Monday, October 5, 2015

Are You Happy Where You Are?

     I've written a few posts on happiness, the most recent one this past August called  How to Be (Truly) Happy. But the search for happiness comes in many forms, both at home and abroad, both inside ourselves and out in the world. 

     Anyone who's followed Laura Lee's blog knows that she recently moved into her new dream house in the Colorado foothills, Now she's making new friends, seeing new places, and enjoying her new town of La Veta. She is also enjoying some wonderful vistas, so if you want to see some fantastic scenery, take a look over at October in Southern Colorado. And if you have a little extra time, wander down to see the golden aspens, the golden clouds, and the gold up on Cripple Creek.

Colorado Rocky Mountain High
     By contrast. Meryl Baer likes the ocean, not the mountains. A few years ago she and her husband retired from Pennsylvania to the Jersey Shore. But waiting and worrying about another major storm approaching from the south has forced her to re-evaluate living on the edge of the Atlantic.

     So watching the waves crash up onto the beach, she wonders: Does she stay? Does she relocate? Where in the world would she go? Perhaps you want to blow over to her site and give her some advice at Shorely the Best.

      Meanwhile, our group's newcomer, Linda Myers, takes a different approach by going in search of happiness in strange and foreign places. Many of you know her blog Thoughts from a Bag Lady In Waiting, and probably are aware that she likes to travel. She recently returned from a trip to Eastern Europe and wrote a post called Reflections on Our Trip, thinking about what she learned from her journey, both tangible and intangible.

      Reflecting on her travels helps her clarify what's important to her -- learning the history of a place, experiencing the sublime feelings of being close to the water, and then the more practical things like if you walk five to seven miles a day you can eat gelato whenever you want and still fit into your clothes, and if you want to be happy on the road, be kind to your feet, especially if you're walking on cobblestones.

     And keeping on that more practical note, none of us would be happy if our identity was stolen. On The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide, Rita R. Robison, consumer journalist, writes about the new credit cards with chips, which are safer because information is stored in a chip and you need to enter a PIN to complete the transaction. For the full story slide your mouse or keypad over to Do You Have a Credit Card with a Chip?

     You might also want to check out her post on how T-Mobile customer accounts have been hacked through their credit reporting agency. All the more reason to be careful, whenever you try to communicate over the cables or the airwaves.

     Finally, in 10 Signs of Sustainable Happiness Kathy Gottberg shows how we all want to be happy internally, by practicing gratitude, staying healthy, feeling competent, being loved. But she goes on to point out, “In order to have an experience of real happiness and well-being that is enduring and sustainable, it must extend out to other people and the world around you."

     In other words, it's not enough to achieve happiness for ourselves alone. Perhaps it's not even possible, for true happiness involves other people and the meaning they bring to our lives.

      In another post called Carl Jung and the Art of Aging Well, Gottberg tells us what the great psychologist discovered about happiness and the aging process. “A human being would certainly not grow to be 70 or 80 years old if this longevity had no meaning for the species to which he belongs,” wrote Jung. “The afternoon of human life must also have a significance of its own and cannot be merely a pitiful appendage to life’s morning.”

     So for Jung, as for all of us, the aging process is not merely one of inescapable decline of body, mind and relevancy. It is, instead, a time of progressive refinement of what is essential in life. And in that, we can all find true happiness.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

A Minor (But Important) Point

     In a post last week I mentioned that I agreed with a lot of Hillary Clinton's policies and ideas. Or at least some of them. She seems the most sensible of all the candidates I've seen ... so far.

     So she's supposed to be a health-care expert. But she has flubbed on this one.

     Here's the point:  Currently, if you get your health insurance from your employer, the income you use to pay for health insurance is tax free. But if you pay for health insurance on your own -- including most people paying for Medicare -- you first have to pay tax on the money, and then use what's left over to pay for your health insurance premiums.

     That's fundamentally unfair, don't you think? The government has set up a two class system -- those who get health insurance tax free; and those who don't.

     Now instead of fixing that discrepancy, Clinton wants to add to the unfairness -- or, if you will, make the rich richer, and the poor poorer.

     She made news the other day by reiterating her proposal to repeal the section of the Affordable Care Act that involves the so-called "Cadillac tax" on health insurance.

     The tax, set to take effect in 2018, would be a tax on so-called Cadillac health insurance plans, ones that exceed certain thresholds, which are proposed at $10,200 for an individual and $27,500 for a family.

      In other words, the ACA is scheduled to cap the amount of tax-free income employees can use for health insurance. Clinton wants to do away with the cap, allowing employees to get a tax break not just on the first $27,500 they spend on health insurance, but any amounts even above that, with no limit.

     Meanwhile, those of us who do not get health insurance from the workplace, we get no break at all. We pay tax on every single dollar we use for health insurance. Our cap is not $27,500. It's not $10,200. It is $0.

     If Clinton wants to get rid of the "Cadillac tax," and the ACA can afford it, then go right ahead. But first we should fix the unfairness already embedded in the system. She should call for allowing those who buy their own insurance to take a tax deduction -- at least up to $10,200 a year for an individual and $27,500 for a family. In other words, let's repeal the two-class system of health insurance, before we give extra tax breaks to those who are already favored with a tax exemption.

     Yes, it's a minor tax point. But it's important, because we're all supposed to be treated equally; everyone's supposed to be the same in the eyes of the law.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

What Baby Boomers Really Want

            Like it or not, the post-war Baby Boom generation makes up over a quarter of the American population. So what Boomers think about, what we aspire to do and what we want to buy, all make a big difference in the American economy and the social trends that shape our lives.

            So I did a little research and isolated ten issues that Baby Boomers are focused on in 2015. If you're a Baby Boomer you may not be concerned with all these items; but my guess is that at least a couple of them will speak to you:

            1. We want a smaller but nicer house. In the 1980s and '90s, Baby Boomers flocked to the suburbs to raise their families. Now the kids are grown, so Boomers are getting ready to trade in their three-or-four-bedroom home for a two-bedroom bungalow with little or no yard. Some may want the charm of an old neighborhood, but most are more interested in modern conveniences and minimal maintenance.

            2. And long to live in a city. Baby Boomers are tired of driving to work, the mall, and the kids' soccer games. By and large we Boomers want to move into more urban areas – but ones that are clean, crime-free and less costly. So goodbye New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles. Hello Portland, Maine, Savannah, Georgia, Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon.

            3. We do not want to share their homes. A website called The Street says that despite some reports of a trend toward home sharing – a la "The Golden Girls" – Baby Boomers are not particularly interested in group living. The U. S. Census Bureau confirms that notion, reporting that less than 2 percent of Baby Boomers live in group quarters. Instead, with the kids finally gone, we want to enjoy the freedom of living in our own space in our own way. Most of us want to feather their own nests, not move to a modern-day commune.

            4. But we do want to keep working.  The Street also says that Boomers don't want to retire. Some 28 percent of Boomers claim they will never retire. And 46 percent say they want to downsize their careers but keep working part time in a less stressful job. This desire to keep at least one foot in the workplace is partly driven by economic factors, but also by the prospects for living longer, healthier lives.

            5. We want to travel. And not just to grandma's house. Many of the more affluent Boomers feel the pull of  "name brand" destinations like Stonehenge, the Great Wall, Machu Picchu and the Pyramids. They also want to gaze at the natural wonders before acid rain or the rising tides destroy them – Venice, the Great Barrier Reef, the rain forests, and the Arctic.

            6. We want to stay healthy. Many Boomers flock to the health club and jump into other healthful activities. Even more stand in line at Whole Foods and other natural-food purveyors to reap the benefits of healthy, organic fare. Farm stands are good. Farm-to-table restaurants are better. Home gardens are best of all.

            7. We embrace social media. Facebook started out as a platform for college kids. But now the aging parents of those college kids are all over Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media sites, sharing pictures of their pets, their grandchildren, and their latest vacation.

            8. Believe it or not, we are still dating. According to the U. S. Census Bureau some 65 percent of Boomers are married. But that leaves 35 percent who are single (17 percent divorced, 11 percent never married), and many are still interested in dating, using online dating services, frequenting meet-up groups, and staying on the lookout from the supermarket to their Salsa lessons.

            9. Nostalgia is here to stay. According to my son the music agent, the highest grossing bands are not the favorites of 20-something hipsters, like Jungle, Ratking or The Front Bottoms, but the old acts of yore like Bon Jovi, Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles and Paul McCartney. Meanwhile, what's big on Broadway? Cinderella, Jersey Boys, The Carole King Musical and Wicked, the latest twist on The Wizard of Oz.

            10. We want a slower, easier life. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, Baby Boomers have the lowest rate of poverty among all age groups. Yet we exhibit the highest levels of anxiety. Why? We worry about our health, about losing our friends, about our children moving away. And we feel insecure because of financial issues such as the stability of our pensions and the prospects for the stock market, and all the questions that swirl around the very programs like Social Security and Medicare that keep us out of poverty.

          And here you thought it was easy being a Baby Boomer!

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Man of the 1990s

     I remember the year 1996 like it was yesterday. We had just renovated the kitchen in the house where my wife and I lived for 20 years, where our children had been born and where, in 1996, they were in middle school. It was the year I had lyme disease. The year my company had a big layoff. I was offered a voluntary retirement package at work. I turned it down, and ended up getting a promotion because so many other people left the company.

     For the rest of the 1990s I had a pretty good run at work . . . until 2002 when I was handed an involuntary retirement package. And thus began the next phase of my life, including my years of  semi-retirement (which are still going on). At the same time my wife and I were getting divorced, and soon after that I met B, and began a new life in another way as well. All that just does not seem very long ago.

      Yes, to me, the 1990s seem like yesterday. My kids were in school. I'd go to Little League games; and I'd watch them play tennis and go to swim meets. My parents were still alive, and we'd go visit Nana and Grandpa for the holidays.

     Last night I happened to notice a photograph of my mom and dad that sits on the bookshelf in our living room. I guess it's one of those things that's so familiar, I never really see it. But I saw it yesterday. In a way, my mom and dad still seem like they're here. Like we should start planning to go visit them for the holidays.

     The 1990s have not faded away. I watch Seinfeld reruns on TV. And sometimes Friends as well. The other day I saw that the original Jurassic Park (1993) was on AMC. This summer the latest in the series,  Jurassic World, was in the movie theaters. Plenty of other films from the 1990s come around all the time: Pulp Fiction, Forrest Gump and Shawshank Redemption, all from 1994; Fargo from 1996 (there's now a TV series Fargo on the FX Network); Saving Private Ryan from 1998, and  lots of others -- and all of them seem fresh and modern, at least to me.

     On my Sirius XM radio I have one of my preset buttons on the station playing hits from the 1960s. They sound old and shopworn to me. The 1960s were so long ago, they appear like a dream. But the station featuring music from the 1990s -- those songs are new! Nirvana, REM, U2, Pearl Jam, Radiohead. Aren't they the bands that the kids listen to?

     And, of course, the most powerful political figures of the 1990s are still around. Which begs the question: What about the Clintons?

     I would agree with most experts who rate Bill Clinton a pretty good president, despite his personal flaws. Would I vote for another Clinton in the White House? Maybe. Hillary Clinton may not be as honest as the Pope. But what president is? Certainly, nobody is more "ready" to be president, and I agree with her on a lot of issues -- for example, just last week she came out with some ideas on how to rein in the ridiculous increases in drug prices. She's talking about health care today, just like she was in the 1990s!

     But, actually . . . in the political context, the 1990s do seem kind of long ago and far away. Remember "Don't ask, don't tell"? Would anyone believe, "I feel your pain" anymore? Why can't we find a newer, younger, fresher face?

     Well, you always have doubts. So I don't know what your favorite decade is. But, like I said, I'm a man of the 1990s, which, as far as the past goes, were just around the corner.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

What Do Interest Rates Mean, Anyway?

     I don't know if you even noticed, but a few days ago the entire financial world was on tenterhooks, wondering whether or not Janet Yellen and the Federal Reserve would dare (gasp!) to raise interest rates by ... get this, a whole 1/4 of a point.

     Frankly, I don't know what the big deal is. I remember interest rates at 12 and 15 percent in the early 1980s. So a quarter point, to me, seems negligible. Besides, I don't really care if I get the current 0.1 percent interest on my CD, or whether I get 0.35 percent interest. Either way, all I'll be able to buy with my interest is a pack of gum, or 1/4 of a gallon of gasoline.

     So I turned to my friend Jeremy Kisner, Senior Wealth Adviser at Surevest Wealth Management in Phoenix, to do some explaining for us. Here's what he says:

Jeremy Kisner
     Whether you prefer higher interest rates or lower rates depends on whether you are a saver or a borrower. The last time the Federal Reserve raised interest rates was June 2006. The Fed started cutting rates when the economy began deteriorating in late 2007, and it eventually cut rates to zero in December 2008. We are likely to see the first increase since the Great Recession by the end of this year

      Raising the Federal Funds rate is controversial. This is the only interest rate that the Fed directly controls. It is the rate that banks charge each other for overnight loans, and it primarily affects money market and savings accounts. The rate for mortgages is largely determined by the supply and demand for bonds, which the Fed does not directly control. A large group of economists think it is a terrible idea to raise the Fed Funds rate at this time. Others feel it is long overdue.

     Let’s try to understand why.

     The U.S. government has two ways to try to stimulate the economy: Fiscal Policy (government spending) and Monetary Policy (interest rates and money supply). The Federal Reserve is only responsible for monetary policy. The Fed’s two overarching goals are:

     1) Promote maximum employment, and

     2) Keep inflation as close to 2% as possible.

     Maximum employment and low inflation tend to be conflicting goals, which makes the Fed’s job a balancing act. Maximum employment (i.e., low unemployment) is usually only achieved when there is strong demand in the economy. Strong demand for products and services is good for employment but bad for inflation (pushes prices up). The Fed lowers interest rates when the economy is slow in order to stimulate the economy. On the other hand, it will raise interest rates if the economy is overheating and inflation is above its 2% target. You can see how it is difficult for the Fed to please everyone.

     Many people complain that it doesn’t even pay to keep your money in the bank at today’s interest rates. That was the Fed’s whole idea. It was trying to get you to take your savings out of the bank and go invest it in things that create jobs (e.g., new property, a factory, or equipment). The low interest rates of the past seven years have been good for young people who tend to be borrowers and job creators. The low rates tend to penalize seniors who are counting on interest from their savings accounts to supplement their retirement incomes.

     Zero interest rates have helped the U.S. economy recover from the great recession. The recovery has not been as quick or as robust as many would have liked. However, there's no question that the economy is bigger and stronger on almost every measure than it was before the 2008-09 recession.

     The question is why raise rates now? The economy is not in danger of overheating, and inflation is below the 2% target (largely due to the decline in energy costs). There are several reasons but the main ones are:

     1)  0% is an extreme measure, and the Fed likes to have some ammunition in case of a future downturn or economic shock. When rates are already at zero, it has very few tools left.

     2)  Historically, low rates can create asset bubbles. In other words, people start investing in things that don’t make sense. (Has anyone checked real estate prices in Silicon Valley or New York City?)

     How will a rate increase affect the economy and the stock market? Short-term, there is some volatility, but in the medium to longer term, an increase from 0 to .25% should be a non-issue. The Fed just wants to get off of zero. It is unlikely there will be any steep increases from there unless inflation makes a significant comeback.