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

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Walk in the Sand

     If you're in Florida there's no better thing to do at the end of the day than take a walk on the beach. Last night I came across a pretty impressive sand castle.

     It was part of a whole royal complex . . .

     Here's the entrance to the palace . . .

     But nothing lasts forever . . .

     You can already see from the shadows that it's getting toward sunset. Here's the view out into the Gulf of Mexico . . .

     And a few minutes later . . .

     Good night to all, and to all a good night.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Changing the Conversation

     From my perspective, there was at least one good thing about the inauguration: For whatever reason it left the Washington Beltway relatively free of traffic. I breezed through DC on Friday in record time . . . meaning, I was not held up by even one backup.

     So here I am in Florida, joining the mass migration of Snowbirds leaving behind the sleet and snow of the North, in search of sun and sand in the South.

     I must admit, I can't afford a five-star hotel, so I am residing for the week in a 1970s-era bungalow, complete with popcorn ceiling, linoleum floors and pockmarked aluminum doors and windows. However, this modest little complex is right on the beach, as you can see by this view of the seaside units.

     However, I booked my trip relatively late, and can't afford those pricier accommodations anyway, so instead of a view of the water, this is what I see out the back door through my patio.

     Still, I can feel the salty breezes from the Gulf of Mexico, and I'm only 20 yards from the beach. So the first thing I did this morning was take a walk along the shoreline. It sure beats slipping and sliding along the frozen sidewalks of Connecticut.

     Several people have told me they don't think they'll be watching the TV news for the next four years. Honestly, I haven't watched much for the last year, since it got so ugly, from both sides. I don't think we should all opt out of public life just because we don't like what's going on. We should all stand up for what we believe in, and do the things that we think are important -- I'm still scheduled to tutor at my community college when I get back home in March -- and hopefully still act with some respect and civility toward those who don't agree with us.

     But for now, at least, I will ignore the real world, and just soak up the sun.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

On the Road

     This morning I left home to go to Florida. I'm driving because I will be away for over six weeks . . . and I need a car.

     On the way today I listened on NPR to the Senate confirmation hearings for Steve Mnuchin, who is nominated for Secretary of the Treasury. I thought he gave an impressive opening statement. He obviously has a good resume -- Yale University, Goldman Sachs, his own successful investment business -- and he defended himself quite convincingly against charges that he had unfairly profited from foreclosing homes during and after the Great Recession.

     However, when it came to questions from the Senators he was not nearly so persuasive. He dodged questions, gave self-serving answers, and tried to obfuscate whenever someone presented him with uncomfortable numbers or facts. After a while you could tell when he was about to complicate his response to hide any potential wrongdoing because he'd start out by saying, "I want to be perfectly clear about this . . . ."

     I don't know how long the hearings went for. I listened to, probably, two hours. Then I'd had enough.

     Tomorrow is inauguration day. I am a Democrat, but no socialist, no super leftist from the Sanders/Warren wing of the party. But still, I find it hard to believe that, starting tomorrow, Donald Trump will be president of the United States. How did that happen, anyway?

     In the morning I will be driving through Washington, DC -- or more accurately around Washington, DC, on the Beltway, then heading south on I95. I sure hope there isn't too much traffic, clogging the roads and delaying me for hours.

     And I sure hope that, over the next six weeks while I'm away, Donald Trump and his band of merry pranksters don't get us into a heap of trouble with China, or Russia, or Europe. Or crater the economy, foment social unrest, or do anything else that will upend the plans of those of us who are retired, or the lives of our kids who have hopes for the future. 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Free Money, or Social Engineering?

     I've read about two different approaches to two different but related issues, and they seem to be at odds with each other. No wonder we find the world confusing . . . or at least I do. Maybe you don't.

     The first is about the Universal Basic Income. It's an idea that has gained some currency lately, but goes back at least to the 1930s and has been endorsed by conservatives and liberals alike -- from economist Milton Friedman to the person we're celebrating today, Martin Luther King.

     The idea is that the federal government would pay every citizen a monthly stipend, kind of like Social Security, without any conditions, restrictions or requirements. Some proponents have suggested $5,000 a year; others have argued for up to $20,000. Of course, the program would be expensive, but it might not be all that expensive if it replaced other forms of welfare which can be complicated, unfair, demeaning and subject to cheating.

     The basic income removes the threatening and sometimes demeaning condition to seek and take employment. And according to some, it actually increases the incentive to take a low-wage job because, unlike welfare, the payment is not phased out as a person's income rises.

     The Universal Basic Income treats citizens like adults, rather than children. They can accept the money and retain their pride and self-worth. There's no stigma attached. It would help a lot of Americans, and not just the poor. Think of the people who have a decent job, but like most of us, live paycheck to paycheck. They want to go back to school to get more training, to get a better job. But how do they support themselves for the year or two that it takes to get the new degree? A basic income would allow them to do that.

     I see the problem at my community college. In New York, the governor is proposing free tuition for community college. That's nice. But what I see are young people who are already working one or two jobs, maybe also taking care of children, and then they're trying to find the time to attend class and also do their homework. It's too much, which is why the community college dropout rate is so high. A universal basic income would help these students complete their degrees and go on to get better jobs as nurses or medical technicians or computer programmers.

     But then I saw a story in Saturday's New York Times called In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda. To me, it highlights the problem.

     The article reported on research by the U. S. Department of Agriculture that found soft drinks are the number one item purchased by the 43 million relatively poor Americans who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Sodas and sweetened drinks account for almost 10% of their food purchases, while the broader category of junk food, including candy and salty snacks, makes up fully 20% of their budget. “In this sense, SNAP is a multibillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy of the soda industry,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University.

     There have been efforts by medical groups and local government officials, such as Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, to restrict the use of food stamps, so they cannot be used to buy junk food. Researchers from Stanford University suggested that banning sugary drinks from SNAP could "significantly reduce obesity prevalence and Type 2 diabetes, particularly among ages 18 to 65 and some racial and ethnic minorities.” But food and beverage interests -- including Pepsi, Coca Cola and Kraft -- have fought these proposals, saying they would be unfair to food-stamp users.

     Other services, such as the school lunch program, do have nutrition standards. Plus, some people argue that plenty of other government programs have restrictions. For example, Medicare will pay for necessary medical procedures, but it does not reimburse for ones it considers harmful, ineffective or unnecessary.

     But do the junk food companies have a point? Would restricting SNAP to healthy foods be a form of social engineering that essentially treats recipients like children? After all, the USDA report also revealed that while SNAP users do buy more junk food than non-SNAP users, and less fresh produce, it's not that much more. Soft drinks are the second biggest purchase, behind milk, for non-SNAP grocery buyers.

     Still, does it make sense for a massive taxpayer program to subsidize people consuming unhealthy products? And if we can't trust SNAP recipients to spend their money wisely, why would we think Universal Basic Income recipients would prove any different?

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Costs and Benefits of Downsizing

     Anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with this blog knows that I am interested in downsizing -- primarily because I'm smack dab in the middle of the process myself. We sold our house last summer, and we're living in a one-bedroom condominium for the time being while we look for our more permanent retirement home.

     I recently ran across this article from my friend Jeremy Kisner, who writes a blog for Surevest Wealth Management in Phoenix, Arizona. It was listed as one of his "best" articles of 2016. I've made a few minor changes for space and format, but the message remains the same:

      Many Baby Boomers will downsize their current residence at some point during retirement. People downsize for a lot of reasons: they retire, get divorced, want to save money, or just get tired of maintaining a big house and/or yard. Research shows that most people prefer single-family, one-story, low maintenance homes, and most (69%) still want a yard or a garden.

     Few things will have a bigger impact on your lifestyle or your financial plan than where you live. Housing is one of the biggest (if not the biggest) expense for most households, including retirees who do not have a mortgage.

     Let’s take a look at the math behind downsizing. Suppose you sell a house that you own free and clear for $800,000 and buy one costing $400,000. We will assume that the sales commissions, moving expenses, and fixing up the new house add up to roughly 10% of your selling price ($80k). That leaves $320,000 after the purchase of the new residence that can be added to your savings.

     That $320,000 could enable a retiree to withdraw an extra $12,000 from savings (inflation adjusted) every year. On top of that, the retiree would likely have lower household expenses (maintenance, utilities, insurance, etc.), which could easily be an additional $6,000 a year. That’s $18,000 a year in extra available funds. You can estimate for yourself the potential saving a change in residence may have for you. Check out this super cool: Downsizing Savings Calculator.

     One more piece of the puzzle: Last year, in the article Relocating in Retirement, we pointed out that 40% of people who plan to relocate (and possibly downsize in the process) will move to a different state. You should consider how such a move will affect your taxes. Naturally, federal income tax rates are the same no matter where you live. However, state income tax, property taxes, and even sales taxes vary considerably. I know that analyzing tax jurisdictions is not most people’s idea of a fun date-night activity. However, if our hypothetical downsizing from the $800k house to the $400k house involved a move from Nevada to New York (just as an example), all of the forecasted additional income ($18,000 per year) could be eaten up by higher taxes (all of which are higher in NY than NV).

     For your convenience, we made the research easy with the maps and resources below:

     State Income Tax: See breakdown of State Income Tax rates (pgs. 4 - 7).

     Property Taxes: The map below shows the average amount of residential property tax actually paid, expressed as a percentage of home value.

     Sales Taxes: In addition to state-level sales taxes, 38 states have local-level sales taxes. These rates can be substantial, so a state with a moderate statewide sales tax rate could actually have a very high combined state and local rate compared to other states. The map below provides a population-weighted average of state and local sales taxes.

     Interestingly, several of our clients who have downsized their residences have commented that they wish they would have done it even sooner.

      Sorry if it's hard to read those state tax numbers -- I could only make them so big -- but you get the idea, the darker the color the higher the tax. Anyway, I don't know what your experience has been in downsizing (and I also know some people have "upsized" in the sense that they've purchased a second home in the Sunbelt for their winter activities -- but that's a different issue.) But I for one have no regrets selling off the old house, with its high taxes, high maintenance and extensive lawn care.

     Now, if we could just make up our minds about where we want to go from here . . .

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Looking Back, Looking Ahead

     Our group of Baby Boomer bloggers is using the new year as an opportunity to simultaneously look back, and also to look forward.

     Carol Cassara of Heart, Mind, Soul takes a look at the life of Debbie Reynolds in her post The Whisper of Cottonwoods. We probably have all heard that Carrie Fisher died on December 27, and then her mother Debbie Reynolds died the very next day. Cassara takes us back to the more innocent charms of Debbie Reynolds and the more innocent times of her era . . . and speaks of the "moving, human beauty in the extremity of the bond" between mother and daughter.

     Meryl Baer of Six Decades and Counting spent the last day of 2016, a beautiful, sunny day in her part of the country, on what an earlier generation called a "Sunday drive". A leisurely trip down the New Jersey coast proved a perfect way to close out a tumultuous year, and led her to the discovery of a special kind of flag. Read about her time travel in Quiet Drive and an American Flag.

      Laura Lee Carter, for her part, offers some background and perspective on how we can see past our differences, and achieve more peace and harmony in 2017. In The Human Race Always Moves Toward Freedom she cites Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, as well as J. D. Vance and his book Hillbilly Elegy, to reflect on why we move to new places, and the rewards and challenges of learning how to get along with people who are different from us.

     Meanwhile, on the Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide, Rita R. Robison warns us to be careful about signing student loans for our children. Yes, we want to help them face the future. But Robison points out some uncomfortable facts in How Student Loans Can Jeopardize Financial Security of Older Borrowers. Between 2005 and 2015, the number of Americans 60 or older with student loans quadrupled, and the average debt nearly doubled. Three-in-four older borrowers used student loans to finance their children's or grandchildren's college education, and nearly 40 percent of federal student loan borrowers age 65 or older were in default. 

     Robsion reminds us that it can be dangerous to mortgage our own future to help secure our children's future, and she offers a couple of resources for those in trouble.

     Finally, Kathy Gottberg of Smart Living 365 writes: "For as long as I can remember, I have always encountered a new year with optimism and hope. Even when Y2K or the Mayan 2012 (remember them?) were on the horizon, I believed that any obstacle could be overcome by going over, around or through the problems in front of us." For some truly helpful and inspiring ways to brighten up your new year, check out 10 Ways to Be More Hopeful and Happy in 2017.

     As for me, I've been focusing on the past and the present. So if you haven't see it already, take my quiz Are These Baby Boomer Icons Dead or Alive? and then check your score against the Answers.

     But regardless, let me end by echoing what Meryl Baer says at the end of her new year's message: May we all hope that 2017 is a year of more smiles than sadness. 

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Answers to: Are These Baby Boomer Icons Dead or Alive?

     A few have passed on, but many are still with us, living out their lives in peace and relative obscurity. How many did you get right?

     1)  Bob Dole, wounded World War II veteran, was the Republican presidential contender who lost to Bill Clinton in 1996. Afterwards he became a Washington lawyer and lobbyist and also chairman of the campaign to build the World War II Memorial. He also made a number of TV appearances, including a celebrated ad for Viagra. Now alive and well at age 93, Dole lives in Washington and is married to former Cabinet member Elizabeth Dole.

     2)  Marion Barry was the only African American in the doctoral program in chemistry at the University of Tennessee, when he quit to focus on the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He moved to Washington, DC, ran for school board and then city council. In 1977 he was shot when a group of radical Muslims took over the District building. Barry recovered and ran for mayor in 1978, won re-election in 1982 and again in 1986. By then Barry was plagued by rumors of womanizing, drug abuse and misuse of public funds. On Jan 18, 1990 he was famously arrested for drugs in a Washington sting operation. After spending six months in prison, Barry was back in politics, winning a fourth term as mayor, then in 1998 returning to the city council. He died of cardiac arrest in 2014, after having dominated Washington, DC, politics for a generation.

     3) Dion DiMucci, grew up in The Bronx singing with his father, a vaudeville entertainer, and in 1957 formed a group named after Belmont Ave. In February 1959 Dion was on tour with Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holy and others when he was invited onto the plane out of Clear Lake, Iowa. He elected to stay behind, and the plane crashed, killing everyone on board. Dion went on to produce hits such as "Teenager in Love," "Where or When" and as a solo artist "Lonely Teenager," "Runaround Sue." After his star dimmed in the 1960s  he experimented as a singer/songwriter and later with Christian music, before returning to his roots, and today at age 77, Dion continues to perform.

     4)  Annette Funicello leaped into our hearts as a Mouseketeer, then went on to become a teenage idol starring in movies like "Beach Party," "Bikini Beach" and "Beach Blanket Bingo." In 1992 Funicello announced she was suffering from MS. She died in April 2013 at age 70, but not before received a star on Hollywood's walk of fame -- and today in Disneyland Paris, there is a 1950s-themed restaurant, Annette's Diner, named after her.

     5) Michael Crichton was already wildly popular by the time Jurassic Park came out in 1990. He'd written his first medical thriller, The Andromeda Strain, while still a student at Harvard Medical School in the 1960s. He went on to write a dozen bestselling books, several movie scripts, and the NBC TV medical drama "ER". Crichton was diagnosed with throat cancer early in 2008 and died on Nov. 4, 2008 at age 66.

     6)  Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch in 1916, won a number of movie awards, but though he was nominated three times for Best Actor, his only Academy Award came as an honorary award for 50 years as "a creative and moral force in the movie industry." He suffered a severe stroke in 1996 but survived, and just celebrated his 100th birthday on December 9, 2016.

     7)  Alex Haley learned his craft in the Coast Guard when sailors would pay him to write love letters home to their girlfriends. Afterwards he (perhaps paradoxically) wrote for both Playboy Magazine and Reader's Digest and wrote The Autobiography of Malcolm X  before he struck gold with Roots, a novel based on his family history. He died in 1992, at age 70, while working on a sequel, a novel based on his mother's family that was eventually published as Alex Haley's Queen.

     8) Julie Andrews, born in England, rose to fame doing Broadway musicals, and went on to star in such classics as Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music. She continued working in both theater and film and, and now at age 81, is working on a new TV series called Julie's Greenroom.

     9) Rosa Parks was secretary of the Montgomery chapter of the of the NAACP when in 1955 she refused to obey the order of the bus driver to give up her seat to a white person. She was not the first African American to resist bus segregation, but she was certainly the most famous, becoming a symbol of the modern civil rights movement. She and her husband moved to Detroit in 1957 where she continued to work for fair housing and racial justice, and also wrote her autobiography. In her later years she suffered from dementia, and died in 2005 at age 92.

    10) Dick Cavett was a writer for The Tonight Show when he began to develop his own idea for a talk show. The Dick Cavett Show ran through the 1970s and while it was never as popular as its rival it did garner critical success as the "thinking man's" late-night TV show. Today, at age 80, Cavett still appears on TV, and is also working on Broadway and writing commentary for various publications.

    11) Diana Ross rose to fame as a founding member and lead singer for The Supremes., then went on to a successful solo career as a singer and actress. She has collected an armful of awards for her career and in 1993 was named Female Entertainer of the Century by Billboard magazine. Today at age 72 she still performs, having just come off a three-year In the Name of Love tour.

    12) Joyce Brothers had a PhD in psychology when in 1955 she went on "The $64,000 Question" game show and won the top prize answering questions about boxing. She then went on TV to offer advice about relationships. For years she had a column in Good Housekeeping and a syndicated newspaper column and wrote numerous magazine articles and several books, including her personal story, Widowed, about the death of her husband. Brothers died at home in New Jersey in 2013 at the age of 85.

    13) Bill Bradley was the Rhodes Scholar basketball player who delayed starting his professional career for two years after college so he could attend Oxford University in England. He played for the New York Knicks from 1967 to 1977, then went into politics, serving as U. S. Senator from New Jersey for three terms. He ran for president in 2000 but lost the Democratic nomination to Vice President Al Gore. Since then the 73-year-old Bradley has remained active as a corporate consultant and board member of several companies and charitable organizations.

    14) Michael Dukakis served as governor of Massachusetts from 1975 to 1979, then again from 1983 to 1991. In 1988 he won the Democratic nomination for president, but was soundly beaten by George Bush in the general election. After leaving the governor's office Dukakis became a political science professor at Northeastern University, and after his wife was diagnosed with depression, he became active in issues regarding depression and alcoholism. Today he is 83 years old and still living in Boston.

    15) Dorothy Hamill was America's darling when she won the Olympic Gold Medal in figure skating in 1976. So, come on, we're all not that old! At age 60, Hamill continues to skate with the Broadway on Ice revue.


Sunday, January 1, 2017

Are These Baby Boomer Icons Dead or Alive?

     Time does not go by so slowly, as the old Righteous Brothers* song, "Unchained Melody" claims. It actually goes by quickly, and sometimes we get so involved in our own lives, we lose track of what's going on elsewhere in the world -- who is still with us and who has passed on.

     Do you think it's morbid to guess whether these people are alive or dead? All these Baby Boomer icons have seen their time come and go, whether they're still alive or not. But I think they would be thankful if we pause -- now updated as of the beginning of 2017 -- and remember their contributions to our lives in terms of what they did, what they meant to us, and where they may be today.

     So in that spirit, can you guess: Who among these Baby Boomer icons is alive? And who is dead?

     1)  1996 presidential candidate Bob Dole                          Alive  or   Dead

     2)  Notorious Washington DC mayor Marion Barry            Alive       Dead

     3)  Singer Dion DiMucci                                                     Alive       Dead

     4)  Actress Annette Funicello                                              Alive       Dead

     5)  Jurassic Park writer Michael Crichton                           Alive       Dead

     6)  Actor Kirk Douglas                                                         Alive     Dead

     7)  Roots author Alex Haley                                                Alive     Dead

     8)  Actress Julie Andrews         Alive     Dead

     9)  Activist Rosa Parks             Alive     Dead
    10) TV host Dick Cavett            Alive     Dead

    11) Singer Diana Ross               Alive     Dead

    12) Psychologist Joyce Brothers                                          Alive     Dead

    13) Basketball player and politician Bill Bradley                   Alive     Dead

    14) 1988 Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis                Alive     Dead

    15) Olympic figure skater Dorothy Hamill                             Alive     Dead

     For the answers, check back here later in the week. Meantime, Happy New Year to everybody, and may we all thrive in 2017!
     * Bobby Hatfield of the Righteous Brothers died at age 63 in 2003, while Bill Medley (they were not actually brothers) continues to perform as a soloist, as well as with Bucky Heard as a new Righteous Brother.