Tuesday, March 31, 2009

See How They Run - Part One

A month ago I was out in the garage when I heard an odd sound. It sounded like a cross between a humming bird trying to fly through the window and a frog's rhythmic jumping. When it rains a lot and the ground gets really soggy we occasionally see some frogs venture beyond the realm of the creek to as far away as the front of the house; and I had seen one just a few days prior. And we've certainly had our share of hummingbirds "trapped" in the garage trying to exit through the glass window instead of the open overhead garage door.

I followed the sound to a corner of the garage, but it stopped as I approached. I looked in the cabinets - no birds or cats jumped out. I backed away and returned to my task. The sound returned. This time I crept in much more stealthily to avoid detection. Inside an upright 5-gallon bucket was a little field mouse trying to jump out towards freedom. I've got nothing against mice, but I definitely don't want them in my house, under my house, or in my garage. Can you say "hantavirus".

I gave Mortimer some pretzels and Costco dinner rolls while I figured out what to do. I suspected that he was not acting alone. I decided to use him as bait to attract the others.

First off, I needed a quiet place to set up my trap. I moved our Jeep out of the third bay and into the driveway. Upon doing so, I discovered the mouse/mice had been playing inside the Jeep, specifically on the drivers side. They had turned the flag on our off-road whip antenna into Swiss cheese. And there was what looked to be the beginnings of a nest - Owens-Corning pink insulation chunks stuffed into a corner next to the seat.

I've not had luck with traditional, spring-loaded mouse traps. I consistently find them empty of both mice and peanut butter. Brooklyn says I should use cheese instead, since it's obvious they like the peanut butter too much.

Still reveling in amazement at the effectiveness of the 5-gallon bucket at containing the mouse, though not having any clue as to what attracted the mouse in the first place, I turned to the Internet and learned how to make a slick, self-resetting, multi-mouse trap using, you guessed it, a 5-gallon bucket. I had to rig up a little mouse-sized ramp so that they could ascend to the top of the bucket and reach the bait. 

The first version of my trap included an empty soup can coated with peanut butter, suspended and spinning freely on a dowel. The mouse was supposed to jump from the top of the ramp onto the can to get the peanut butter. The can was then supposed to spin and dump the mouse into the bucket where it would not be able to get out. The can is then ready to go for the next varmint.

That didn't work so well. All of my peanut butter disappeared, but no new mice appeared inside the bucket. It was at this time that I noticed, sadly, that Mortimer had passed on. I thought perhaps he had fatally gorged himself on pretzels, or that the salt had raised his blood pressure, or that he didn't survive the nights exposed to the cold as he was. Sara thought perhaps he may have needed some water to drink. All good points.

Another version of the trap called for a paper plate to be set up with a metal hanger such that the edge of the plate rested on the lip of the bucket, spinning horizontally on the hanger. Peanut butter was placed on the opposite edge of the plate. As the mouse left the MDA-approved (that's Mice Disability Act) access ramp and crossed the hanger's axis to eat the peanut butter, the weight of the mouse would flip the plate end-for-end and the mouse would be dumped into Mortimer's tomb. With the weight of the mouse now gone, the plate was supposed to reset itself to its original position.

Mine didn't quite work that way. The plate would stay in its triggered position once activated. This turned out to be a good thing because I could easily glance at the trap and see if there had been any activity. Several times per day I would find the plate in its upright position, but I never caught another mouse.

Then, one night I was heading out to the freezer and looked over at my trap. The plate was gently rocking back and forth indicating current activity. I'd caught him in the act. I spotted a mouse scurrying around on the ground near the bucket. I sprang into action, grabbing my push broom from the wall and a garden hoe. The little guy was fast AND furious. I managed to corner him near the man door, but there were a couple of items in the way which he used for cover. His movement was so fluid, I started to think that perhaps I did not, in fact, have a "spouse" problem under my deck (half spider, half mouse) as I had suspected for the past two years. I poked at the small boxes in the corner to smoke him out. He bolted across the base of the garage door towards the middle of the garage, in between my gas cans. 

Advantage: me. 

There was no way out of the three-sided cubby where he'd gone. He must have realized his tactical error, because before I could take up an offensive position, he scrambled out of the cubby and underneath the behemoth food storage rack/workbench I built. 

Advantage: mouse.

He had bested me this day.

In the diagram below, the mouse is represented by the red line, while I am represented by the green line.

(End, part one)

Monday, March 30, 2009

Who Can We Thank?

Our lawmakers are currently investigating health insurance companies' out-of-network benefit programs. Said Senator Jay Rockefeller (yes, those Rockefellers), "It's scamming. It's fraud."

One insurance company, UnitedHealth has already forked over $400 million this year as a result of a settlement with the American Medical Association and an agreement with the Attorney General of New York.

I'm not taking a position for either party. It could be that the insurance companies are in fact conspiring to improve profit margins. But it also seems just as likely that the lawmakers are pursuing this as part of a greater scheme to eventually subject the health care industry to stringent regulation. At this point, I have not learned enough to have an opinion.

But I do have an opinion about $400 million in unforeseen, and largely unusual expenses. Healthcare is all about people - the insured. I'm relatively certain that the AMA as well as the NY A.G. Andrew Cuomo have the people in their best interests as they pursue these actions against health insurance companies. But I always follow the money: In this case, who gets hurt? 

You can bet that the insurance companies aren't batting an eye. Their coffers will be quickly replenished through higher premiums from people like you and I during the next contract renewal. And so I ask, Senator Rockefeller, AMA, Mr. Cuomo, please, stop helping us so much. 

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Fighting Irish

President Obama has been scheduled to speak during the commencement ceremony at Notre Dame. I first saw an article about it on Newsmax.com yesterday. I forwarded it to a devout Catholic friend who I knew would get riled up, but decided not to blog about it. Today the story hit the mainstream (and here) and I will throw in my two cents.

At issue is whether or not President Obama is an appropriate selection for the most recognizable Catholic university in the country given his positions on topics such as abortion and stem cell research. Some say the university should lay aside its grievances with "the man" Obama and welcome the honor of having the "head of state" Obama speak to them. Others, tens of thousands of others, are content to wait until 2013 to invite the next President. 

I say to my Catholic friends, if you're not willing to stand up for your convictions, who will?

I'm certain Notre Dame would not have invited the likes of Adolf Hitler, Robert Mugabe or Fidel Castro to speak at its ceremony, yet they also were heads of state. The title of "President of the United States" should not trump who Obama is as a man and what he represents. No, I'm not claiming that Obama is similar to any of the people I just mentioned, except that all, at one time or another, are/were the "leader" of their respective countries. What I am saying is despite the fact that Obama won the popular vote on election day and that many Catholics undoubtedly voted for him, Notre Dame, as an icon of the Catholic church, must disassociate itself from "the man" Obama whose policies cut at the very center of core Catholic beliefs - namely, the value placed on human life. 

The President will only speak at three universities this year, Notre Dame being among them. That is quite an honor. But it is much more honorable to be true to one's self.

Stand up and be counted, Notre Dame. 

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Double Standard Standard

More baseball. More steroid talk. New person of interest.

Shortstop Miguel Tejada of the Houston Astros today was sentenced to one year of probation for withholding the truth from Congress when asked what he knew about specific and alleged performance-enhancing drug use by other players. He was not in court at the time of the offense. Nor was he in the act of testifying before Congress or a subcommittee. He was not even under oath at the time. Also note that the "probation" is NOT a suspension from baseball.

To read more on my feelings about Congress wasting public time and resources on something so non-critical as professional sports, please refer to my previous post, "Moeroids". For the full extent of my thoughts regarding steroid use in baseball, you'll want to read, "I Just Didn't Care".

Today's blogal-bludgeoning goes to the following statement from Assistant US Attorney General Steven Durham. I've got no issue with Mr. Durham whatsoever, and I don't want to detract from his point about the importance of honesty.  
"If Congress or a representative of Congress asks somebody a question in their official capacity, that question must be answered truthfully. There are no options to prevaricate or withhold the truth or parts of the truth."
Tejada Gets Year Probation for Misleading Congress, by Howard Fendrich
Mr. Durham obviously must have forgotten about whom he was speaking, as Congress certainly has perpetuated its fair share of deception, half-truths, and outright lies - all whilst engaged in its fiduciary duty to the people of this country. Do we, the people, not have the right to that same expectation of complete integrity?

Hypocrisy is a pretense of virtue. I think the real story here is not the wrist-slap given to Miguel Tejada. It is not the message to children that crime never pays or 'just say no'. No, the message of import herein is the valuable parenting lesson taught by Congress, "Do as I say, not as I do."

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

I'm Jumping In

I don't have a bad mortgage - 5.5%. But I've long said for the five and a half years since I got it that if I could ever refinance for a full percentage point less, or 4.5%, I would pull the trigger. That day has come.

Now, it is possible that if I had held out longer, I may have been able to get a slightly better rate. However, I'm willing to hedge that risk with the money I'll be able to save immediately. And I'll tell you why I don't think it likely that a significantly better deal is just around the next bend.
  1. Lenders are never going to offer 0% APR mortgages. There is some invisible lower limit on interest rates. Is it 4.5%? 4%? There is no way to know for sure until it is too late.
  2. An article in American Banker yesterday ran an article titled "Using Rates to Fend Off Refi Volumes" by Kate Berry. I cannot provide a link because the site requires a subscription. However, one particularly poignant quote is worth mentioning. Said Mathew Pineda, president of a mortgage LLC in Salt Lake, "Why is Wells not afraid that B of A will roll out a rate of 4.5%? There are eight guys doing loans. Until one gives it up, they're all playing the game. The reason you don't give it up today is they'd have to work twice as hard for half the profit. Why would they give it up?" If all of the kids in your neighborhood are cutting lawns for $10 apiece and you start charging $7.50, you're going to pick up some new customers. But it will still take you just as much time per lawn and your gasoline costs will remain unchanged. Congratulations, you've just squeezed your margins, alienated your friends and enslaved your self to cutting grass non-stop for the rest of the Summer.
  3. When speaking with the lender, I inquired about several different loan structures, changing things like points and closing costs. I had an offer of 4.5%, no points, with some closing costs. I asked if they offered any "no fee" loans. He said they did, but that the interest rate would be higher. He put me on hold to check on the program. He came back to me and said the no fee loans were also at 4.5%. That tells me that, for this lender at this point in time, 4.5% is the floor. It was a no-brainer.
So what exactly does this 1% rate improvement mean? Here's the real world proof: The payment on my refi will be a full 21.5% lower than the payment on my original loan, saving me hundreds of dollars a month. However, I have no intention of lowering the amount of my payments. I will continue to pay the same amount and the difference will be applied to the principal, helping me pay off the mortgage early. A lot early.

I have been paying a little extra on my original loan since inception. Continuing that same payment over the life of the loan would have allowed me to shave off nearly three years worth of payments. Not too bad. However, by continuing to make that SAME payment my family is accustomed to, but towards the new loan with a 1% lower interest rate, the new loan will be paid off more than 11 years early. The net effect, considering the 5 1/2 years of payments we're losing plus the differences between early payoff of the two loans, is that both Sara and I will be three years younger when the new loan is paid off compared to the original.

Assume hypothetically that my original mortgage was for $100,000. The table below illustrates the differences between my original loan and my refi. The relationships between the two principal amounts and the relative value of the extra payment amounts all mirror my actual loans.

From this example we can learn several important things.
  1. The pure interest savings alone is worth doing the refi: without making any extra payments, total interest for the original loan would be $104,403 compared to $72,519, for a difference of nearly $32k.
  2. Without changing anything except for the interest rate (read: keep paying the same amount each month), I will end up paying less than half as much interest over the life of the loan. 
  3. The refi is an asset that can be held, bought and sold in the financial world. Lenders want to lure customers from the competition. In my case, I am refinancing through the same lender - so they are knowingly giving up pure interest income in exchange for a) retaining my business, and b) capturing the asset of a new 30-year loan, albeit less valuable.
Only time will tell if I should have held out for a better deal. For now, I feel really good about what I'm getting and the flexibility this provides me now and in the future. And if rates drop another 1%, I'll do it again.


Some mortgage advice:
  • Shop around. Start with your bank. They know you and want to earn more of your business. I believe this is likely to be one of your best offers. This will give you a trusted baseline by which to compare all other offers.
  • I believe it is generally better to take the 30-year fixed option as opposed to the 15-year fixed. Yes, the APR is a bit higher, but you have a LOT more financial flexibility for repayment. You can still pay the loan off in 15 years if you wish by paying something extra each month.
  • Avoid ARMs (Adjustable Rate Mortgages) like the plague - especially now during this period of exceptionally low interest rates.
  • Pay attention to points, fees, closing costs, etc. These all factor in to the overall cost of the loan. ASK QUESTIONS of your loan officer until you are sure you understand everything. They are the expert and it is their job sell you the loan. You are not obligated to buy anything from them. You do not want any surprises, so don't sign until all of your concerns have been addressed.

Monday, March 23, 2009

My Share?

Yahoo! ran a feature on its home page over the weekend offering advice on the "Top Five Ways to Get Your Share of the Stimulus" by Amelia Gray.

I don't know Ms. Gray, and I certainly do not mean any disrespect toward her or Yahoo! specifically. But I take issue with the very premise of the story. By no means is this the first I've heard this phrase, "your share of the stimulus".

Just what exactly is my share? I can calculate my share of stock in my company based on the amount in my portfolio compared to the number of shares outstanding. If I were in one of those winning lottery pools I would know what my share was - 1/nth of the jackpot, where "n" is the number is people in my pool. When dining with friends, my share of the bill is based on the price of the food I consume.

So is not "my share" of the stimulus is equal to whatever additional financial burden I suffer as a result?

The tally of the bailouts/stimulus is, I believe, near $3 trillion. There are roughly 300 million people in the U.S. (though the majority do not pay taxes). For our purposes, let's assume every single citizen works, receives the same salary, and pays the same amount of taxes. The $3 trillion burden shared equally among all hypothetical taxpayers comes to $10,000 apiece.

If you take $10,000 out of my budget, guess what? I'm going to spend $10,000 less than I otherwise would have. That amounts to $45 billion taken from my state's economy.

So I figure "my share" for my family of five is $50,000 (again, in this hypothetical situation where each citizen shares equally in the cost). I'd like "my share" direct-deposited into my checking account. Better yet, why not save everyone the hassle and spare us the administrative costs at the same time? Let me keep my share in the first place. Let everyone keep their share.

The government aims to create jobs, get money into the hands of the people, and spark spending, investment, and the like. Newsflash! The money is already in the hands of the people. To paraphrase nationally syndicated radio talk show host and all-around good guy, Lars Larson, why does the government believe it is better able to spend our money than we are? They've proven they are capable of spending money in very large amounts and very quickly, but their own financial records prove they are definitely not "better" at it than we are.

As Milton Friedman, the late Nobel Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, once explained to Phil Donahue,
"The great achievements of civilization have not come from government bureaus . . ."
Here is the full video. It's only 2.5 minutes long and, I think, VERY entertaining. Donahue is left speechless. This footage is from 1979. Except for the clothes, and Donahue's hair, you might think the clip was from last Friday.

Thanks to Newsmax.com for the history lesson.

Friday, March 20, 2009

This Time It's Personal

A couple of days ago Sara asked me if I was going to write about AIG, the giant, multiple bailout-fund-receiving insurance company. I said I wouldn't, in part because I'm so sick of hearing about it, but also because I'm sick of writing about the "bailout".


Yesterday, the House of (not so representative) Representatives passed a bill that, on the surface, was aimed at recovering most of the retention bonus money paid to AIG personnel. I was not comfortable with this from the moment I heard about it. I think the first, and natural, reaction to AIG bonuses is for people to feel violated in some way - since taxpayers are funding the bailout and it can be argued that the bonuses were paid with bailout money.


It is not like that bonus money was awarded arbitrarily to the big wigs or given without merit. The money was given to people like you and me as part of their compensation arrangement. It is no different than another business that has to dip into a line of credit in order to meet payroll. The bailout funds are a loan to the recipients. Our government extended that loan. You and I only agreed to it to the extent that we participated in the election process that now allows the clowns to run the circus. If we're going to be mad at somebody, it should be our elected officials -not AIG - and definitely NOT the employees of AIG.

How can I say such a thing? Now, as more details are surfacing, I have discovered that I, too, would be effected by the AIG legislation. The bill stipulates that bonus recipients from any company that received more than $5 billion in bailout money will have to pay a 90% tax. Without going into detail, this legislation would directly penalize me.* I'm just an average worker toiling in the trenches. I am part of the 95% of Americans that were promised no increase in taxes. The bill isn't targeted at some small, elite group of greedy corporate scumbags, as we are being led to believe. The bill effects real people. A lot of real people. It effects your neighbors, your friends, your relatives, and your favorite blogger. 

Think about it - a 90% tax on anything. $19 for two $5 Footlongs at Subway. Ten cents on the dollar is what you get to keep. Work ten years, get paid for one. How is that going to help the economy recover - taking more money out of the wallets of consumers? If you are a tithe-payer as I am, that doesn't leave anything left over to pay bills, feed the family, or buy a hybrid so that I can get President Obama's tax rebate on said automobile. It would be no different than not working at all.

Earn $100, $90 to the government, $10 to the Church = $0 for me
Earn $0, $0 to the government, $0 to the Church = $0 for me

I guess it just seems wrong to me that everyone appears to be so much more upset about $200 million (give or take) spent by AIG than they are about the $3 trillion spent by our government. I mean, when the government loaned money to AIG, what did it expect the company to do with it? AIG used some of their $185 billion, $200 million of it, to honor employment agreements. If we're going to start tearing up contracts - and since I won't have any money left after taxes anyway - can I request to have the note on my house shredded as well? (Will that 90% tax revenue be deducted from the total that AIG must one day repay? Or is it in addition to?)

I think the crux of the issue lies in the term "bonus". A bonus is not free, unexpected money, like winning the Power Ball. Bonuses are an important part of an employee's total compensation. Under these rules, An employee that earns $100k in straight salary would not take a hit, but an employee that earns a salary of $50k plus the potential for $50k in bonuses would. The latter would get to keep just $5,000 of his bonus. I would go so far as to argue that "pay for performance" (i.e. bonuses) is in the taxpayer's interest moreso than guaranteed salaries. 

Makes no sense - like a lot of things nowadays.

* I may need to retract this claim at a later time. One source is telling me the House version would only apply to those making more than $250k, which would not include me. However, all of my other sources state otherwise. The jury is still out.


At least one thing went right this week. The TSA successfully identified a very real threat to our national security and subjected the individual to extra security measures at PDX. Enjoy your flight, Congressman.


I'm cutting myself off here. I could go on for hours. This is why I didn't want to blog about it in the first place.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I Challenge You...

...to a battle of wits - for the princess.

I got 8 out of 12.

Lots of other fun trivia and interesting facts on this site. I evidently don't know nearly as much about the Simpsons as I thought I did.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

More Shelf Reliance

One of the owners of Shelf Reliance saw my post from last night
about the food storage planning tool. He wanted to clear up some key points and actually left a very substantive comment on the blog. I don't know that any of you actually read the comments, and since I feel Mr. Palmer's remarks are important, I am posting exerpts here along with further commentary.

First up, I am happy to inform you that all orders over $199 are shipped free of charge.

It is very true that many of the items that we carry can be found for much better pricing. Anyone willing to do their own canning at the local Dry Pack, for example, will find pricing that doesn't compare to what you will find through an emergency company. It's always a good idea to look for items on sale and store them on your own when possible.
I find it heartening that Mr. Palmer is encouraging people to pursue a less expensive alternative, even though it may harm his sales a bit.

Third, and this is one of the points I tried to convey, 
Some customers find it convenient to just get everything at once. THRIVE Food Storage is definitely a premium name and you are paying for higher quality. Because we teach people to use their food storage, we need to make sure it tastes great:) We also offer some 60 foods more than is available through the Dry Pack.
And finally
Our packages are built around a 2000 calorie diet. Most companies try to sell you a "year supply", but if you were to dig into the details you will find that they calories per day won't keep you alive very long. The buckets sold at Costco are a prime example of this. For $100 you can buy a 'three month' supply of food, but when you do the math you have to live off of 460 calories a day.
First off, thank you Mr. Palmer for taking the time to provide some color on this topic. You obviously care a great deal about your products and the reputation of your company. As I told Mr. Palmer personally via email, I like Shelf Reliance a lot, and I hope that sentiment was conveyed in the original post.

I think it is safe to say that THRIVE may not be a solution for everybody, but it is definitely a solution for somebody. Everything has a cost associated with it. It took me several hours of my time to build my #10 can rotating system/workbench. What is my time worth? There is a price beyond the cost of the food to go to the dry-pack. Also, as Mr. Palmer elluded to, there are quite a number of THRIVE foods in my free food storage plan that are not available elsewhere (dry, in #10 cans - to my knowledge).
  • Sweet corn
  • Mushrooms
  • Carrots
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries
  • Bananas
  • Apples
  • Cheese
  • Tomatoes
  • Chicken bouillon
  • Butter
THRIVE's solution may seem expensive to me. But for somebody who wants to get the job done without worry, hassle, time, travel, shopping, effort, etc., Shelf Reliance offers a viable solution that definitely has value.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Shelf Reliance's Planning Tool

I've been waiting for something like this for a long time.

One short form. Two EASY questions. Done and done.

Shelf Reliance has a food storage planning tool on their web site. It's new to me. I discovered it in connection with Shelf Reliance's new "Thrive Q" pay-as-you-go food storage acquisition program.

Now, I'm certainly not a shill for Shelf-Reliance or, more specifically, its Thrive product line - they tell me a 12 month supply of their full product line will run me $7,500, plus shipping! Just like their line of food rotation systems, you're paying a BIG premium for the convenience of their products (which are, admittedly, VERY convenient).

In other words, I'm a fan of their products. We own several of their "Cansolidator Pantry" units which work great for small cans in our kitchen pantry. (Buying tip: These particular units are available at our local Costco at a substantial discount versus buying them directly from Shelf Reliance - <$25 at Costco vs. $36 (plus shipping) on sale from Shelf Reliance.) Long-time readers will also recall my inexpensive, home-made and improved (for my needs) alternative solution to their Harvest 72" #10 system.

While I like Shelf Reliance's products a lot, I think their prices make for a bittersweet irony. Food storage in general is founded on principles of provident living, saving for a rainy day, preparing for the unknown. Yet, acquiring most any of their products would violate those very principles for a large portion of their potential customer base. 

Consider that the 2006 median household income for a family of five in Oregon (where I live) was roughly $60,000. The $7,500 food cost plus estimated $1,675 in storage cost (5 racks x $335 ea.) would bring the one year total for my family to $9,175 (plus shipping), or 15% of median family income. That's a HUGE investment. Granted, it IS an investment and it does not need to be acquired in just a one year period. But the overall investment is almost like buying two additional years' worth of groceries (at a $100/wk rate). 

This brings me to my point: Shelf Reliance's food storage planning tool is fast and free. I first told it how many people there are in my family, along with the age and gender of each person. I then specified the number of months I wanted it to calculate. That's it! The next page was a detailed plan of all of the food the company thinks my family needs, along with details of each (description, weight, price and extended weight and price based on quantity.) It is easy to email the list to yourself. You can also adjust the plan to account for 1) personal preferences, or 2) inventory you may already have. Now I have a checklist/shopping list for my own inventory.

There is no obligation to buy the food from Shelf Reliance. And this is where the premium price for convenience comes into play. An example: Sugar. Shelf Reliance estimates my family will need 225 lbs of sugar for 12 months. I can buy it from them in 39 #10 cans for a total of $430 (plus shipping). Alternatively, that same sugar, but in 25 lb bags, would cost me about $112 at Costco or a comparable local source.

On the one hand, Shelf Reliance's solution is conveniently packaged, durable and ready to store long-term. I just have a hard time reconciling the $350 price difference (and that's just for the sugar). I could buy my own dry-pack can sealerwith the savings.

Friday, March 13, 2009

From the Desk of Captain Obvious - Volume Two

Warning that the global recession is deepening, the Obama administration on Wednesday called on major U.S. allies to do their part and support strong stimulus programs to fight the downturn. The administration said decisive action was needed by all countries to complement what is being done in the United States. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner outlined an ambitious agenda, including a tenfold increase in the size of an emergency fund the International Monetary Fund uses to help countries in trouble to as much as $500 billion.

[Ducheznee] And why not, right? I mean, the stimulus plan has miraculously turned our entire economy around. Maybe if every other country were to do the same, and each country becomes indebted to the next, we could all simply call it even and forgive everyone's debt. Problem solved! All of the spending of the stimulus - none of the responsibility. Am I right or am I right?


Furthermore, a poll from Rasmussen reports that 62% of voters want more tax cuts and less government spending in the plan. 

[Ducheznee] So, if I were to round up 100 people, Rasmussen is telling me that 38 of them want to pay MORE taxes? I'd like to see that.


The Treasury is tussling with the worst problems in decades, stemming from careless lending that helped fuel a housing crisis that has now dragged the U.S. economy and much of the rest of the world into deep recession.


At its core, the legislation is designed to ease the worst economic recession in generations, and combines hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending with tax cuts. Much of the money would go for victims of the recession in the form of food stamps, unemployment compensation and health care

[Ducheznee] Where's the "stimulus" here?


U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner said Tuesday it is imperative for the government to reduce over time the debt that is piling up as a result of the government's response to recession and financial market turmoil.

[Ducheznee] Secretary Geithner, everybody. Let's give him a hand. [polite applause]


Despite the Obama administration's claim that its budget wouldn't raise taxes on families earning less than $250,000 a year, "the budget before us assumes large amounts of money" from the climate-change legislation, Rep. Dave Camp of Michigan, the top Republican on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee, said at a hearing Tuesday. "And that means higher prices for Americans for food, for gas, for electricity, and in a state like Michigan for home heating -- pretty much anything that they buy."

[Ducheznee] Taxes come in many forms.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Memoirs of Customer Service - The Doctor

We got a bill on Monday from the hospital where Karsten was born. Karsten is nearly 14 months old.

On two prior occasions we have received afterthought bills from the hospital, although it has been several months since the last occurrence. Each one makes me a little more upset. I mean, the grocery store doesn't send me a bill after the fact stating that my milk actually cost more than they had originally charged.

So, I got on the speaking telegraph and rang the number printed on the statement - the one that said, "For any questions, call...". This is where our story begins.

Call #1 - "Tom" at the phone number listed on the bill tells me that the service is not covered by our insurance company. "What service?" I ask, "Delivering babies?" Tom explains that the service provided was routine, which is part of preventive care, which is not covered. Tom suggests I take up the issue with my insurance company. I say, "My kid is 14 months old. When can I expect to stop receiving bills?" Tom reveals that the charge is in fact not for Karsten's birth, but for Sara's annual girlie doctor visit - from more than a year ago. 

Why am I just now seeing this bill? No - that's beside the point. Why is the hospital billing me for services provided by a different legal entity? Why has Sara's doctor failed, yet again, to submit the proper procedure code to my insurance company? Both good questions. I suggest that the wrong procedure code may have been used. Tom transfers me to our Account Representative, "Tasha".

Call #2 - After explaining everything again to Tasha, she recommends I call the doctor's group practice. She can't change the billing code herself.

Call #3 - I broke ranks here and called my insurance company in order to gather facts and build my case. Low and behold, I was right. The doctor used the improper procedure code. This is not the first time we've had this problem.

Call #4 - Group practice. The receptionist tells me that Sara's doctor is no longer with that practice. She has ventured out on her own. In any case, I'll need to speak with "billing" and she transfers me to option #3.

Call #5 - Billing is gone for the day. It's 3 PM. Why was I transferred there? I back out of the voicemail menu and speak with a nurse at option #4. The nurse confirms that I'll need to speak with the people at option #3. Tomorrow.

Call #6 - Starting over, I explain the situation to billing. She can't find my wife's file. I provide Sara's social security number. Nope. Date of birth - nuh-uh. "Let me transfer you to Judy. She handles these things." I apologize for being crass.

Call #7 - Same as Call #6, but with some additional questions: "Did you two just recently get married?" - thinking perhaps they might have Sara listed under a different surname. Judy then asked for the date of service. "Oh, I think [the doctor] had left the practice by that time. We don't have any records for you after January [of 2008]. You need to call her new practice at..."

Call #8 - New practice reception. "Hi. My wife is a patient of Dr. X. I'm trying to resolve a billing issue." I'm transferred to "billing".

Call #9 - "Hi. Is this the billing department?" I ask. "Yes it is." "Finally! My wife is a patient of Dr. X from her previous office..." I begin. "One moment." I'm transferred into the matrix.

Call #10 - "Hello. You have reached Bonnie in billing. I am unable..." I leave a detailed message.

Call #11 - Bonnie calls me back. We start at the beginning. She cannot locate any information about any patient prior to April [of 2008]. She says she will talk to Dr. X and call me back before the day is out.

Call #12 - Bonnie calls me back again. Dr. X said she can't help me. I'll have to call her old group practice. I've had it.

Call #13 - LAST CALL. I call Tom back using the phone number on the bill. He once again tells me that the service is not covered by my insurance policy. I suggest to Tom that he may be mistaken. I tell him I have confirmed with my insurer that the service is indeed covered. I explain that the improper procedure code was submitted by Dr. X. I tell Tom that I have spoken not only with him, the account rep, and my insurer, but also with numerous representatives from both Dr. X's old and new practices. Nobody knows anything about the charge except for Tom and Tasha. Sara's appointment has apparently disappeared within a blip in the space-time continuum. As such, I tell Tom, regardless of the procedure code, I shouldn't have to pay for services that never occurred in the history of all time. Tom tells me to disregard the bill. He and the account rep will attempt to get the procedure code corrected and resubmitted to my insurance company.

The peasants rejoice.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Fourth Amigo

Sometimes I feel like I'm turning into a Bush apologist. 

I am not.

President Obama has recently published his fiscal year 2010 budget, a 140-page report titled "A New Era of Responsibility," distributed by the Office of Management and Budget (www.budget.gov). Within its pages, the president and his crew attempt to make the case for why borrowing trillions of dollars is actually in the best interest of our country and its people.

I admittedly have not begun an in-depth study of the budget, and I probably won't. I have better things to do. But I have flipped through it a bit. Sometimes, something jumps off the page.

Here's an early dig at President Bush from the "President's Message" - a foreword.
For millions of Americans, the recovery from 2001 through 2007 was hardly one at all.
That may or may not be true - but it would be just as accurate to state that for millions of Americans, "the tech bubble was hardly one at all". If you didn't own stock or options in one or more of the hoards of tech companies that sprung up overnight around the turn of the century, you missed out. I missed out. Likewise, if you didn't own real estate, you didn't profit (on paper, anyway) from the surge in property and home values that only recently stalled.

The title of the first section of the budget is "Inheriting a Legacy of Misplaced Priorities". In what other job, other than hosting late-night television, can somebody sit around all day and take pot shots at his predecessor? Just *show* us how great *you* are, Mr. President. You want to be another Lincoln, right? History will judge you, as it will President Bush. We certainly don't need to pay you to do it for us. We do, however, need you to protect our country through wise security policy and smart, efficient financial policy.

This graph, just one of dozens in the document, highlights budget surpluses/deficits over the past three decades. I have added the color coding and the labels for your benefit. Click to enlarge.

President Obama's first budget deficit is expected to be more than three times larger than any of President Bush's which, I remind you, included events like the aftermath of 9/11, major military campaigns, Hurricane Katrina, and the first stimulus package. The government, of course, blames all of this deficit on other people, despite the fact that they themselves wrote, passed and signed the legislation into law. 

Mr. President, at what point can we expect you to begin accepting responsibility for what transpires in this country? Is it this year, with the 12% of GDP budget deficit? Your second year? Will you only take credit for the positive things and continue to pass the buck on the negative? Will you claim victory during the next president's administration? Unemployment continues to pile up - if you are the answer, shouldn't that trend have, at a minimum, stopped growing? The stock markets continue to plummet - if you are the pillar of hope, shouldn't that encourage a bull market as investors seek to profit from currently undervalued stocks? I've said it before: the financial markets are a reflection of the collective expectations, hopes and fears of its stakeholders.

If Obama = Hope, and
Financial markets = collective expectation, hope and fear, then
Obama = Fear (currently)

That said, I hope that President Obama's plan works (since I haven't been able to prevent it). I hope his plan restores America's economic strength and retools the country for the changing global environment. But on the other hand, I don't want to be an indentured servant for the rest of my natural life because of his commitments.

Friday, March 6, 2009

That Makes One of Us

President Obama today assured the American people that he knows "we did the right thing" by way of the $787 billion stimulus bill.

To make this proclamation, the President boarded Air Force One* and flew 300 miles to Columbus, Ohio to tell a graduating class of police cadets that their jobs are a direct result of the stimulus bill. At least until the end of the year when the funding dries up. The claim was not without substantial evidence to support it - he first looked into the recruits' eyes and at their shiny new badges before making his assessment.

As further evidence of the bill's obvious success, the President also noted that many teachers, nurses, firemen, and first responders were not among the 651,000 newly unemployed during the month of February.

This was a thinly veiled attempt to draw emotional support for the cause:
  • "...teachers who are still able to teach our children because we passed this plan."
  • "...nurses who are still able to care for our sick..."
  • "...firefighters and first responders who are still able to keep our communities safe."
My complaint remains unchanged: the poorly-named American Recovery and Reinvestment Act does extremely little to actually stimulate the economy. Paying for 25 new police officers salaries for 10 months does not address the core issue in Columbus, Ohio - insufficient budget to pay for the salaries itself.

On the other hand, if an operating environment were fostered that actually encouraged businesses to expand, that would be change I could believe in. Change with long-lasting effects. Those businesses would need to hire new people. Those people (and the companies) would pay more taxes, helping the City of Columbus pay for their own police force. But that's not all - those employees, including the new cops, would buy things from other businesses, lifting the entire local economy. They would also be able to pay their mortgages, removing a painful burden that has been set upon our shoulders.

If President Obama's stated objective is to be believed, shouldn't he begin pushing for and enacting policies that will encourage real growth and strength? Policies like corporate tax rates, regulatory barriers that make it difficult for American companies to compete globally, and trade imbalance?

I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but there appears to be an agenda at work here. What other explanation is there for ignoring the obvious? For ignoring the will of the people? 300 million of us can't be wrong.

Big government = broke (and broken) nation


* Lots of interesting talk here about the cost to taxpayers of operating Air Force One, plus a (short) special investigative Congressional report on the topic by a then-minority Representative Henry Waxman. Waxman's attempt to cast Bush/Cheney in an unfavorable light is no more relevant than is an argument that Obama shouldn't be flying around unnecessarily on our dime.

I am of the opinion that the costs of presidential travel are largely fixed. The planes, the pilots, support crew, security, Secret Service, etc., are all expenses that would be incurred even if the POTUS stayed in bed all day. The only significant variables are fuel and accommodations at the destination (security and otherwise).

In other words, while I sought out and found interesting the estimated cost per hour of operating Air Force One, I don't believe it to be a strong argument against Obama for his trip to Columbus.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

One Common Thread

US Trade Representative Nominee Ron Kirk is the latest friend of Obama to be caught trying to cheat the IRS and the citizens of this country. Am I the only person who find this absolutely hilarious? Not to mention disturbing, comical, egregious and, if I were President Obama, embarrassing. Aren't our friends a reflection of our own character? If all of my friends were drug dealers, it would not be entirely unreasonable to assume that I, too, had dabbled in that most dubious of enterprises.

Raising taxes. Cutting taxes. Evading taxes. Every day it's something different from these model citizens. The only constant is that every day we hear something something to do with taxes.

I have serious doubts that these tax issues would have been resolved had the individuals involved not been nominated. Would they have sought out the IRS to set things right? Would they have continued to conceal their theft?

My favorite part of this article is that Kirk has "agreed to make his payments" on his back taxes, in much the same manner one might "agree" to provide for his child or stop for a crossing train.

What's scary is that these stories represent only the corruption we have heard about. I have a feeling that if one were to pull on the right string, the entire fabric would unravel like the sweater from my previous post.

Monday, March 2, 2009


This is old news now, but I'm trying to get rid of my backlog of time-sensitive half-written blog posts.

Brief summary: In one of his first acts as POTUS, President Obama, by executive order, removed the ban that states federal funds cannot in any way be used to support abortion internationally.

I only have two issues with this story:

1) The way it was promoted in the media was that this was a direct shot at President Bush, Jr.; that this act somehow made right the great evil that had transpired under the prior administration. The fact is, as you can read in the full text, the policy dates back to President Reagan. The policy was continued under President Bush, Sr., then lifted with President Clinton, only to be reestablished again with President Bush, Jr. Odds are the ban will be enforced once again in 2013. There's no story here - it is now a Presidential tradition.

2) The part that most upsets me about this story is that our tax dollars are being used to fund ANYTHING in other countries, let alone something so controversial as abortion. I'm certainly not calling for a ban on foreign aid or disaster relief. But abortion funding hardly fits either of those bills. Are we running such a surplus that we can afford to give money to other countries for planned parenthood?

Enjoy this educational video about where some of that "family planning" money ends up.