"To be too certain of anything is the beginning of bigotry." -- Novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Health Insurance -- Hard Pill to Swallow

     I never noticed what health care cost back when I was working during the 1970s, '80s, '90s and into the 2000s. My company took a few dollars out of my paycheck. The amount went up a little bit, from year to year, but not as much as my salary -- and besides, it was a minor blip in my financial picture.

     Then I got laid off. I went on COBRA and had to pay the whole bill. I was absolutely stunned at how much health insurance costs.

     I did some research and found I could do better than my old company, which offered what we now call a Cadillac plan (but from what I hear from old colleagues, it doesn't anymore). I got a little better deal through my professional association; but it was still breathtakingly expensive.

     My insurance bill went down after my kids transferred onto their own plans. But now, in the last couple of years, it's started shooting up again. By 16% last year. And a proposed 20% to 40% for this year.

     As I outlined in a previous post, Affordable Health Care for Early Retirees, I haven't been blaming my insurance company for high insurance costs. I figured if medical insurance was a profitable business, I'd be getting solicitations by mail and phone and Internet to sign up with Prudential or Aetna or Allstate. After all, various companies are always trying to sell me life insurance or auto insurance or home insurance. If they're not trying to sell me health insurance, it must not be very profitable.

     In fact, it's hard to get health insurance. You have to have connections in order to get medical insurance. Like they're doing you a favor.

     And besides, I've seen what doctors and hospitals try to bill people for their services -- from my daughter who recently went to a clinic for a sore throat and was billed $383 for a five-minute visit, to my friend who got a pacemaker, stayed in the hospital overnight and went home with a bill approaching $100,000!

     The insurance paid . . . not all of it, but most of it, by far. How can that be a bad deal?

     I do not claim to be an expert on medical financing. But in my admittedly unscientific poll last week, the majority of responders did blame the greedy insurance companies for high medical insurance premiums. And a couple of them must know, since they used to work for insurance companies.

     Some 42% of the votes said greedy insurance companies were primarily responsible for the high cost of medical insurance. Just 23% blamed the high cost of medicine. About 12% blamed overuse of the medical system by well-insured people. Only a couple of people blamed Obama.

     Dr. Kathy McCoy at Living Fully in Midlife and Beyond said, "My feeling -- as a retired healthcare professional -- is that the biggest problem in escalating healthcare costs is the unfettered greed of the big insurance companies. I hated dealing with them when I was in practice because they would refer a patient to me and then I would have to fight for (at times) up to a year to get paid. But I most hated hearing stories about people who had faithfully paid premiums being dropped the moment they really needed care or being denied coverage due to pre-existing conditions."

     June of Aging Gratefully said, "I worked in the insurance industry. It was property and casualty insurance, not health insurance, but in some ways there isn't much difference. Greedy insurance companies are The Bad Guys in this situation."

     Still, I think Dianne from Schmidleysscribblings has a point when she says, "We need to look at our own contribution to the mess . . . Health insurance costs will continue to rise as long as those who can use the system whenever they can. Everytime an effort is made to rein in costs by advising that perhaps some tests are not necessary, such as mammograms, the outcry is so loud, the insurers, regulators and doctors back off."

    Plus, I know plenty of people who run to the doctor with the slightest ache or pain. It only costs them the $20 copay. So why not? It probably does run up costs for everyone -- but is it really significant?

     It's a complicated issue, and even the experts haven't been able to solve it. But still, I'm looking at that letter from my insurance company, and I'm beginning to wonder . . . 20 to 40%? Really?

     Probably the reason hardly anyone blamed Obama for rising medical insurance costs is because not much of the Affordable Care Act has come into effect yet. So the impact is yet to come. Obamacare does an admirable job of extending access to health care for many Americans, including us early retirees. That's certainly a good thing. But anyone suggesting that Obamacare is going to lower medical costs is drinking the Kool-Aid.

     Annie Lowrey of the New York Times reported on an Oregon study showing that uninsured people who gain health insurance "feel healthier, happier, and more financially stable." But it also concluded that despite some savings from better practices, such as keeping people out of emergency rooms, the insured spent about 25% more on health care. The conclusion: "Expanded coverage brings large benefits to many people, but it is also more likely to increase a stretched federal government's long-tern budget responsibilities."

      Better health for more people. But at greater cost, at a time when it's hard to argue that we can easily afford it. Two sides to the same coin. No wonder Obamacare has been controversial.

     Now this past weekend the New York Times in "Doctor Shortage Likely to Worsen with Health Law" revealed that experts project, even without the healthcare law, by 2025 the shortfall of doctors in America will exceed 100,000. Factoring in additional medical coverage from Obamacare, the shortfall will be over 125,000.

     That can't be good. Gee, I wonder what my insurance increase will be for next year?

Saturday, July 28, 2012

How Do We Reconnect with Family?

     My older sister came to visit for a few days. She's six years older than I am. As children, we slept in bedrooms right across the hall from each other, but we barely knew each other. Yet, somehow, now that we're older and live a thousand miles apart, we've become closer.

     When we were growing up, well, frankly, she didn't have much to do with me. She had her own friends and her own interests. By the time I got to elementary school, she was already in junior high school. By the time I got to high school, she had gone off to college.

     She tells me she used to babysit for me and my other sister (and by her account, we were both a pain in the neck!), but I don't remember that. I just remember her as this older girl with long dark hair and a big white smile, who loved Joan Baez and thought she was a Beatnik (even though we grew up in a lily white suburb).

     Our family of six usually did have dinner together -- the one time of day when everyone got together. But even then, she sat across the table, and down one. We never talked directly to each other, one on one. We never played together; never did anything together except on the rare occasion of a family outing -- which usually meant driving up to my grandmother's house for a holiday.

     By the time I graduated from high school, my sister was living in a New York City tenement and working and going to graduate school. Then she got married and moved to Virginia, then Tennessee. She got divorced and moved to Florida, where she eventually remarried and where she's now been living for the past 30 years. During this period, I'd see her about once every two or three years, for Christmas or a birthday at our parents' house.

     My parents eventually retired to Florida. I would occasionally go down to visit them, but still I hardly ever saw my sister. She lived in northern Florida; my folks had moved to South Florida; and we rarely visited my parents at the same time.

     My mom died in 2000. My dad was all alone, and before long he got sick. Coincidentally, about that same time, I was laid off from my job. So I now had time to go visit my dad in Florida and help him out. Every time I went to see him, my sister and her husband were there, taking care of his affairs, arranging medical tests and office visits, offering support and comfort. While I was there, my dad worried that he was a burden on us, didn't want to be a big problem in our lives. He insisted my sister take a break and go shopping; he arranged for my brother-in-law and I go play golf together.

     My dad was 90 by then, and he didn't last long. But during those few months, I spent more time with my sister than I had in all the time growing up as a child. I'd barely met her first husband, but spent a fair amount of time with her second husband. Later, when I drove down to Florida to help dispose of my parents' effects, and cart home a few family mementos, I stayed overnight with my sister on the way to my parents' house, and then again on the way home.

My older sister, in the middle, circa 1962
     After I left fulltime work, I started going down to Florida for a couple of weeks in the winter. I'd stay with my sister for a few nights. We'd go out to dinner, walk the beach, talk about our family, and her husband and I would play golf. She in turn began to make summer trips up north. She's stayed at our house a couple of times; and once, she came to visit for a few days when we rented a place on Cape Cod.

     In short, we've become the friends as older adults that we never were as children. Recently, she even friended me on Facebook!

     I wouldn't say we're close; she still lives a thousand miles away and has her own life, as I have mine. But it's nice to reconnect with your family, after all these years.

     And I wonder, is this typical, have others had the same experience . . . of losing touch, then reconnecting? 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Can You Explain It?

     I just don't understand politics . . . or people, for that matter. Or, B argues, much of anything else either. Which is why I hope you'll take my poll, to the right.

     But, be that as it may, consider:

     We all know it's the Democrats, or people in the Blue states, who support Barack Obama and his health care plan. And people in the Red states are opposed.

     Why are people against the health care plan? In part because it requires people to buy health insurance. It forces people to take responsibility for their own medical bills and pay their own way. But wait a second! That's a Republican principle; it's the conservatives who preach individual responsibility, personal autonomy, self-reliance and the importance of paying your own way. The Democrats are the ones who want to get other people to pay for their problems. This is ass backwards!

     The other reason people oppose the health care law is they're afraid it will cost them more, as the government raises taxes to pay for insuring all those uninsured people. (Check out 5 Obamacare "Myths" that Are Partly True.)

     In fact, those people are correct. The new health-care plan will levy a tax on people who sell their primary residence. But only for people who make over $200,000 a year ($250,000 if you're married), who also make a profit of over $250,000 on the sale of their house (or $500,000 if you're married). The tax will be 3.8% of the profit above the limit.

     Where do people sell their houses for a $250,000 or $500,000 profit? Not in Red states like Mississippi or South Carolina, that's for sure. It's in Blue states like New York and California. 

     There will also be a 3.8% surtax on investment income, again for people making over $200,000 a year, or $250,000 if you're married. And an additional medicare tax of 0.9% -- again, on people making over $200,000 a year.

     The new taxes are levied on people making over $200,000 a year. Where do these people live? They live in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. They live in Washington, DC, and the Maryland suburbs. They live in Illinois and California. These are all Blue states, where the vast majority of people support Obamacare. These people are in favor of taxing themselves for the Affordable Health Care Act.

     Meanwhile, people in the Red states are against taxing other people for the health plan.

     Like I said, I don't understand.

     But here's another thing I don't understand. According to latest figures I've seen from the federal government, inflation in our economy is currently running at less than 2%.

     But I just got a notification from my health insurance provider. They're applying to my state insurance commission for rate increases for next year, ranging from 22.6% to 40.1%, depending on whether it's an individual or family plan and on other variables. For me, the increase would be either 22.6% or 35.6%. I can't tell, because I'm not exactly sure which category I fit into, and I don't know where to locate the fine print to figure it out. And besides, what difference does it make anyway? There's nothing I can do about it; I'm completely at the mercy of the insurance company.

     And by the way, this increase is on top of a 15.9% increase that took effect for this year.

     I know that medical costs are rising. But not by 20 or 30%. So why the outsized increases in premiums? According to the notice, they "reflect increases in the cost of individual medical services and the increased use of those services." Plus, there's an additional 1.5% increase added "due to the addition of new women's preventive services benefits required by the federal health care reform law," and another 0.6% added "due to the addition of new benefits for autism spectrum disorder required by state law."

     Now I know many of you are on Medicare, and likely don't care about private insurance increases. I myself am looking forward to getting on Medicare before too long -- but it won't be before these increases, and probably some other ones as well. (And after I get on Medicare, what's next? Looking forward to an early death to avoid those unaffordable medical expenses?)

     So you tell me. What's going on? And who's to blame for these ridiculous increases? Go to the poll and tell me what you think.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Summer Blogging Boomer Carnival

     I just watched a PBS documentary on Ansel Adams (1902-1984), who took the famous photographs of Yosemite and other natural wonders. He reported that when he stood in the midst of nature, positioning his camera among the tall mountains and the beneath the spreading sky, it made him feel very small -- and yet, at the same time, not at all insignificant.

     A similar note is struck by Laura Lee at The Midlife Crisis Queen in the Mid-summer Blogging Boomer Carnival, Garden Edition. She also offers links to other sites and sensibilities, including -- for those who are interested -- a link to Vaboomer and her tricks and tips for using Twitter.

     Go enjoy!


Friday, July 20, 2012

A Meating of the Minds

     The child is the father of the man, according to William Wordsworth. It was my daughter who got me to be a vegetarian.

     Well, not quite. But close.

     My daughter gave up meat when she was in high school. At first she just stopped eating things that looked like they came from an animal -- a pork chop or a chicken leg. They grossed her out. She still ate hamburgers and other super-processed foods from fast food restaurants. But eventually she gave up meat entirely. I remember the last item of meat on her personal menu was chicken McNuggets from McDonald's. They looked nothing like any animal -- just an oblong piece of food you dip in some tasty sauce.

So cute!
     But finally she gave up McNuggets as well. "I don't eat anything that has to die," became her motto. She still ate cheese and milk and eggs. (Okay, the eggs are questionable, but I'm not judging, I'm just reporting.)

     The last two years of high school, and throughout college, she was a strict vegetarian. She ate lots of pasta and tofu and other soy products. And whenever she came home, she was never shy about lecturing us on the cruel conditions at slaughterhouses and the health hazards of ingesting animal products.

     She finally got to me. I started noticing bits of gristle and bone in my hamburgers, and when I did, they didn't seem so appetizing. A pork chop started looking way too much like an animal's rib, and a steak, to my mind, became nothing but a hunk of flesh wrapped around a bone.

     But I couldn't go all the way. I love fish -- swordfish and salmon and shrimp and scallops. They taste good and are light and full of protein. And most of all, they don't remind me of a barnyard.

     I also decided that chicken would be okay, and turkey. So I gave up red meat. And you know what? It didn't seem like a sacrifice at all. Not to me anyway.

     B, my significant other, complained at first about how this cramped her style in the kitchen. Plus, her kids live on hot dogs and hamburgers. But I didn't mind if she cooked up a ham or a meatloaf. I just ate the potatoes and the veggies and the bread. Spaghetti? No problem. She makes the tomato sauce and the meatballs, and serves the meatballs on the side. And when we have a cookout, I just throw a turkey burger on the grill next to the regular hamburgers. A turkey burger is just as good. And besides, when you get finished adding on the cheese and the lettuce and tomato and ketchup and pickles, who can tell the difference anyway?

No thanks
     I've been on my no-red-meat diet for about five years now. I've lost a few pounds (not many, because I haven't cut back on desserts) and my cholesterol is down by about 15 points. Nothing major, but every little bit helps.

     I don't stand on any high moral ground about my semi-vegetarian life. I figure, something's got to die in order for people to eat. That's the way the world works. But I do occasionally think about those poor cows being led down the chute, and then the guillotine drops, the knees buckle, the animals drop to the ground and bleed out. And then the butchers start hacking away at the meat and bone and sinew of the animals, and if something drops onto the floor, they just pick it up, spit on it to clean it off, and throw it back into the hopper. And if they nick themselves in the process and a little of their own blood gets in there as well -- aah, nobody will notice.

     I've just decided that red meat is kind of disgusting. It's not for me. You guys . . . you go ahead, cut the meat, gnaw at the bone, lick up the blood . . . I mean the juice on your plate.

     I don't mind. But for me, please pass the potatoes.

     Meanwhile, my daughter is now grown up, and she no longer subjects us to her self-righteous lectures about meat when she comes over for dinner. Indeed, she's softened her vegetarian stance -- I've seen her nibble on a piece of fish or take a bite of beef.

     Last time she was here she drove me over to the mall. There, on the floor of the back seat of her car, was an empty cardboard carton from McDonald's. You guessed it. McNuggets.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

What Causes Car Accidents?

     "Speeding doesn't cause accidents," pronounced B's older son at the dinner table the other night, "distractions cause accidents." And he knows what he's talking about. Because he's 24.

     I guess I don't have to tell you, he likes to speed, and has been tagged with two or three speeding tickets in his relatively short driving life. Every one of them, according to him, a terrible injustice. And in every case, as usual, the cops agreed to plead it down to a cellphone violation or seatbelt charge, so he wouldn't get any points.

     One thing he knows is that the week before his high school graduation, a classmate of his lost control of his car out on the main road, less than a mile from our house. The boy ran into a utility pole and killed himself. I was recently reminded of that accident because I saw one of those flowered wreaths perched on the side of the road -- presumably to mark the anniversary of the boy's death.

     The boy hadn't been drinking. He was alone in the car. The cause of the accident? He was distracted, adjusting his music. But the boy was also speeding. And because he was speeding, he didn't have time to recover when he started drifting off the road. And because he was speeding, the car flipped over and killed him.

      What causes accidents? The National Motorists Association, an organization devoted to helping you beat your speeding tickets, agrees with B's son -- it's driver distraction, not speed. The lobbyists for the road construction industry commission studies "proving" that the problem is poor road maintenance. But according to most objective sources, while drivers tend to blame poor road conditions or else other people's mistakes for their accidents, the fact is that excessive speed or aggressive driver behavior is the primary cause in the majority of cases.

     A few days ago I drove down to JFK airport to pick up B and her younger son, returning from San Francisco. I left early in the morning. I was on an older highway, where the speed limit is 55. I was doing 60. Most of the traffic passed me by.

     There's a bridge over a reservoir that's undergoing construction, where the highway squeezes down to two lanes and the lanes are narrow with no shoulder. The speed limit on the bridge is posted at 40 mph. I was crossing the bridge at 50, when I saw a big SUV closing up behind me. Please wait, I pleaded silently, until we get off the bridge before you pass me. No chance. The SUV pulled up, tailed me for a few seconds, eased out to the passing lane. Then, as I cringed, he brushed by me only a couple of inches from the left side of my car.

     As I approached the city, the SUVs passed me by in packs -- they were all going 15 mph over the speed limit, rushing off to do whatever these people were doing on Saturday morning.

     The cars that bothered me the most were the ones that drifted over into my lane as they passed -- were they being aggressive, trying to run me off the road, or were they just oblivious, not knowing they were crowding me out? Either way, they forced me over to the right side of the road, my wheel edging the shoulder.

     On my way down to the airport, I passed the site of a tragic accident that occurred at the end of April. A 45-year-old woman was driving a Honda Pilot, with seven people in the car -- her sister, two grandparents, and three girls, a 10-year-old, a 7-year old- and a 3-year old. It was on a Sunday afternoon. The weather was fine. The passengers were all wearing seatbelts.

     The driver was traveling in the left-hand lane, and suddenly for some reason bounced up onto the center divider. The impact damaged her front left tire, causing the car to careen across three lanes of traffic. The Pilot went over a four-foot fence and plummeted into a ravine below. All seven people died.

     I'm sure this woman was a very nice lady -- after all, she was carting her family around to wherever they wanted to go. But she was going too fast. The investigation concluded she was traveling in the passing lane at 68 or 69 mph, in a 50 mph zone. No doubt, with seven people in the car, she got distracted. And that section of the road is not in very good condition. (Duh . . . that's why the speed limit is 50.) But there's no room for error when you're doing 68 or 69 mph. And so, however nice a lady she was, she killed herself and six people in her family.

     Why do people speed? A very few people are actually in a hurry. Commuters tend to speed. A lot of people will do anything to shave off 2 or 3 minutes from their 45-minute commute. Younger people speed because they think it's cool. A lot of people speed because they think they're better drivers than other people on the road, and so they feel it's okay for them to go fast. Speed limits are for suckers, not for them. SUV drivers speed because they think their big cars rule the road, and everyone should get out of their way, and besides even if they do crash they won't get hurt.

     I guess there are a hundred reasons to speed. It doesn't really seem that dangerous. Men boast about their speed, brag about how fast they can make a trip. Women joke about their lead foot. There's something about being surrounded by 3000 or 4000 pounds of metal and plastic that makes you feel impervious to the laws of physics, that puts you in a safety bubble where you think nothing can go wrong.

     And then there's the video game phenomenon. People race cars on the screen, make all kinds of amazing maneuvers, and nothing bad ever happens. So how is a car any different?

     One survey reported in Police Chief Magazine showed that most people would support increasing the speed limit on the interstate from its current 65 mph. About 22% wanted to increase it to 70; and amazingly (to me at least) 43% said it should be raised to 75 mph.

     Because after all, speed doesn't kill. It's the distractions that cause the accidents. Or the road conditions. Or whatever. It's always somebody else's fault.

     And, you know, that's a gamble that most people win . . . until they don't.

     P. S.  Aside from speed, AAA has an article in its current Car & Driver magazine about the riskiest times to drive. What's the deadliest month? Hint: It does not involve snow or ice.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Week of Easy-to-Prepare Recipes

     B is away for the week, taking her son to San Francisco as a graduation present, so I've been cooking for myself this week. I've come up with some pretty good, easy-to-prepare dishes, and I thought you might be interested . . . you know, for the next time you find yourself cooking for one.

     Here's my week's menu. I only include the dinner selections, since I eat the same thing every day for breakfast -- cereal with 1% milk and instant coffee.1 And I generally do not eat lunch.

Sunday: Step 1
     Just a quick note of explanation. First of all, I have included footnotes in this post, so my apologies to those of you who have not gone to college. But please note . . . I mean, nota bene, this blog aspires to high academic standards.

     You'll also notice that I've managed to put together a pretty well balanced diet, with plenty of carbohydrates, and . . . more carbohydrates. And then more . . .  well, you be the judge.

     Sunday:   Entree:  Leftovers.   Recipe:  Open refrigerator; locate plastic containers; select items that don't smell too funky; microwave to taste.

     Monday:   Entree:  Pretzels and a peach.  Recipe:  Open bag of pretzels; wash off peach that B left on the kitchen counter.

     Tuesday:   Entree:  Takeout Chinese.   Recipe:  Call local Chinese restaurant; go pick up bag and give them $15.

The Wednesday special
     Wednesday:  Entree:  Cereal.   Recipe:  Get box of cereal,2 pour in 1% milk.

     Thursday:   Entree:  Turkey sandwich.   Recipe:  Drive to deli; order turkey sandwich on a roll; don't forget the vegetable (i.e. lettuce).

     Friday:   Entree:  Eggs.3   Recipe:  Go to refrigerator; get two hard-boiled eggs -- the ones that B marked with a "C" for cooked -- peel, rinse, salt and eat.

     Some of you may have noticed I haven't mentioned dessert. That's because I have the same thing every night for dessert: ice cream. My drink is water.4 So, what do you think . . . healthy diet? Anyway . . . 

     Saturday:  B returns home. Take her out to dinner.


1. For  those of you offended by instant coffee check out What Do YOU Drink in the Morning? for an explanation.
2  Not the same kind you had for breakfast. 
3. No meat on Fridays; a relic of my Catholic upbringing. 
4. Thought about having a couple of beers on Thursday, but the deli didn't stock my brand.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

No Wonder: Look Who Runs the Government!

     If you ever think that the government in Washington is in a state of paralysis, with two sides arguing and posturing and refusing to give any credence to whatever any one of their opponents says, then . . . look who's in charge!

     I had this revelation when I read "Watching Behavior Before Writing the Rules" in last Sunday's New York Times. According to author Richard H. Thaler, professor of behavioral economics at the University of Chicago, "As a general rule, the United States government is run by lawyers who occasionally take advice from economists." He allows that once in a while a scientist may be consulted in matters involving their technological expertise. "But when it comes to forming policies," he concludes, the scientists, or anyone else for that matter, are "rarely at the table with the lawyers and the economists."

     I have nothing against lawyers. There have been a few lawyers in my family. In general they are smart, and, of course, they've studied the law, so it makes sense that they're closely involved in making the laws. I'd think we'd want a good sprinkling of lawyers in the government to give us the benefit of their training and their expertise.

     But lawyers are all of a piece. They have been trained to think a certain way. And they don't think like regular people. They're paid to argue a position, defend a point of view (whether that point of view is right or wrong), and do anything within their power to win a case. By and large, lawyers are honest people, and they don't break the law to beat their opponent. But they do know the boundaries of the law, where they can stretch it and bend it, and what they can get away with.

     Remember lawyer Bill Clinton asking, in a famous example of legalese: "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

     There are a slightly over 1 million lawyers in the country, comprising less than 1% of the population. And, no doubt, they should comprise some reasonable portion of Washington lawmakers. But the problem is, as Thaler says, the lawyers have completely taken over the government -- they make up the vast majority of the power elite in Washington and in most state governments as well.

     Of course, all nine justices of the Supreme Court are lawyers. That makes sense. The current president is a lawyer. Many of our presidents have been lawyers. And the latest count I found showed that there are 58 lawyers in the U. S. Senate, out of 100 senators. That's almost 60%! And more than 170 lawyers sit in the House of Representatives, out of a total of 435 members. That's 40%.

     That's too many lawyers, if you ask me -- too many people who have similar backgrounds, who think the same way, who have the same approach toward doing business. How would you like it if your local Lion's Club or Chamber of Commerce was run by a pack of lawyers? How would you like it if your church was run by lawyers? Or your book group, or your social club? You might want to have one or two lawyers on your board of trustees, to consult when the need arises. But you don't want them running things. Because they'll argue and bicker, and try to tell everyone else what to do, and generally make a mess of things.

     So why should our government be any different?

     In the upcoming election, we have no choice for president. Not only do we have two lawyers running against each other, but they both even went to the same law school! (Romney, Harvard 1975; Obama, Harvard 1991).

     Now it might not be a bad idea for the president to be a lawyer. Bill Clinton, despite his flaws, was in my opinion a pretty good president, But, arguably, the three best presidents in our lifetime were not lawyers:  Truman, Eisenhower and Reagan. On the other hand, two of the worst presidents, Carter and Bush, were not lawyers either, so go figure. But one thing you can't argue -- the two presidents facing impeachment for their illegal activities, Nixon and Clinton, were both lawyers.

     A blog called "Barefoot Accountant" argues (somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it makes a good point) that the president should be an accountant. Lawyers can talk, admits Bill the blogger, in fact they can talk endlessly, and argue and discuss and finally produce nothing but gridlock. But can lawyers add? He suggests that if an accountant was in charge, we'd have a balanced budget; no government waste; no wars; and (perhaps best of all) press conferences that are not covered by the media.

     Regardless of what you think about accountants, what I can say, unequivocally, is that there are too many lawyers in Washington, messing things up for the rest of us. So I suggest, when you go to vote this fall, identify the candidate who's not a lawyer. Unless that person holds really wacko views (don't laugh, a lot of people who run for Congress do have wacko views), then vote for the one who's not a lawyer.

     My Congressional district is represented by a woman who's a doctor. She's a Republican, and is more conservative than I am on most issues. I voted for her opponent last time around. But now I know that she's not a wacko. And doctors are pretty smart, too. So maybe this time I'll vote for the doctor for Congress -- unless she's running against an accountant.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Remember Him?

     At first glance, he did not seem a likely candidate to become a national hero. He was a college dropout. As a pilot during the Korean War, he got tagged with the nickname "Magnet Ass" for his dubious record of being able to draw enemy fire, as he routinely returned to base with his Panther jet riddled with flak holes along the fuselage. Can you guess who he is?

     When he was in his 40s, he decided to run for political office. In 1964 he quit his job and announced he would challenge the incumbent senator from Ohio in the Democratic primary. But before he even got started, he hit his head in the bathtub, suffered a concussion and injured his inner ear. He was unable to campaign, so he was forced to withdraw from the race -- without collecting a single vote.

The School of Public Affairs
     And yet this man was one of the greatest heroes of the 20th century. He was honored by President Kennedy for his achievements and he received a ticker tape parade up Broadway in New York City.

     He was born in central Ohio in 1921 -- in fact, his 91st birthday is coming up next week, on July 18 -- and he still lives in Ohio and is still actively involved in public life, particularly for his school of public affairs at Ohio State University.

     Reflecting back on his upbringing in small town Ohio, he said, "A boy could not have had a more idyllic early childhood than I did." His father was a plumber, and to help with the family budget his mother took in boarders from nearby Muskingum University. As a boy he was surrounded by college students, tutored by his mother, and developed an interest in science and in flying. After graduating from high school he entered Muskingum, the local Presbyterian college, where he studied science and earned college credit for taking flying lessons. He received his pilot's license in 1941.

     After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he dropped out of Muskingum, enlisted in the Naval Aviation Cadet Program and became a Marine pilot. He flew 59 combat missions over the Pacific during World War II, winning several flying awards. After the war he became a flight instructor at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christie, Texas. Then when the Korean War started, he volunteered for combat duty and flew another 63 combat missions. Before his career was over, he would win six Distinguished Flying Cross medals, awarded for " heroism or extraordinary achievement while participating in an aerial flight."

     After Korea, he became a test pilot, specializing in flying at high altitudes, and in 1957 he completed the first supersonic transcontinental flight -- flying from California to New York in 3 hours and 23 minutes.

     In 1959, despite the fact that he had no college degree, he was selected as one of the original group of seven astronauts. He was not the first man in space, nor the first American in space. But as the fifth man in space, aboard Friendship 7, on February 20, 1962, he was the first American to orbit the earth, circling the globe three times on a flight that lasted just shy of five hours. When he passed over Perth, Australia, residents famously flicked on all their lights, and the city became known as the City of Lights.

Astronaut John Glenn
     His sudden fame, and political potential, was noted by President Kennedy, and he became a friend to the Kennedy family. Six weeks after President Kennedy was assassinated, astronaut John Glenn resigned from NASA and at the suggestion of then Attorney General Robert Kennedy, he filed to run for the senate from his home state of Ohio.

     Glenn faltered on his first bid for public office, but he remained friends with the Kennedys. He was with Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles when he was assassinated in 1968. Two years later Glenn ran again for the senate from Ohio, losing the Democratic primary to businessman Howard Metzenbaum (who lost the general election to Robert Taft).

Senator John Glenn
     In 1974 Glenn again ran against Howard Metzenbaum in the senate primary, and this time he won, and also went on to beat his Republican challenger. He entered the U. S. Senate in 1975, where he took an active role in foreign relations and armed services, and was the chief author of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978.

     In 1976 John Glenn was considered for the vice presidential slot under Jimmy Carter, but his lackluster speaking style torpedoed his chances.  In 1984, Glenn ran for the presidential nomination, but he lost out early to eventual nominee Walter Mondale.

     In 1998, as a sitting senator at age 77, John Glenn again lifted off into space aboard the Space Shuttle Discovery. Although some criticized his mission as a political junket, he was credited with providing valuable research on the effects of space travel on the elderly. When Discovery flew over Perth, Australia, residents again flashed their lights, as they had 36 years earlier.

     After 24 years in the U. S. Senate, Glenn decided not to run for re-election in 1998, and he retired back to his home state of Ohio. He served on the board of trustees of alma mater Muskingum University, and he helped found the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State University, where he continues to encourage young people to participate in public service.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Affordable Health Care for Early Retirees

     The Affordable Care Act is now, apparently, the law of the land, and while I'm no expert on health-care legalities, it does seem that Obama's ACA extends a very welcome helping hand to those of us who, by force or by choice, are among the ranks of the early retired -- the "lost generation" of people who have left work but are too young to qualify for Medicare.

     When I was laid off at age 53, I was able to stay on COBRA for a while, which covered my wife (we were separated at the time but still married) and my two kids. Eventually I had to get my own insurance. The way I did it was to find a work-related association I could join that offered health plans to its members, and through the association I was able to sign up for somewhat-reasonably-priced medical insurance. As my kids went off to college they were able to get health insurance through their universities. After I got divorced, my ex-wife qualified to join a different association and get medical insurance through them.

      I don't know why -- because she was a woman? because she moved to a different state? because she belonged to a different association? -- but she had to pay even more than I did for medical insurance. In this past year, she was shelling out more than $1000 a month for coverage . . .  just for herself!

     But at least we were able to get insurance. If your employer won't let you stay on their plan (very few do) or you're not eligible to join an organization, and have to buy medical insurance on an individual basis, your prospects are dim indeed. Some states offer medical plans for people with limited income; but a lot of people can't get medical insurance at any cost.

     (Which is one reason why I don't blame insurance companies for the high cost of medical care. If they were making so much money off medical insurance, they'd be sending us flyers in the mail, calling us on the phone, advertising on TV, in order to get us signed up. But instead, it's difficult to find an insurance company to take you on as an individual, so it can't be that profitable. Anyway, I stopped complaining about my medical insurance when they paid, in full, a $950 charge by an ambulance corps to drive my son 3 miles to the hospital when he cut his head in college. Who's ripping us off here? I asked myself. Not the insurance company. It's the ambulance corps!)

     Anyway, now starting on January 1, 2014, under the Affordable Care Act, states will be required to set up insurance exchanges where you can buy your own individual medical insurance. Indeed, unless you qualify for an exemption (are you Amish?), or are already covered under another plan, you will be required to get insurance.

     So, finally, those of us in our 50s and 60s who are no longer on the company payroll, and who are too young for Medicare, can do the responsible thing -- we can afford to buy reasonably priced medical insurance

     If your income is limited, the government will help you buy insurance. Medicaid will cover people under 65 who have incomes up to 133% of the poverty level -- which, today, would be $14,856 a year for one person or $20,123 for a couple.

     People with incomes up to four times the poverty level would qualify for assistance in buying health care. An estimate by the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services says a couple earning the poverty level of $15,130 a year would pay an annual premium of $303 for health coverage. A couple with an income at four times the poverty level -- an annual income of $60,520 -- would pay $5,750 a year for health insurance, or $480 a month.

     When you consider that my ex-wife is paying over $1,000 a month for her health insurance, that sounds like a good deal. I pay less than that, but not a lot less, and $480 a month sounds like a good deal to me, too.

     All along, I've personally have been supportive of the government trying to do something about health care. The medical-hospital-insurance complex is just too big and complicated for individuals to negotiate by themselves, especially if they're sick or injured. I do worry that Obama's plan does not really address the high costs involved with medical care, and that ACA is going to end up costing us all a lot more than we've been told. But that's an issue for another day.

     In the meantime, if you really want to educate yourself, go read all 974 pages of the Affordable Care Act (unless you think the Republicans are going to repeal and replace, in which case it would be a waste of time, but I'm betting that doesn't happen.)

     Or, for a brief summary, go to "Consumer Questions on Health Care Act, and the Answers" from the Sunday New York Times, or for a slightly more jaundiced view check out this other report "How Obamacare Could Help You Retire Earlier (or Destroy Itself Trying)" from AOL Daily Finance.