Sunday, July 26, 2015

How to Get Fat

     I saw an ad on TV last night promising that I could shed 40 pounds in 40 days. This seems to be a time of year when you see a lot of ads and articles assuring you that you can lose weight, fast and easy, without dieting. (Is there a time of year when there aren't a lot of ads promising that you can lose weight?) I think it might have something to do with fitting into a bikini, not that I personally have ever tried.

     I've lost a little weight in my day. For example, I lost eight pounds after my latest colonoscopy. But my true field of expertise is not losing weight. It's getting fat. I got fat in my 30s, because my wife got pregnant. I got fat in my 40s, because I was middle age. I got fat in my 50s due to my slowing metabolism. Now I've passed the 60 mark, and I'm getting fat because I don't give a damn anymore. You see? I always have an excuse!

     Since I know all about how to get fat, I thought I'd pass on some of my expert advice. Here are five of the fastest ways to pack on the pounds.

     Don't eat breakfast. You'd think if you skip a meal, it would help you lose weight. But it doesn't work that way. Everyone I know who pats themselves on the back for not being hungry in the morning (myself included) ends up with either a pot belly, or a rubber tire worthy of a hybrid car, if not a monster truck. I think it has something to do with balancing things out. If you don't eat in the morning, you implicitly give yourself permission to stuff your face at 10 p.m., just before you go to bed.

     Drink diet sodas. I don't know why – they only have 1 calorie, or sometimes no calories. But drinking diet soda conclusively and inevitably leads to gaining weight. It's not just what you consume along with the diet soda (for surely you've seen the person at the fast-food place with a double cheeseburger, french fries, a sticky dessert ... and a diet cola. Yes, that was me!). I don't know exactly how diet sodas add on pounds; I just know that they do. They must stimulate something in the sugar part of your brain that goes unfulfilled with the diet drink, and so you subconsciously make up your sugar quotient with more pie, or more whipped cream with your pie. In any case, whatever you do, if you're trying to gain weight, do not drink water. Water is just empty calories!

     Take full advantage of your spouse. When you're sitting on the couch watching TV – by the way, watching TV, playing video games and sitting in front of your computer are all fully approved activities for the aspiring fat person -- and want a snack from the kitchen, do not trouble yourself by giving up your comfortable seating arrangement and walking into the kitchen. Instead, call out to your spouse. Or a kid will do, if there's one around and they'll cooperate. Ask them to get the snack for you, and bring it to you on the couch. By the way, potato chips make an excellent snack, especially of you have dip to go with them.

     Do not own a pet. After all, you might have to change their bowl, clean up after them, take them for a walk, throw a stick for them. All of these activities burn up those precious calories you want to horde in your belly fat. So relax. If you want animal companionship, put up a picture of a pet as the screensaver on your laptop.

     Drive everywhere. You have a car. Why not use it? It's silly to spend 20 minutes walking down to the corner, which might be almost a mile, when you can jump in the car and be there in three minutes. Similarly, when you go to the mall, and have to shop at the two anchor stores at either end of the building, park at one end, and then when you're done there, get back in the car and drive around the mall to the other store. There's no point in walking the whole length of the mall. And by the way, if you have to go from one floor to another, never, ever take the stairs. Use the escalator or elevator. They're there for your convenience.

     I'm sure you know some other ways to gain weight. Drinking beer, for example. Or, as I once did, giving up beer – then making up for that sacrifice by indulging yourself in all the dessert you can eat. You probably have yor own guilty pleasure, which is fine ... in moderation, of course!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Which New Taxes Would You Vote For?

     Hillary Clinton last week proposed raising the capital gains tax on long-term investments, and this got me thinking about taxes in general and income taxes in particular. Now I don't make myself out as a tax expert -- why, I've only read 30 - 40 pages of the tax code which by some measures is 70,000 pages long, by others "only" 2,600 pages long -- but I do have some background in business and economics. Don't take my views on taxes as any definitive analysis, just one retiree's semi-informed opinion.

     Clinton suggested applying a sliding scale to investment profits, based on how long people have held the assets. Currently, capital gains are taxed at personal income tax rates if the assets are held less than a year. Assets held more than a year are taxed at a preferential capital gains rate. The idea is to reward true investing, but discourage short-term trading.

     Also, as many retirees are well aware, dividends are taxed at a preferential rate, although income from bonds is not. Clinton's plan would increase the maximum rate on capital gains made on assets held between one and three years, currently 20 percent, to at least 28 percent.

     What would be the effect of this increase? Clinton did not say how much revenue would be raised; she said she'd offer more details at a later time. But clearly, it would increase taxes for people who own stocks and mutual funds. Wealthy people. Retired people. People saving for college or any other reason.

     It would not affect real estate, nor would it affect tax-advantaged retirement accounts. But in any case, it seems like the Clinton proposal is a trial balloon that is going nowhere fast. Even the liberal Huffington Post cast a dim eye on the plan, quoting Bob McIntyre, director of the progressive Citizens for Tax Justice, who said most wealthy investors avoid capital gains taxes by finding ways to defer asset sales but small investors in mutual funds would be penalized by Clinton's plan.

     A more sensible approach might be to tax investments on a sliding scale based not on how long they are held, but on how much income a person makes. In other words, to tax investments like earned income -- a lower rate for lower income people, a higher rate for higher income people. But nobody that I know is suggesting such a thing.

     Also, nobody is talking about raising the tax on co-called "carried interest." This is a fairly obscure, but very profitable tax dodge that allows partners in private equity firms to count a significant portion of their income as capital gains or qualified dividends rather than regular income. So instead of paying the top rate of 39.6 percent, plus the 3.8 percent Medicare surcharge on income over $200,000 (and you can bet these hedge fund managers make more than $200,000), they only pay the capital gains rate of 20 percent.

     Why is nobody -- not Democrat or Republican -- talking about abandoning carried interest? I do not know. But do you think, just possibly, that campaign contributions might have something to do with it?

     And while we're on the subject -- a subject near and dear to every retiree's heart -- why is there so little talk about "saving" Social Security by getting rid of the salary cap on the payroll tax? Everyone who works pays 6.2 percent Social Security tax, plus 1.45 percent Medicare tax, on the first $118,000 of earned income. Employers pay the same amount for each employee, again up to the limit of $118,000 per year. After that, people don't pay any more Social Security tax. How fair is that? The more money a person makes, after $118,000 per year, the lower their tax rate.

     Finally, I saw that Bernie Sanders also has a tax proposal. I'm no fan of Bernie Sanders -- he wants to take money away not just from rich people but from middle-class people like me, and give it to other people he likes better; plus, he's against gun control, and I'm in favor of gun control -- but this particular tax plan, which he calls a Robin Hood tax, may have some merit. He wants to place a 50 cents tax on every $100 of stock trades, plus lesser amounts on bonds and other financial instruments.

     The question I have is, does he mean 50 cents for every $100, which basically is an additional half percent tax on all our investments? That seems a bit steep to me, adding to the punishment that savers already suffer. Or does he mean a 50 cents tax on every trade worth over $100? That seems more reasonable: He wants to skim a little off the top from major investors and give it to a worthy cause.

     He says the tax could slow down automated high-frequency trading, which might be a good thing. And he wants to use the money to give everyone a free college education. He doesn't say whether his Robin Hood tax would actually raise enough money to support college education for everyone; but that's a whole other issue ... how much college really costs and what the effects of free tuition would be.

     Well, there's plenty more on taxes, but that's enough for now. You can't bite off all 2,600 pages, or 70,000 pages, all in one gulp.


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Who Is More American?

     I don't know why I am so fascinated by the Dutch experience in the New World. As far as I know, I do not have a drop of Dutch blood in my lineage. And my ancestors came nowhere near the New World in the 1600s or the 1700s. They didn't arrive until the 1800s.

     On my mother's side, there were two brothers, Thomas and Patrick, who left Ireland around 1850. They traveled to New York together. Thomas, my great great grandfather, made his way upstate and settled in for a while somewhere around Albany. His brother Patrick shipped out again as a deckhand on a freighter. He spent six or eight years working at sea, traveling as far as Australia, before finding his way back to New York. He then reunited with Thomas and the two of them started a tugboat business in New York Harbor.

     My grandparents on my father's side of the family arrived here in the 1890s, both from Central Europe. They met and married in New York, then wandered around Pennsylvania and Ohio looking for work. After a few disappointing years they settled in Connecticut where my grandfather found a steady job in a metal-fabricating factory. They had seven children. The oldest died in the 1917 flu epidemic. The youngest, the last surviving sibling, served in World War II and died in Las Vegas in 2003.

     So I sometimes wonder: When I'm reading about our Founding Fathers, or the Puritans in New England or the Dutch in New York, am I even learning about my own heritage? My ancestors had nothing to do with America at that point; they were trying to scratch out a living somewhere in Europe.

     But then, I think, in a way I'm more American than the Daughters of the Revolution, or anyone else who claims ancestry back to colonial times. After all, my immigrant experience is much more typical than someone who claims some faint connection to the Founding Fathers. The population of the United States in 1776 was around 2.6 million people. But some 4 million Irish immigrated to the U. S. in the 19th century. And there were even more from Central Europe. The total figure I found put the number at 30 million Europeans who migrated from Europe to America between 1836 and 1914.

     Maybe I find the Dutch interesting because, according to Robert Shorto, they deserve credit for bringing the first seeds of democracy to the New World -- the seeds of freedom, opportunity and self-rule -- and that above all is what defines our aspirations, whether we're from the Netherlands or Nicaragua, or England or Estonia or Ecuador.

     Also, the Dutch also gave the word for cookies (originally koekjes), which in my book is reason enough to celebrate their culture!

     And as Robert Shorto points out, the Dutch also brought us the word for boss (originally baas) which he says is a uniquely American concept. The word does not connote any divine favor or royal lineage. It just refers to the person who's in charge. There's the Mafia boss, the political boss, the boss at work -- all of whom attained their position not by any royal connection, but by some combination of talent, hard work, street smarts, and maybe a little luck. The boss is no better than we are, and if things change, as they often do, the boss could be gone tomorrow . . .  and maybe we'll become the boss.

     Then there's The Boss. American icon Bruce Springsteen, from working class New Jersey. According to Shorto, the Springsteens were among the original Dutch settlers of New Netherland.


Friday, July 17, 2015

The Hilly Island

     Last weekend B and I drove over to see the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival production of The Winter's Tale.

     Before the show began, I took in the view of the Hudson River. I could see West Point across the water. Gazing upriver, through the wooded hills, I noticed the view was unspoiled, almost primeval. And it made me wonder: Is this what Henry Hudson saw when he first sailed up the river all those years ago, in 1609?

     Hudson was English, but sailed under the Dutch flag. He was looking for the Northwest Passage to the Far East, but soon decided this particular waterway was not the answer. The next year he tried again, sailing farther north until his ship got stuck in the ice. His crew mutinied, leaving Captain Hudson and a few of his followers behind in a small boat with scant provisions. Hudson froze to death, not knowing people would name a great river after him, and a great bay, as well as a city, and many streets, schools, restaurants, neighborhoods.

     Hudson had claimed the area around the river for the Dutch. So in 1624 a group of Dutchmen -- following on the heels of some Pilgrims who had gone to Massachusetts four years earlier -- embarked for the lands marked out by Hudson.

     The Dutch settlers sailed under Captain Cornelius May -- for whom Cape May, NJ, is named. They nosed into what they called the North River and landed at Mannahata, or the "hilly island." One contingent of colonists then set out again for what they called the South River (today the Delaware River), and another went northeast to settle on the Fresh River (today the Connecticut River). And thus the Dutch established their colony of New Netherland, situated between one English colony to the north, and another to the south in Virginia.

     The settlements on the Fresh River and the South River were always secondary, as the Dutch focused on developing New Amsterdam as a main shipping point for overseas trade. The leader of the colony, Peter Minuit, negotiated a deal with various local tribes regarding Mannahata. Minuit paid out 60 guilders worth of goods (calculated by one historian, at one point, to be the equivalent of $24). But there was a slight misunderstanding. Minuit thought he was purchasing the island. The tribal leaders thought they were simply giving the Dutch the right to live on the island, and hunt and farm along with all the other people.

     The Dutch settled in peacefully and developed a thriving fur trade. They established another settlement about 150 miles upriver, called Fort Orange, as a trading post. They were more tolerant than the Puritans who had established a rigid theocracy in Massachusetts. Mannahata became a commercial hub where people of many nationalities and religious persuasions came to live and trade. A number of people who didn't fit into the Puritan way of life drifted down from Massachusetts to the more liberal New Amsterdam.

     One was Deborah Moody, who was run out of Massachusetts because she espoused the heretical view that people should not be baptized until they were old enough to understand its meaning. Along with a few of her followers, she settled on a plot of land in what was then called Breuckelen, on the southwestern tip of Lange Eylandt. Moody thus became the first woman to establish a settlement in the New World.

     Yet the Dutch were no saints. They were avid participants in the Atlantic slave trade, and they either wiped out or forced out many of the indigenous peoples of the region.

     But the Dutch did bring the first inklings of democracy to the New World. In Europe, the Dutch had rebelled against the Spanish crown. The provinces had joined together to form a kind of republic. Encouraged by rationalists like Rene Descartes, the French philosopher living in the Netherlands, the jurist Hugo Grotius, and a swirl of intellectuals around the University of Leiden, the Dutch were beginning to believe that people could govern themselves, rather than be subjects of a divine monarch. They believed in hard work, and earning an honest guilder. They rejected the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic church and thought the English preoccupation with witches was somewhere between paranoia and hysteria.

     New Amsterdam, on the island of Mannahata, was a freewheeling city, even after the dictatorial Peter Stuyvesant, who'd lost a leg fighting in the Caribbean, came to crack down on the colonists and bring more order to the colony. The settlement around the South River was lost to the Swedes (led, ironically, by the deposed Peter Minuit), who came to stake their claim in the New World. The area around the Fresh River was overrun by English fleeing persecution in Massachusetts.

     Eventually, peg-legged Peter Stuyvesant was forced to cede control of New Netherland to the English, when their well-armed ships sailed into the harbor in 1664. England and the Netherlands, two great European powers, were at odds for most of the century. And with this show of force, King Charles handed over these lands to the Duke of York, who of course renamed New Amsterdam after himself.

     So the 40-year colonial empire of the Dutch came to an end, and the Dutch were all but forgotten as the history of the colony was written by the English. Yet the Dutch are remembered, if not for their nascent democratic values, by many place names, from the cities of Rensselaer, Batavia and Amsterdam in upstate New York, to the Catskill Mountains, to Yonkers, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Harlem and Staten Island . . . as well as Hoboken, NJ, and the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania.

     Not to mention the Dutch forays into the Far East. But that's another story, which I will report on if and when I ever go to New Zealand (named after the Dutch province of Zeeland) or Tasmania (named after Dutch explorer Abel Tasman).

     Now . . . just a note to my children:  No, I do not know this history simply because I remember it. Despite what you might think, I was not around in the early 1600s. After I got home from the Shakespeare Festival I found I was more moved by the river than the play, so I got a book from the library, The Island at the Center of the World, by Russell Shorto -- and so I learned a little more about the river that flows by every day.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Talk About Renovating Your Home

     On Saturday night Bridge and I went on a picnic with old friends of ours. The main topic of conversation? They wanted to talk about how they recently installed solar panels on the roof of their house. They'll be saving about $100 a month on their electric bills. They also talked about the screened-in porch they added last year. And, oh yeah, they were fixing their gutters, too. But they didn't want to talk about that. Fixing gutters is boring.

     Meanwhile, we had nothing to say, because the only thing we've done to our house recently is repaint the deck -- and that's even more boring than fixing gutters. So we fell back on talking about the bathroom remodel we did a few years ago -- because it's more interesting to talk about new tile, a new glass shower door, and a fancy rain showerhead, than it is a $30 bucket of paint from Home Depot.

     Our experience squares with a recent report from the home-remodeling web platform houzz. They did a survey which found that younger homeowners are more likely to redecorate their homes, which involves things like curtains, paint and carpeting, while older homeowners are more likely to take on major home remodeling projects involving new cabinets, new flooring, new appliances and fixtures. And, since there are far fewer Millennials who are homeowners, Baby Boomers are the ones driving the market.

     And so what are people talking about? Fancy home remodels, not routine repairs. Boring old home maintenance is the least popular activity in the houzz survey, no matter how old you are.

     So what is the favorite home-renovation project? The kitchen. (By the way, I've read elsewhere that granite countertops are "out" and other solid surface countertops such as quartz and Corian are back in. Now, when they rediscover old-fashioned vinyl . . . that's when I'll be back in fashion!)

     After the kitchen, the next favorites are: hall bathroom; then family room; then master bathroom. The least favorite remodels? Finishing the basement, converting a room into a home office, improving the laundry room or dining room.

     The average kitchen redo, according to houzz, runs around $30,000 to $40,000. But it depends on where you live, how much you do, and how big your kitchen is. The range goes from a fairly modest $12,000 all the way up to $50,000-plus.

     It may not surprise you to find out that Baby Boomers spend more, on average, than their children. Boomers typically spend $40,000 to $50,000 for a major kitchen remodel, compared to $20,000 to $40,000 for homeowners age 25 to 55.

     It also may not surprise you that outdoor improvements are more common in the south and west than the midwest or northeast. Among the most popular landscaping projects: Upgrading gardens and borders; decks and patios; improving the lawn; adding fencing and pathways.

     The least popular? Greenhouses, hot tubs, swimming pools and art features.

     Another interesting finding from the survey:  more than half of over-60 homeowners plan to stay in their current residence indefinitely, rather than move to some other state or into a retirement community. And the majority of these people have either recently done renovations to their home, or plan to do so in the near future. For example, in the kitchen many are reconfiguring the layout to improve accessibility -- widening doorways, installing seated work areas, as well as easy-to-reach storage and easy-to-operate faucets.

     Popular upgrades in the bathroom include grab bars, raised toilets, shower seating, slip-resistant flooring, and removing trip hazards such as throw rugs.

     But finally, in my own defense, what does the survey say is the product that most people actually plan to purchase within the next six month? Is it new flooring? New countertops? New tile? No. Less than 20 percent of homeowners are planning to buy a kitchen appliance, or install carpeting in the next six months. But 40 percent of homeowners say they will be buying paint. Plain, old, boring paint. So they can join me out on my deck, and we'll be boring together.