putting medical expenses on a credit card.   If you are facing a medical bankruptcy, your home and your retirement accounts may be protected.   But when you convert medical debt into a home equity loan, all bets are off - you end up in foreclosure).

Now to most middle-class people, there are two reactions.  The first is that it is a real pity - and a real crime - that these poor folks were taken advantage of, that is, assuming the facts are as told by one side of the story.   The second reaction is, how can someone be so stupid?

And right there is the problem with money in America.  If you are stupid with money, you are poor.  The smarter you are with money, the wealthier you are.   This is not to say that sometimes dumb people end up with money - our President is a prime example.  However, as many have noted, his vaunted business acumen is anything but.  He would be wealthier today if he merely invested his inheritance from his Dad in an index fund.

The most profitable enterprise Trump got into was the branding of his name and the creation of his reality-show personality - two things that are being quickly eroded by his entry in to extreme partisan politics.  Someone smart with money might shy away from politics - I wonder if former Mayor Bloomberg realizes this.   But then again, he actually has money - lots of it - and is not merely a branding franchise.  But I digress.

The book was written after the crash of 2008, and outlines the impetus for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that was created under the Obama Administration (and systematically dismantled under Trump).   If only we could protect these poor people from themselves, we think, they wouldn't fall into these financial traps!

It is a nice thought, but a futile one.  If you really want to protect the poor, you could start by closing the thousands upon thousands of casinos that have opened up across America in the last few decades.  And the lotteries - the unseen tax on the poor.  Shitty deals abound for the poor, I am not sure what closing off one avenue would do.   And as I have noted before, if you make something illegal, often you either drive it underground, or the shysters find new ways around the laws.   If you outlaw "buy here, pay here" used car sales - another scam aimed at the poor - they just morph into "lease here, pay here" deals and avoid your new rules.

The poor will always be with us, Jesus said, and I am starting to get an inkling of what he was getting at.  No matter how fair you try to make the system, there will always be people who just don't understand money and squander it in short order.   Myself, I say this from experience, as in my early life, I spent money willy-nilly and bounced checks and did other stupid things.   Today, of course, you bounce a check and you could end up in a for-profit jail or for-profit "diversion program" and owe hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in fees.    The system has always been stacked against the poor, it just seems in recent times, we have decided to harvest and slaughter them for profit.

A more recent article on CNBC discusses negative-option subscription services, which are still around and still annoying.   One company in particular, Adore Me, sells bras and swimsuits online, with a "subscription" that is opt-out at checkout.  If you don't uncheck the subscription box, you automatically are signed up to have $40 a month or so debited from your bank or credit card and saved as "store credit" on their site.  If you try to cancel this, they put you on hold and make it difficult to cancel.  If you cancel with store credit available, they keep the store credit.   Yes, the FTC sued, and there was a settlement.  But no word on whether this equates to all consumers getting all their money back.

What was jarring to me was the customer they profiled in the article.  She said she first noticed the monthly charges several months later when her debit card was declined.    That could have been me, at age 22, failing to balance my checking account for weeks or months on end.   Today, I balance it daily, which is a lot easier to do because we still have the Internet (despite Ajit Pai's best efforts).  Furthermore, my bank (Bank of America) sends multiple reminders whenever a charge is made on my credit card, and again when it is cleared.  They also send reminders of checks cashed, deposits made, and my daily balance - all of which is easy to set up on their site.   You can get reminders by text or e-mail.

So when I charge something on eBay or Amazon or whatever, my phone buzzes almost immediately with a new message from Bank of America - a charge has been made to your account!   It is hard for me to fathom how someone can let months go by without noticing a recurring charge on their account.  I would know in seconds.

But that is the new me.  The one that decided, a decade ago, to start this blog and stop being careless - at least too careless - with money.  In the old days, not long ago, I paid late fees and didn't think much about paying bills on time.  I put them all in a stack and paid them once a month or when my clients paid me.   It was a pretty stupid way of managing my finances.

Worse yet, I was a sucker for subscription services, "bundled" deals and other charges that eat away at your wealth.  And I was reluctant to sit down and talk about money with my spouse.  And I never set up a budget, thought about how much I was spending, whether my cash-flow was negative or positive, or whether my net worth was decreasing or increasing.

Well, that changed.  But the scary thing is, as a college educated person, I should have figured this out a long time ago.  My financial maturity didn't really kick in until age 40 or so.  For others with less smarts, perhaps it never does.

In her book about how poverty (and the United States) sucks, poverty lady complained that suggestions by "middle class people" on how to get ahead were of no use to her.  Save $5 a week?  That might only net you $260 a year! (which is better than $0 a year, but she doesn't see that).  Buy in bulk to save money?  Who can afford that?

To some extent, her critique has merit - once you fall down the ladder of poverty, the tricks and tips that the middle-class and upper-classes use to get ahead are of little use to you.   Hey, if you deposit $100,000 into an investment account at Bank of America, they will waive all bank charges and even stock trading fees!   Isn't that a useful tip for someone making minimum wage?

Once you have money, it becomes incrementally easier to make more money - you are offered the best rates and the best deals.  If you don't have money, you are offered the shittiest deals out there - and it is incumbent on you not to take them.

But, that is not to say the poor are off the hook for their own malfeasance.  Even in my spendthrift days, I had some modicum of smarts and skepticism about finances. And when I made boner mistakes, (such as buying a brand-new car at age 21) I realized quickly they were mistakes and didn't do something stupid like double-down my bet by trading in for yet another new car.

I knew, even at that tender age, that I had to look out for my own interests.  I knew, for example, that:
1.  The guy trying to sell me something - anything - was not my friend, no matter how friendly he seemed. 
2.  That verbal promises were meaningless, even without the statute of frauds (anything dealing with real estate has to be in writing). Just because some salesman says something, doesn't make it true. 
3.  Advertisements are not factual documentaries, but a series of small lies designed to get you to buy things.
4.  Anything that seems too-good-to-be-true probably is.  When someone tells you that you can "have it all now" and pay later, odds are, it is a shifty deal. 
5.  The marketplace is an adversarial battleground.  Just because the guy at the corner store smiles and is nice to you, doesn't mean that his financial interests aren't often diametrically opposed to yours.  Yes, sure, he wants happy return customers.  But yes, he also is making a profit from each and every purchase you make.
The last is critical.  You have to approach every financial transaction from selling a house to buying a stick of gum as a battle that ends up in a draw (in a best case scenario).   In every situation, each side hopes to put one over on the other (or would prefer to).   We all crow about the "bargain" we got at the store - thinking we "won" in that transaction - but in most cases, we actually lost, or at best, it was a tie.

Of course, the easiest way to avoid these problems is to consume less, and thus get involved in fewer transactions.

Of course, where I learned these basic principles was, in part, from my parents - who were middle-class people whose families had clawed their way up the economic ladder from poverty.  They learned firsthand, that ripoffs abounded, and schooled their kids not to make those mistakes.

For people born into poverty, there likely is no such schooling.   And compounding this is the blaring megaphone of commerce - online and on the television - that promotes its own agenda.  People pay hundreds of dollars a month for cell service, and then tell you how they scored a "free" cell phone from the phone company.   They just don't get it.

So while I support the idea of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, I am skeptical it will accomplish much.   The poor will always find ways to make themselves poorer.   And no they are not reading this blog. 

And that is why I say, I didn't write this blog to help the poor, or in fact to help anyone at all, other than myself.  I guess the bottom line is, we each have to look out for ourselves, and that is a very hard thing to do.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Stormtrooper Killed in Rebel Raid Was Family Man, Hoped to Graduate from College

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He was so young and full of hope.

CORUSCANT - The names of the victims of the latest rebel attack were announced today.  Among them was a young Private, who left behind a wife and children, as well as his dreams of a better life.

Pvt. Jones graduated with distinction from Stormtrooper academy and had served several years on the Death Star before being transferred to Tatoonine.  He was attending Darth Vader Academy, an on-line for-profit school run by the Dark Lord, and hoped to graduate this spring.

He leaves behind a wife and two young children.  "He didn't deserve this," General Veers noted, "We'll make sure the rebel scum pay for this!"

He will be missed by friends and family.

* * *

OK, maybe that was in bad taste.  But it illustrates how one person's "good guy" is another person's "bad guy."  And in today's climate, we seem to be rooting for the bad guys a lot of the time.   The entire premise of the Star Wars franchise is that a rebel alliance were the good guys and the status quo needed to be destroyed.

If you parlay this into present-day terms, well, think about it.  Who are the "brave rebels" in today's world, and who is the "evil empire"?   Darth Trump?

Yet so many people indulge themselves in this rebel chic.  Many secretly root for the enemies of our country, or at least secretly admire their style.  When I was a kid, my older brother had a "Che" flag hanging in his dorm room, and a copy of Chairman Mao's "Little Red Book" in his back pocket.  The fact that the "cultural revolution" was going on in China at the time made this last item particularly obscene.

Looking up to my older siblings, I thought this was cool too, and even made a "Che" shirt with silkscreen.   It was the style at the time - and even today.  We laud "Che" in the "Motorcycle Diaries" as a rebel with a cause - to help Bolivian miners.   And the media, particularly on the Left, still posit he was a hero.

Then I met a friend of mine who escaped from Cuba in 1968, and the story he told me was something different.   While Batista was no sweetheart, and the American Mafia did run a lot of the Cuban economy, Che Guevara was a merciless child-killer, not some rebel hero.  I promised him that someday, we'll take a boat to Cuba, swim ashore, and blow up the statue of Guevara in his home town of Santa Clara.  Fuck Che. Fuck the Taliban.  Fuck ISIS. And yes, fuck white supremacists and "Antifa" idiots, too!

Che chic was in during the 1960's. Less so, today.


Violence is an easy answer to complex questions, and easy answers are usually the wrong answers.   Working to change things from within is a lot harder - but it usually does get things done.   Our generation "won" the cultural battles of the 1960's, not through rioting and bombings, but by getting older, taking jobs and becoming the new status quo.

This whole "rebel" thing is overdone, but yet it appeals to every new generation that comes along.   And why is this?   Well, it is just an extension of teenage rebellion - a way of overthrowing their parents' authority and the authority of older people who seem to hold all the cards (and the money) and make the rules, when you are just starting out.   No one bothers to think that the old fart who is fat and happy probably started out just as they are, with nothing.

That is, of course, the only good news about the whole situation.    People often espouse radical ideas when they are young.  They want their turn in the sun, and they see overthrowing the system as the only alternative.  But as they get older, and start accumulating wealth, a funny thing happens - sharing it with others seems less and less an attractive idea.

Kyrsten Sinema started out, years ago, as an openly bisexual left-wing Green party candidate.   I think she realized that was a non-starter, and over the years, her politics became more conservative, and as a result, she won election not as an Beto-like radical, but as a middle-of-the-road Democrat.

Her path isn't unusual.   The hippies and yippies turned into yuppies by the late 1970's, for the most part.  Others, such as my brother, didn't get the memo that actually having nice things wasn't evil, but in fact a human instinct.   While his compatriots were getting jobs and snorting coke at the disco, he was strumming a guitar and smoking pot in an unheated barn in Vermont - for a decade or more.  The communes fell apart because people are people - and people want to improve their lives, not wallow in squalor.

So what's the point of all of this?  Perhaps nothing.  But perhaps that buying into someone else's political cause isn't necessarily the best thing for your own personal interests.   Becoming a member of the "SDS" and blowing up buildings and killing people, isn't solving any of the problems of our society, but rather creating more.

As it turns out, the violent radicals didn't cause any change in our society.  In fact, you could argue they impeded change, as people reacted (justifiably) to violence, and that the use of violence discredited the causes they were fighting for.   So not only is getting sucked into rebel chic a waste of your own life, it ends up negating the very causes you are supposedly fighting for.  And let's face it, half the people involved in this sort of nonsense aren't really causistas, but just violent people looking for an outlet for their malfeasant urges.  The "anarchist" dude trashing a McDonald's in a riot really doesn't have a political cause, he just likes to smash things (and eventually, people).

Sadly, the allure of being a "rebel" will not fade away anytime soon.  And new images replace the old, to continually stoke the romantic idea of the David-v-Goliath conflict.    Che really never died, he just morphed.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Prepping to Devour Your Fired-Roasted Chicken Chunks


Amazon didn't kill sears, the warehouse store did.

The BJ's wholesale catalog arrived the other day.  It is fascinating reading.  Of the three major "warehouse" stores - Costco, Sam's Club, and BJ's, the latter is clearly the cheapest and has the best variety of items for the dollar.  Sam's club is just a bewildering collection of stuff - packages of 30 pork chops, for example.   And the prices aren't that great.  Costco is definitely more upscale, but you pay a price - a dear one - for shopping there.

Back in the old days, when Mom went shopping, it was to the local merchants, the downtown department stores, or to a chain store.  Of the chain stores, there were the bottom-feeders like Kmart and Caldors.   But the cream of the crop was Sears - where America shops.   It wasn't necessarily the highest quality or the best price, but for the suburbanite, there were few other choices.

Today, you can go to a "warehouse" store and buy items in five-gallon containers.  Or bring home a trampoline or swingset that will be the envy of the neighborhood - all at a price that undercuts even Wal-Mart on occasion.   Sears didn't stand a chance.  Amazon was merely the coupe-de-grace, not the fundamental reason for the fall of Sears.

 But reading this sales catalog from BJ's is always an interesting insight into the minds of the average American.  After all, these are the products that people actually buy and what people want.  And in the food department these days, it is convenience.

Foods that are stupidly easy to prepare are pre-prepared for you.   Even my psychotic mother who was the world's worse chef (her idea of a special meal was a minute steak and Birdseye succotash, the latter being boiled for 40 minutes, "just to be sure") could prepare macaroni-and-cheese from scratch - not even from a Kraft box.   Boil water, insert macaroni, cook it, put it in a casserole, add cheese and butter, bake.  How hard is that?

But apparently this is too hard for the new generation, so we have frozen prepared Mac-n-cheese, which is a "thing" these days in the comfort food business.  That and tater tots, which was a West Coast sensation - every restaurant we went to in California had tater tots on the menu, even some "upscale" ones.

The names for the prepared meals made me want to vomit.   One company called their frozen entrees "Devour" which is as sickening as waiters who ask you, "how is your food tasting?"   Devour?  Worse yet, the packaging shows the food (e.g., mac-n-cheese, tortellini) impaled on a fork.  Not just a little bit, but a big wad of the stuff, impaled on an upright fork, as if to tantalize us.  I have a suggestion for them - instead, show a small child with his mouth open and the food half-chewed. After all, that is what many families are going to see anyway, right?  You'd sell a million of 'em!

And it would be about just as appetizing.

"Devour" is about as bad as "Gobble" - the name of a meal "prep" kit that advertises heavily on NPR.  Who wants to "Gobble" food?  That is nearly as bad as "Devouring" it.

Another product was called "Fire Roasted Chunks" which also made me throw up a bit in my mouth.  Chunks?  You are kidding me.   "Pass over some of them chunks, please!"   Worse yet, the name of the company was "Cooked Perfect" which is not to be confused with a similarly named company, "Cooked Perfect-Like".    Cooked Perfect?   How about "Cooked Perfectly"?   Sadly, this use of the English language seems to be the norm now, as I see all sorts of ads for things "done perfect" or whatever these days.

What really alarmed me was that some marketing company no doubt convened a focus group and "Fire Roasted Chunks" is what tested best with them.  Someone actually thought this was a good idea.   Someone thought chunks were a food item, and not what you throw up after you've had too much to drink.

Language is an interesting thing, and it isn't static.   Doing something "Perfect" instead of "Perfectly" is now acceptable grammar - I can't fight this.   And other words enter the lexicon and have their day in the sun.  For some reason, the Oxford English Dictionary chose "Toxic" as their "word of the year."  Yet, I don't think I've seen this used much, outside of describing the Trump Whitehouse.

"Prep" is my candidate for word of the year in 2019.  In the same brochure from BJ's was an ad showing a pile of cleaning agents in front of a Christmas tree, with the notation, "Prep your home for the Holidays!"  Prep your home?  Perhaps they mean Prepare or even Clean?    "This is your captain speaking, please Prep for landing!"   I can see it now.

Perhaps this came from the medical industry (which is an industry, and quite a profitable one, despite what you may hear), where "prepping for surgery" was a thing.   But outside that, I haven't seen it much used.  Then again, I don't watch television.  Maybe they say it on "CSI" a lot or something.

But the word is taking hold.  I noted twice before that I have seen Prepper magazine on the news stands in the grocery store - in Alaska and Northern California (excuse me, the new "State of Jefferson" according to some home-made billboards).  It is a magazine for people preparing - excuse me, prepping for the end times, the meltdown of the economy or the coming of aliens, zombies, or worse yet, President Hillary Clinton.  There are even stores in Alaska offering "Prepper Supplies, on sale!"

So, "Prep" has legs.  It is even a name of a prescription medication, designed to prevent the spread of the HIV virus.  So you can go and have risky sex with strangers now, because you've "Prepped" beforehand.  I asked a doctor about this and he said unless you are having unsafe sex, it is not really necessary, and it can burn out your liver and kidneys, if you are older.

But I digress.

I have to go now.  I have to go to the kitchen and prep my pre-made fire-roasted chicken chunks in the microwave.  I can't wait to devour them.  I am sure they will taste perfect.

Today is a Good Day To Die

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I do not cling to life sufficiently to fear death.” ― Alexandre Dumas,The Three Musketeers

In a previous posting, I took a piss on the "homeless" people in New Orleans, who use dogs as begging props.  As I noted in that posting, the real tragedy isn't the inconvenience these folks pose to the rest of us, but that they are squandering the best years of their lives on a stupid endeavor:
"The real tragedy is that these kids are throwing their lives away in an orgy of self-pity and drug abuse. They are at the age where, under normal circumstances, they would be getting their first apartment, their first job, falling in love, and getting married - and possibly having children. These are all wonderful things that will be denied to them.  That's what made me sad.  It's not that they are needy - in America people don't starve to death. They have enough food to eat, enough drugs to consume, and even a cellphone and a dog."
Sadly, most people, particularly in America, squander their lives in a similar fashion.  Perhaps we all do - none of us lives up to our potential.   But at least most of us manage to support ourselves and achieve at least some of the wonderful things life has to offer - particularly in America.

This tragedy is also problematic for the mentally ill.  As I noted before, having mentally ill people live on the streets or in their parents' basement isn't funny anymore.  Many of these "harmless kooks" attack people - often other homeless people - and injure or kill others.  Or they themselves are killed.  Or the mentally ill son living in the basement starts collecting guns (in one case, his Mom actually bought the gun for him!) and they go off on shooting sprees.

Sorry, but this isn't funny anymore - more and more people are losing empathy for these "less fortunate" souls who are as dangerous as hand grenades with the pin pulled out.

In another recent post, I was whining about how Obamacare is a hassle to deal with.  Getting concrete information on what your plan covers or doesn't cover is nearly impossible to do - the agencies and insurance companies are prime information hoarders and don't want to let out any hard data - by design.   Throw in bug-filled websites, bureaucracies and stodgy company structures, and it is frustrating and induces anxiety.   Do I actually have coverage?  What will it cover?  Will I lose my coverage if I make too much or too little?  Will I have to pay back tens of thousands of dollars in subsidies if this happens?    Obamacare was supposed to put peoples' minds at ease and relieve us of this stress.  It was supposed to make health care cheaper.   Instead, it cranks up the stress - each year, you have to re-sign up, within an increasingly narrow deadline, on a website that often crashes. 

Anxiety can consume us.  And I thought about this as we were driving into town.  A friend of ours is now a widow.   Her husband was mowing the lawn and he collapsed and died of a heart attack - three months shy of retirement.   I thought about this and it put my petty and trivial problems in perspective - and made me glad I had chosen to retire early and also travel and see Alaska, even if it is just one big tourist trap populated by end-times nutjobs and Sarah Palin (I am being redundant, I know).  I decided to let go and not worry about the health insurance - or anything else, for that matter.

The financial pages (particularly MSN) likes to harp on "you'll run out of money in retirement!" and "you should work until age 70!" which are mantras our corporate overlords want us to repeat. Borrow more, spend it all now, and never retire!   Those FIRE people are idiots!  You need $5M to retire, if ever!

But of course, they are wrong.  Even if my small hoard of cash lasts only 20 years, that would put me at age 78, which is the average life expectancy in America.   Given my health situation and genetics, I think that wouldn't be such a bad deal to live that long.   But of course, I can expect that my small hoard of cash will last longer than that, unless I develop a gambling habit.   And seeing how life is into the 90's, I am not sure I want those last few years, frankly.  As Woody Allen put is, "I'm not afraid of death, I just don't want to be around when it happens!"

Living on retirement island, we see death more firsthand.  It is sad, scary, and ugly.   Kids like to go to horror movies, but old people despise them - they are living them and don't need to be reminded how nasty death is.  My friend the widow not only has to deal with the grief and sadness of losing her husband, she had to deal with the horror-show of finding his body dead on the lawn.   Half of all spouses have to see their loved one die and it ain't pretty.   Then there is the financial nightmare of what to do, now that a big chunk of social security and pension money is now missing.  Being a widow is no Swiss picnic!

But I thought about this - how the realization of my eventual death put my present anxiety and depression (over spending a half-day on the phone and Internet dealing with Obamacare) in perspective.   My problems were trivial compared to the ultimate problem.   And once you accept this - and your inevitable demise - life is a lot less stressful.   Things we think are important are, well, less important than they seem.  In fact, much of what we obsess about, really isn't important at all.

And I thought about the people I've known in life who have mental illness.  Many have anxiety disorders or place undue importance on their emotions and feelings and as a result, squander most of their lives worrying about stuff when they could be enjoying stuff.  And maybe a chemical imbalance makes it so they can't help themselves.   Or maybe it is a spiral of negative thinking.  And maybe this spiral is aided and abetted by the press and the politicans, who wants us to obsess about "the news" and politics and the economy and jobs and terrorists and migrant caravans - or fill-in-the-blank on the outrage du jour.

Think about it - how many of these nutjobs who go off with a gun were obsessed about politics or their inability to get laid, or their general anger at other people who are actually happy and successful in life?   They are so "in touch" with their emotions, they fail to see the larger picture - that none of what we think is important really is all that important, in the greater scheme of life.

A friend who has anxiety attacks - panic attacks - relates that when they occur, they feel they are choking and can't breath.  They have this feeling of doom hanging over their head - that they are going to die.  And they freak out.   This fear of death is so intense, it prevents them from living.

And it is weird.  They are afraid of something that is inevitable.   And yes, panic attacks are no joke, and no, you can't necessarily control these electrical storms in your brain (except perhaps with medication).   But again, I am not "mad" at the mentally ill for being mentally ill.  I merely respect the fact that they can be as dangerous as a loaded handgun (and particularly so when carrying one) and even dangerous to your soul, if you try to form a relationship with a mentally ill person.  Sadly, when that person is your parent or sibling (check, check) you often don't have a choice in this matter, until you turn age 18 and can move away (sadly, many folks don't, caught in a long-term dance of death with a mentally ill family member.)

I also "feel sorry" for them in that they - like the "homeless" beggars on the street (who are often in the same subset) are missing out on so much in life.   I don't feel sorry for their condition, but for what they are missing.  To be mentally ill is to mean you may miss out on happiness, love, relationships, forming your own family, having an enjoyable vocation, or indeed, having anything.

Now granted, some succeed in spite of this handicap.  In fact, some of the greatest achievers in the world often have some mental handicap to overcome.  But these are often the exception, not the rule.

Another friend has a daughter who is mentally ill.  At an age where she should be starting her career and dating and maybe thinking about having babies and buying a house, she is locked up in a halfway house - denied access to the Internet or even phones.  Her own parents have restraining orders against her.  When off her meds, she gets violent and makes threats or even attacks people, including family members.  Sort of reminds me of my dear old Mom, who got quite stabby when she went into a fugue state.

Whether she will ever be able to live a normal life remains to be seen.  It is a familiar pattern to me, having seen it in friends, roommates, boyfriends, girlfriends, and family members.  They go on their "meds" which make them behave more normally.   But once on the "meds" they feel fine and think, "I don't need this medication anymore, I'm cured!" and also the meds often have side-effects, so there is incentive to stop taking them.  So they stop taking their medication and the paranoid delusions start coming back, and before long, there is some sort of incident where the the Police are called, and with any luck, they are re-institutionalized, put back on their medications, and the process is repeated - yet again.

And many spend their short lives (and they are often foreshortened) doing this again and again - maybe a dozen times or more.   It is nothing short of cruelty.   They get one step ahead and then fall two steps behind.  Only in a controlled environment could they advance any amount at all.  But today, once a "client" is stabilized, they are handed a pill bottle and let go onto the streets.

And that, in short, is where a lot of these homeless people come from.  And it is very sad, for them, and for the rest of us as well.   It is sad to see life squandered and potential snuffed out.

UPDATE:  While I was typing this, we received a text message from another friend, who has had to take her husband off life support.   And to think I was upset because I had to deal with a shitty government website!  Life is short.  Live it to the fullest.  It doesn't last forever.  Stop fearing death and start living life.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

ObamaCare Nightmares 2019

Obamacare just gets better and better!

We get back to the house and in the mail is a letter from the "Health Insurance Marketplace" which apparently is the Obamacare government agency (but sounds like a sound-alike come-on) telling me that Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia is no longer offering plans in my area and that they have automatically signed me up for a "Ambetter Peach State Health Plan" for 2019.

The good news is, the Ambetter premiums are half that of the BCBS plan of last year - about $1200 a month versus the obscene $2000+ a month that BCBS wanted.   But what is going on, exactly?

I call BCBS and they tell me they are no longer offering plans "in my area" but won't say exactly where my area is, or why they have bailed on me.   Inexplicably, BCBS sends me new insurance cards for a plan that is ending in a month - along with a brochure asking me if I want prescription coverage.  It is all part of a "Welcome to Blue Cross Blue Shield!" starter package.  Perhaps they meant to send me the "Go Fuck Yourself!" package instead and got confused.

Seriously, though, I can see why BCBS has such high costs.  Their website is a nightmare of bad HTML and crashing pages (Healthcare.gov isn't much better - when you hit "enroll" it goes to hourglass, indefinitely).  The amount of duplicate letters and e-mails and documents I get from BCBS is staggering.  Just recently, I got a series of e-mails saying "thank you for your payment of July 1, 2018" and "Thank you for your payment of June 2018" and so on, going back to December of 2017.  This was followed by an email saying, "please ignore the previous e-mails we sent you."

BCBS makes government health care look like an efficient alternative.

So what is this Peach State thing?  I call them and (after being transferred to the correct number) they tell me I am already enrolled and I need do nothing.   I am on the Healthcare.gov signup page, and they offer about five plans to me - all from Ambetter-Peach State.  No other health care providers are listed.

The plan they signed me up for is there - a bottom-tier bronze plan that has pretty high deductibles, but offers pretty decent (I guess HMO coverage).  But for the same price, there is a silver plan that has no deductible, but ominously says that emergency room coverage requires 40% co-insurance.  There is a "max out of pocket" of about $5000.   If I run up a $100,000 emergency room bill (not hard to do these days) do I owe $40,000 or the max out of pocket of $5000?

I called Peach State twice, but no one seems to know for sure.   I am on the phone for an hour.  One person I called said to call the "Health Insurance Marketplace" (the government) as they would know.  But when I call them, they say, "I wish they wouldn't say that, as it is their plan and they know the coverage, not us!"

While I have him on the phone, I ask about this ominous letter they generated on the healthcare site asking me to provide documentation of income by February 19, 2019.   Do they want documentation of 2017 income or 2018?  If the latter, I doubt I will have my 1099s or taxes done.  If the former, my concern is that my income is too low to qualify for subsidy.

So I ask the guy what the income cutoff limits are, and he says he can't say for sure - "It all depends on a number of things" but says that the February 19th deadline may be extended.   We'll see.   It is all very odd, and no one has answers to even the simplest questions.

As I noted before, the problem with Obamacare is that if you make to little they throw you off the system and it isn't clear whether you have to repay any subsidies.  If you had a $24,000 subsidy on your premiums, but then make only $20,000 a year in income, you may be thrown off (and forced to go on Medicaid, provided your State expanded medicaid) and it is possible you may be asked to pay back $24,000 on an annual income of $20,000.

And as I noted before, if you make over the magic number of $69,900 (or whatever the cutoff is this year) your subsidy may go from 50% to zero, just by making that extra dollar.  For a family of four, this could mean that they are hit with a subsidy bill of over $20,000 in a single year, just for making that extra dollar.   And we all know how easy it is to forecast exactly how much money we will make in the next 12 months, right?  Even if you are salary, it may vary.  For hourly people, it is much harder, with variable hours, overtime, and bonuses.

So I end up signing up for the "Bronze" plan they suggest.  I am not sure what it covers, if anything.  That is the problem with all health insurance these days - you have to get sick to see what it really covers. And then you'd have to wade through pages and pages of contract language and argue with people on the phone to cover individual items - but only after being dunned by the hospital for six of those $65 aspirins (when they gave you only one!).

So I sign up for the "Bronze" plan - I think.  When I get to the last page on Healthcare.gov, and "sign" the page and agree to everything, it just goes to hourglass and bombs out.  When I log back in, it says my 2019 plan has been "submitted" but then warns me my application is incomplete.

Well, the fifth time is the charm.  Seems I had to select a doctor in order to complete the plan.   It finally says the application is submitted, but a balance of $0.00 is due and if I don't pay $0.00 by January 15th, my coverage will be terminated.

Do I send them a check for $0.00?

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Cutting the Cords - All of Them

Image result for cutting the cord

ATT U-Verse is expensive, slow, and buggy.  Why bother in this day of wireless communications?

When we first moved to the island, there were a total of two cell towers on the island.  We had old Motorola analog flip-phones, and I had to use a 4-watt cell phone amplifier with an outdoor flat-plane antenna mounted on a pole, just to get decent voice reception.  Data and texting were not even in the picture.

But technology changes - rapidly these days.   When I was a youth, you could count on technology being static for a decade or more.  Sure, they introduced "touch-tone" phones shortly after I was born, but that didn't really change the fundamental nature of the phone system.  You could still use your old dial phone to make calls, even if you couldn't navigate these newfangled DTMF e-mail menus that came about in the late 1970's.   That being said, dial phones still work - I hooked one up to my PhoneLabs Dock-n-Talk and took cell calls from a dial phone!  (of course, I couldn't dial out).

But those days are long gone.  Technology cycles are churning faster and faster, and tech of only a few years ago is now being tossed on the junk pile.  Or maybe I am just getting older and these cycles seem to go faster and faster.   Our BMWs had cassette decks in them - including one from 2002!   My old Ford F-150 was "fully loaded" because it had power windows and door locks and that extravagant option - air conditioning.

Today, those options are now all standard equipment, and options today include things never heard of years ago, such as panoramic moonroofs and air-conditioned seats.  And while my 1968 Chevy made do with a two-speed transmission (and my 1995 Ford had an amazing four speeds), today, Ford and GM offer (the same) 10-speed transmission on a number of vehicles.   A 2016 Ford is now "obsolete" with its lowly 6-speed transmission!

When we moved to the island, the only choices for Internet service (besides dialup) were DSL from AT&T or Cable Modem from Comcast (boo! hiss!).  Actually, Comcast was just in the process of wiring the island - and the island was abandoning our home-grown cable system, which had its charms, but was woefully outdated.   DSL was replaced with something called "U-Verse" a few years ago, which I was given to understand was fiber-to-pole, with the "drop" remaining as twisted pair.   I was sort of forced to "upgrade" to this service, although I saw no real benefit to it in terms of internet speed.

The main reason they wanted us to upgrade was to ditch analog phone service for landlines.  U-Verse offered VoIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) which digitized your phone signals.   In a way, it was a reverse of DSL, which used the "broadband" signal from your house, on the twisted pair to the local switch, to send data, while reserving a narrow analog "POTS" (Plain Old Telephone Service) band for traditional analog phone service.  I was also told (by some) that the new service was managed by non-union employees, as well.

The service worked OK, for a while.  I quickly ditched their U-Verse landline, as it cost an astounding $30 a month.  I used netTalk's service instead, which was less than $30 a year.   But over time, problems kept mounting up that made me want to ditch the U-Verse entirely.  Problems, and also the rise of wireless.


1.  Cost:  The cost of DSL kept ratcheting up, and U-Verse offered a cheaper solution, for a while at least.  Over time, I had to ditch the landline (VoIP) part of U-Verse to keep the cost reasonable.  But AT&T kept raising the rates, to the point I was paying $62.50 a month for basic internet.  They offered a television service, but that went by the wayside very quickly as it simply didn't work in many areas.  That didn't keep them from harassing me with DirectTV offers (five months of mail to go through when I got home, and half of it was from AT&T with DirectTV offers - and let's not even talk about the SPAM in my e-mail inbox!). 

$62.50 might not seem like a lot, but as I noted in this blog, recurring subscription services are a real drain on your finances.  I paid over $300 to have U-Verse service for five months this summer, and I wasn't even home!   We had some houseguests use the house while we were away, so I kept U-Verse activated.   Now, granted, I spent over $200 on lunch at a fancy restaurant in Malibu, so $300 might not seem like a lot of money.  But I could choose not to spend as much at the restaurant, go to a lesser-priced restaurant, or eat in our trailer.   Recurring subscription expenses go on and on, forever, if you let them.  Keeping your monthly "nut" low allows you to save money, or indeed, splurge occasionally on something stupid like a $200 lunch.  You have choices, at least.

But of course, my monthly charges pale in comparison to others.  I know folks who pay for cable telvision (over $100 a month), several cell phones (including the latest iPhone), as well as a land line.  They spend hundreds of dollars per month for communications charges, and wonder where their money went.  Our cell phones cost $40 a month, each.  And if I piggyback off Mark's data plan, it could cost even less than that.

Speaking of Malibu, we got to experience the Santa Ana winds firsthand.  PG&E actually shut down the power, to prevent sparks from igniting a fire.  People got all pissed off, and the traffic up 101 was a nightmare as all the signals were off (Californians, oddly enough, actually drove with some courtesy through all of that).  A neighbor's trailer, which was not properly chocked, nearly rolled off the cliff we were camped on.  I had to rappel down the cliff to retrieve metal chairs and a table that blew off, overnight.   It was pretty amazing.  Take a wet towel, hold it in the breeze, and it almost instantly dries.   It is no wonder they have these staggering fires.  But I digress.


2.  Service:  The service was faster than dialup, but that's about it.  On occasion, it would slow to a crawl, and videos on Netflix would refuse to load.  There was no rhyme or reason to it, it just would slow down.  The advertised speeds were rarely reached (according to various internet speed measuring sites).  But they have an "out" on that - it is like EPA mileage - your mileage may vary, and if you paid for 6MIPS, then 4.5 is considered "within range" or whatever.


3.  Reliability:  For about five years in a row, I had to go through a painful process every fall when we returned to the island.  With the router/modem shut off for more than a month, the service would deactivate (but not the billing!).  I was told by a tech that the system automatically shuts down accounts that are not active, to prevent piracy (not sure how that works, but that's what they said).   In some instances, this meant hours-long phone calls with AT&T, explaining my life story several times, before being shunted to someone who actually could do something about it.

In some instances, they could re-activate the modem electronically.  In others, they had to send someone out.  In other cases, they had to ship me a new modem, and I had to return the old one to AT&T by going to UPS and having it shipped back. 

The first time this happened, I assumed it was a fluke.  The second, a pain-in-the-ass.  The third, I realized it was the "threshold of pain" of doing business with U-Verse.  One reason I left the modem ON (with a backup power supply, to boot) this time around was to prevent such an occurrence.  But the modem deactivated anyway, and I decided this time, to just pull the plug, rather than spend hours on the phone being connected to technical support (hearing Sanjay tell me to unplug the modem and plug it back in, before he transfers me to a "supervisor" who says the same thing).

Having to re-install U-Verse annually was just not worth the hassle.


4.  Liability:   In addition to these other problems, one big problem with U-Verse was my liability for equipment and wiring.  House wiring can go bad, and it can mess up your signals.   In the old, old days, the phone company would come to your house and wire a phone.  If something broke, including the phone, they fixed it.

With deregulation, the phone company was responsible for everything up to the "network interface" which was a new creation that came out in the late 1980's.   This box sat on the side of the house and demarcated the line between what was the phone company's responsibility and yours.   For an additional monthly fee, you could buy "line insurance" and they would agree to fix inside lines.

I had an intractable problem with our phones in Virginia - for several years - and out of desperation bought this "line insurance" and the replaced all the lines in my house, to no avail.  It was only several years later that a tech found out the problem was a squirrel (damn squirrels!) had gnawed through the company lines, nearly a block down the street, such that every time it rained, the water would short my lines, causing a scratchy noise on the phone.  Since I had cable modem, it didn't affect my Internet (I suspect it would have killed it).

With U-Verse, AT&T has moved its responsibility further up to the pole.  The "drop" from the pole to the house is now your responsibility to pay for, even though you are not allowed to fix it yourself, if it breaks (which you could do, with the lines inside your house).  I found this out after one of our "near miss" hurricanes dropped a branch on the "drop" and severed it.  Again, I had to call AT&T and explain this to several people ("did you try unplugging and plugging-in the modem?") until I could get a tech to come out and fix it.  Imagine my chagrin when they sent me a bill for this.  And apparently, I am not the only one to experience this.

And if you think about it, they could have charged me $5000 for this, and I would have little recourse but to pay it.  It is one thing to say you are responsible for the lines in your house - you can fix these yourself or hire an electrician or tech guy to fix them, or call the phone company and pay their rates.  Even the power company will fix the "drop" - up to the rain hood.  But to have a piece of hardware (the drop) that only AT&T can fix, at their rates, determined by them, and paid for by you, seems kind of unfair.  It would be like owning a car that you could only get fixed at the dealer (and yes, the car companies, and the dealers in particular, are trying that move as well).

So you have all this equipment, and you are responsible for most of it, and if it breaks, your service goes out, and it is a pain to get fixed.  Contrast this to a cell phone.  I paid $99 for mine, and if it breaks, I simply buy a new one, move the SIM card and memory card to it, and move on with life.  The nice folks at the wireless store will even do this for free.


5.  Improvements in Wireless:   The other half of the equation is how wireless is taking over the world.  Instead of two antennas on our island, today there are dozens.  Each water tower is ringed with antennas today, and I no longer need a cell phone amplifier to get a decent signal.  There are a few "dead spots" on the island (such as the club hotel) but for the most part, even with two bars of signal, I can stream videos, even.

(After the Vietnam war, they had to rebuild the infrastructure including the phone system, which wasn't much to write home about.  Rather than lay out all those land lines, they went wireless, from what I understand, which seemed extravagant at the time, but makes sense today.  Why invest in a bunch of wires that can be damaged by weather and whatnot, when the coming technology was wireless?)

With most modern televisions, you can "mirror" your phone (sometimes called "Miracast" on some televisions - see your setup menu) so that the video you are streaming appears on your flat-screen television.  Maybe this isn't HD, but we don't watch much TV anyway.   It is bad for your mind, even the stuff on Netflix (how many movies and shows are about crime, the end-of-the-world, or how corrupt and venal our government is?   Think about this and why people today are so unhappy and ready to overthrow our Democracy on a moment's notice).

So the "need" for high-speed wired internet is starting to disappear.   We figured this out while on the road, having to rely on one smartphone with a data plan.  We were able to set it up as a hotspot and then stream data to an $85 pad device and watch YouTube and even Netflix - while in Canada!  And needless to say, I could link my laptop to it (as I am doing now) and type my stupid blog entries and balance my checking account.

And of course, over time, wireless will continue to get better and better, and I suspect that wired solutions will start to lose money (if they already haven't) and eventually, wires running all over the place will start to disappear.  They won't disappear, actually.  We still have old wires from our obsolete home-grown cable system here on the island.  They run through everyone's back yard, buried, and the pedestals are slowly turning over, one by one (I dug mine up and threw it away - most homeowners are unsure what it is, and leave it alone).  A few wires are hung from poles, and after every hurricane near-miss, more and more fall down, and the phone company and the power company want nothing to do with them.  Apparently, the scrap value of all that coax isn't worth the cost of union labor to remove it.   So in parts of the island, you see sad cables hanging down, beneath the new fiber optic cables above them.

Maybe some day, Elon Musk's wet dream will come true, and we will all have solar panels and battery banks in our homes, and even the need for power drops will fade.  One by one, the utility poles will rot and fall down, and the nest of wires over our heads (which most people don't notice, unless you are in a beach town) will disappear for good, much as the cat's cradle of telegraph and telephone wires (and trolley wires) that you see in old city photos of the turn-of-the-century (the last one, not this one) did.

But, I suspect, that is a long way off.

One lesson from this, though is that an unexpected expense in retirement is equipment upgrades.  Like I said, I despise being forced to upgrade equipment against my will.   Often, they tempt us into these upgrades by offering lower prices - at least initially.   U-Verse was cheaper than DSL when I switched, thinking I was saving money and being clever.  But over time, the cost ratcheted up.  And I am sure wireless will do the same thing.   You want internet, you want to stream videos, you have to pay.   That is, unless you want to go to the library or internet cafe and log onto someone's WiFi account, and watch over-the-air television with a flat-plane antenna.

Or, merely choose not to consume online content at all, which frankly, seems more and more attractive these days.  Everything, it seems, online, is designed to get you to click, to get at you at a visceral, reptilian-brain level.   You are baited and they want you to be outraged over this and that.  Or to share a cute cat video on Facebook, while you barf up the most intimate of demographic data to God-only-knows who.  Already, a lot of the younger generation is simply walking away from Cable TV - it simply isn't worth it.  Even if they paid me to watch, I think I would decline.

The interesting thing about cutting this last cord (or second-to-last, if you count Georgia Power) is that now I have to decide what to do with my landline phones, my VoIP account, and all those wires in my house.   I could sell the phones at a garage sale (resale price:  $5 each, if that) or continue to use them with my Dock-N-Talk as a "landline" with the cell phone.   There is some advantage to that - a real phone provides side tone and is more comfortable to talk on.  Plus, you don't have to "run for the phone" before it goes to VoiceMail, when it rings - you just pick up an extension.

But then again, who talks on the phone anymore?   Every phone call, it seems, is a fraudster.   Maybe we call friends or relatives once in a while, but for the most part, people text or e-mail today.  So maybe the phones (and I have about eight of them, AT&T small business model 945) will go away, too.

After being away for five months, I come home and think to myself that I have a lot of old and obsolete shit in my home - crap that needs to be thrown away, quite frankly.  We see this at old people's garage sales - appliances and technology that is woefully outdated, and yet they cannot part with it.  Things like tube televisions and CRT monitors - "I paid a lot of money for that!" they think, so they cannot merely toss it in the trash.  And increasingly, the trash man won't even pick that sort of thing up.

So, while you add up the cost of utilities, insurance, taxes, food, gasoline, phone service, and whatnot, and think, "this is how much I need to retire" - think again about things like technology upgrades.  Maybe my retired 3rd grade teacher could rely on driving her 1965 Mercedes until the day she died or turned in her license.  Today, it is likely you'll want to upgrade technology periodically - or be forced to do so over time.   Factor that into your retirement calculations.

For the time being, cutting the cord on U-Verse will save us some money - and headaches.   I suspect I will put my old PC into storage (my second-to-last, actually a better machine, died and was thrown away).   What I will likely do with my last PC is transfer the data to portable hard drives (or the cloud?) and throw it away as well (the video card is starting to go, and it is a decade old - not worth fixing!).  It seems the laptop and cell phone are the new norm, at least for me, now that I am retired.

In a way, it is liberating.  My "Office" will be a lot less cluttered, and I will have less technology to deal with.  Less is more as I am realizing over time.   Less technology, less hardware, less stress.

It looks like we'll have to have another garage sale - yet again.