"Most people will do what's right when it don't cost much, but very few will do what's right when it costs a lot."
-- Don Winslow, Broken

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Faces of Covid

     We held several Zoom meetings with family and friends over the Thanksgiving holiday. We talked about children and grandchildren and other usual things, but of course the topic of Covid came up. One thing that struck me was how the disease has affected different people in different ways -- and how our attitudes vary depending on our situation. I see three or four different faces of Covid.

     Those of us who are retired talked mostly about how we are isolating, and not traveling, and not able to see our grandchildren in person. We fear the disease and avoid other people. We are bored and sometimes lonely, and sometimes frustrated by the restrictions on our lives. Most of us know someone who has been in the hospital with the disease. We know one or two who have died -- usually someone's elderly relative in a nursing home.

     What we don't worry about is our finances. We have no job to lose. Our salaries just show up in our bank accounts -- automatically from Social Security or a pension or an IRA withdrawal.

     Then there's our children. Most of them are still working. A couple work exclusively from home -- and for at least one of them it's been a blessing. He has a one-year-old at home that he now gets to see -- and a long commute to work that he doesn't have to make.

     Others have had to figure out how to work from home, when they can, but still at times go into a workplace with other people. My daughter has been tested for Covid four separate times, because someone in her building tested positive. So far she's been negative. But Covid is running rampant where she works. She's a healthy young adult, but still a little nervous about the whole thing.

     We have a couple of grandchildren who are going to school. A third-grader is taking part in the hybrid approach. He spends a lot of time doing lessons on Zoom. He declined to attend our family Zoom meeting. He's had enough.

     One grandchild is going to preschool five days a week -- so far, so good. It turns out for some reason schools are not the super-spreaders that we might expect. But another one of our grandchildren is being homeschooled this year -- because her mother isn't taking any chances. Different people, different solutions.

     We have one child, in his mid-30s, who has yet another attitude. He is angry. He was 15 years into his career and doing well ... until the spring of 2020. He's in the entertainment business. His company has lost virtually all of its revenue. It kept him on full salary until July, then on half salary until just last week. But now the company is shutting down. He's getting paid and keeping his benefits until the end of the year. Then he's on his own. 

     As you might expect, he takes a different view of the pandemic. He's young and healthy. He's not afraid of Covid. He's afraid of running out of money and losing his medical insurance. His career has been torpedoed -- and he has no idea what the future holds for him. Will a vaccine allow people to congregate again and save the theaters, the movies, the music venues, the restaurants and travel industry? Maybe. But who knows how this will change people's habits and expectations? Who knows what the world will look like after this is all over -- assuming it's ever all over?

     Covid is unpredictable. Some people get it and don't even know they have it. Others feel the dreaded cough, the headache, and a few days later they're in the ICU. The fear of the disease is only a minor inconvenience for some. For others it kills their careers, turns their world upside down.

     No doubt, Covid has affected us all -- all in different ways. What we share is hope. The hope of better treatments. The hope of an effective vaccine. And the hope that by this time next year it will be but a distant memory.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The 1.3% Solution

     I just got an email from Social Security notifying me there is a message for me on My Social Security. I signed up for the online account a couple of years ago, and now all my records are available on the website. B has not opened a My Social Security account. She still gets her information on paper, in the mail, which will probably arrive sometime next week.

     The message included a statement of my new benefit amount for 2021, before deductions, with a list of deductions for Medicare and taxes, and then the amount to be deposited in my bank account. Why, it's just like getting a paycheck! There's your gross salary, then all the  deductions, then your take-home pay, which is a whole lot less than your salary.

     Social Security benefit is going up by a paltry 1.3% for next year. The basic premium for Medicare Part B is going up by 2.7%, from $144.60 to $148.60. So our take-home will be something less than a 1.3% increase. Then if your income is above $88,000 for an individual, or $176,000 for a couple, you pay a surcharge, and that's going up, too. Or ... what Social Security giveth, Medicare taketh away.

     The threshold for being taxed on Social Security benefits is not going up. It remains at $25,000 for an individual and $32,000 for a couple. Anything above that is subject to federal income tax.

     These tax limits were set in 1985, back when you could live on $25,000 a year. If the limits had been adjusted for inflation, Social Security beneficiaries would only begin to pay tax starting at $60,500 for an individual and $77,400 for a couple. And so today, what Social Security giveth, the IRS taketh away.

     For comparison, in 1985 the premium for Medicare Part B was $15.50, not $148.60. However, there was no Part D to cover drug costs back in 1985. So that's definitely an improvement.

     Another point to consider. When you get health insurance through an employer your premiums are tax deductible. When you pay them on your own, such as through Medicare, they are not tax deductible -- making them more expensive.

    We may complain about the small increase in benefits -- that may actually prove a decrease for some people because of higher Medicare costs. Still, as we all know -- but don't always appreciate -- Social Security is a vital financial asset for retired Americans. What makes the asset so valuable? For one thing, the value of Social Security does not gyrate up and down like an IRA or 401K that's invested in the stock market. For another, as paltry as a 1.3% increase is, it's still a better rate than what you'd get from, say, a 10-year government bond which pays an even more paltry 0.8%.

     A bond is not exactly the same thing as Social Security, but it provides a relevant point of comparison. The bond rate determines the rate for an annuity. According to Jeff Sommer in the New York Times, the average 65-year-old man receives a Social Security benefit of $1,375 per month. An annuity paying him that much would cost almost half a million dollars. So that $1,375 per month is the equivalent of a half-million-dollar asset.

     There's one problem with Social Security. The system pays out more than it takes in via taxes -- a problem made worse by Covid, which has thrown a lot of people out of work, which means they are not contributing payroll taxes. The Social Security trust fund is projected to run out of money in less than 15 years. If nothing is done, benefits would be cut by more than 20%.

     We all assume that something will be done to shore up the system. But who knows what it might be. Some people suggest raising the retirement age to 68 or 70. Others want to raise the payroll tax, currently at 12.4% (half paid by the employer, half by the employee).

     Currently the tax only applies to incomes up to $137,700. President-elect Joe Biden has proposed adding the payroll tax to income above $400,000. That would raise some extra money. However, it would create a donut hole for incomes between $137,700 and $400,000, which some people might consider unfair. But more importantly, applying the payroll tax to income over $400,000 would only close about half of the deficit. 

     And Biden is also talking about expanding benefits by setting higher cost-of-living adjustments and increasing benefits to lower income retirees and to widows and widowers. Who would argue against giving poor people more money? But wouldn't it just make the Social Security funding problem worse? 

     It seems there are no easy answers. But there's one thing we'd all agree on: Social Security must be preserved and if anything, strengthened.

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

What's Wrong?

      Last night I felt a little off. Nothing serious. No headache. Just a little spacey. Maybe a touch of an upset stomach. It can happen when you've been cooped up in your house for days, weeks, months at a time.

     I went to bed at my normal 11 p.m., but woke up at 3 a.m. Found the bathroom. Stumbled back into bed, fell into a fitful sleep. I woke up again, and it was still dark. Couldn't see the clock, didn't know what time it was. I had a little headache now, and knew it would get worse. 

     It was hot. I pushed the covers off me, but couldn't get back to sleep.

     I drifted in and out for I don't know how long. Had a nightmare. I was on a golf course on the first tee, and as I swung I fell backward and shanked the ball into a bush. I rode the golf cart up the fairway, then had to take a long walk downhill to try to find the ball, rummaging through the underbrush. Something else happened, something completely unrelated, but I can't remember what it was.

     Then I woke up again. With a definite headache.

     I sensed B getting out of bed. I rolled over on my side, trying to find sleep again. Next thing I knew there was a rumbling on the street outside my bedroom window. The big leaf-loader was starting up, at 7:30 a.m., vacuuming up the piles of leaves that people had raked into the gutter.

     I sat up and paused for a moment, trying to clear my head. Then I hauled myself out of bed and wandered into the bathroom, feeling drowsy and headachy. I avoided looking in the mirror, then came out and got dressed and began to wonder. Could this be it? The first signs of Covid?

     I started toward the kitchen, but instead detoured back into the bathroom. I opened the cabinet drawer, took out the thermometer and jammed it into my mouth, under my tongue. While I waited -- about two minutes -- I washed my hands. Thoroughly. For at least 30 seconds. Under warm water.

     The beeper on the thermometer went off. I pulled the thermometer out, turned it over and read the display. 97.4 degrees. That's perfectly normal for me.

     I finally made it into the kitchen, brewed some coffee, had breakfast. I shook two Tylenol out of the bottle and washed them down with orange juice. Slowly, throughout the morning, my headache receded. Later, while reading my book, I took a short nap.

     Now it's getting on toward 4 p.m. I feel a little washed out, from lack of sleep, but I don't feel sick. The headache is gone. I take my temperature again. It's still 97.4. I guess I don't have Covid after all. 

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Eternal Questions

     I just read a book called The Secret Place by Tana French. It's a mystery that takes place at a private girls' high school in Dublin. It's one of French's six Dublin Murder Squad books, which she's written along with a few other mysteries, all set in Ireland.

     If you're looking for something to read, I recommend all of her books. But that's not the point of this post. What caught my eye in The Secret Place is a series of questions about human nature that came up while the two detectives were interviewing various persons of interest at the school  And I'm thinking, those of us who have been around a while, who have a lot of life experience -- and who are looking for something to think about other than the remnants of an election -- might be able to answer these questions.

     Most of the interviews involve teenage girls. But they cover boys as well, along with a few adults.

     Throughout the interviews the detectives have to figure out who's telling the truth, who's holding back secrets, who's passing on stories fed to them by someone else. And this suggests some questions about human nature. Let's see if you have any answers.

     At one point, one of the girls says: "Everyone thinks girls blab everything, yap, yap, yap, like idiots. That's total crap. Girls keep secrets. Guys are the ones who can't keep their mouths shut."

     Do you agree? Are girls better than boys at keeping secrets? How about grownups? In general, who is better at holding onto secrets, men or women?

     Another issue comes up -- and you'll have to "excuse my French" so to speak. One guy is called a "prick." Later, a girl is called a "bitch." Here's the question: Is a bitch simply a female version of a prick, and a prick a male version of a bitch? Or are they fundamentally different?

     One last issue. The plot of the novel turns on Chris who is a handsome, popular 17-year-old from the boys' school next door. He's also a player. First he goes out with Joanna. He dumps her because he's smitten with the dreamy and fragile Selena. But Selena's friend Julia knows that Selena will only get hurt. So she seduces Chris -- not because she likes him but to keep him away from her friend Selena.

     My wife B says, "Oh, come on, I don't believe a girl would 'give herself' to a guy just to save her friend. I can't suspend belief that much." Can you?

     By the way, if you're instantly angry at Chris, don't worry, he gets murdered. But that's not a spoiler. The question is: Who did it? To answer that, you have to read the book.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Life Beyond the Election

     According to Yahoo Finance, alcohol sales went up by 68% on election day. Guess who bought more: Democrats or Republicans?

     Joe Biden made a good speech on Saturday night, don't you think? He took on the mantle of the presidency but was not vindictive against his opponent and pledged to be president not just to the people who voted for him, but for all Americans. 

     Anyway, if you're ready to move past the election, so too are our Baby Boomer bloggers. They are already shaking off the distraction, the depression, the anxiety, and looking forward to other more personally fulfilling aspects of their lives.

     Laurie Stone of Musing, Rants & Scribbles has lately been buzzing with so much tension she's wanted to reach for a tranquilizer, two shots of tequila, or both. But then she found something in her desk drawer. Something small and plastic and gray. Something she'd completely forgotten about. So she clipped it to her waistband and now gives us 3 Reasons Why a Pedometer Is Better than Xanax.

     Carol Cassara of Heart, Mind, Soul is developing a new appreciation for clarity in our lives. Clarity can be difficult to accept, she says, but it is also a beautiful thing, making life easier even in all its difficulties. Confused? In Connect with the Clarity that Comes from Maturity she decides what really matters is how we face our challenges and see a clear path ahead for ourselves.

     Rita R. Robison, consumer journalist, notes that many of us are avoiding cash during the pandemic and are instead turning to app-based payments like CashApp. In Watch Out for Scams When You Use CashApp she reveals how con artists are finding ways to trick us into sharing personal information or buying things we don't want.

     On Unfold and Begin, we are reminded that Veteran's Day is upon us, a day when we recognize and thank those who have served and those who continue to serve to protect our country. All is not well with many veterans, Jennifer points out in The War Is Not Over for Veterans, and she offers several links to sites that have information to help vets, including one with resources for families, one allowing the sharing of stories, one offering discounts for vets.

     All of us can sometimes be grouchy, negative or sullen, especially these days in the teeth of a pandemic. But Rebecca Olkowski of BabyBoomster reminds us that Your Attitude Determines Your Altitude. She catalogues some of the ways we can go wrong, and shows us how respect, optimism and kindness are the keys to success and happiness.

     Meanwhile, Meryl Baer of Beach Boomer Bulletin, like a lot of us, was missing her kids and grandkids. But unlike many of us, she and her husband took action. They jumped in the car and drove from New Jersey to Florida, and then home again. "Our car and our bodies returned home safely," she now reports from her two-week quarantine "The election wait is over," she continues in Under House Arrest, and then she ends with a thought we can all share: "Now, if only the Covid crisis clears out."

     Amen to that. And by the way, the answer is . . . Democrats.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Apologies for Pennsylvania

      Normally I stay away from politics on this blog -- not for any other reason than I don't have anything particularly original or insightful to say. Most of the issues I think about have already been talked over ad nauseum.

     But right now I feel like I have to apologize for my adopted state of Pennsylvania. I mean, here it is two days after the election. Forty-eight states have managed to count their votes. Only two have been taking this long: Nevada and Pennsylvania. 

     I can't speak for Nevada. Well, I can't really speak for Pennsylvania, either. It's just that the delayed counting of the vote makes us seem a little, well . . . slow. As though we can't quite handle the situation. As though we're all a little dim-witted.

     The problem is not the poor souls who are working diligently to actually process the paper and count the votes. The problem is that there was a kerfuffle in Harrisburg about when to cut off the mail-in ballots. First they had to be postmarked by November 3. Then, no, they had to be delivered by November 3. Then, no again, they could be postmarked by Nov. 3 and counted as long as they arrived by Fri. Nov 6. Then there were rumors that the post office couldn't possibly handle all the mail, so they urged people to drop off their ballots in person.

     It almost seems as is they were deliberately trying to confuse us.  I mean, the post office can handle Christmas mail. Surely they can handle a few thousand mail-in votes.

     So anyway, at this point President Trump is ahead in Pennsylvania by 200,000 votes, or about 1.5%. But the mail-ins reportedly lean more Democratic than Republican, so the thinking is that Democrats are going to catch up. And now Trump is talking about suing the state to stop the count of late-coming votes.

     The lawsuit was so predictable  But our politicians did nothing to avoid it. And I'll tell you, if I were a Republican I too would be suspicious of an election board that kept pulling more votes out of a hat days after the election was supposed to be over.

     Just as a Democrat, I'd be suspicious of Nevada where Joe Biden is ahead by just 0.5% points, if the Republicans started "finding" new votes that conveniently back their nominee. 

     Meanwhile, I sent my vote in about two weeks ago. Apparently it has still not been counted. It's kind of embarrassing. All my friends around the country have had their vote registered. But apparently mine is still sitting on a desk somewhere, waiting for someone to dig through the pile and get to it.

     They should have had a hard deadline on the mail-in votes, and they should have started counting earlier. But now we're stuck with what we have. My only consolation, personally, is that I know how my friends and I voted, and so my suspicions will not kick in if and when the election board start reporting more votes for Biden long after the bell has rung.

     Pennsylvania was supposed to be an important swing state. That was exciting to me. When I lived in New York my vote didn't really count. No matter what any individual does, the state is marked solid blue. (And for that reason New York turnout was low.) 

     But now my vote was supposed to actually make a difference. But it looks like Pennsylvania blew it. Wisconsin and Michigan have now been called for Biden. So right now all he has to do is finish off Nevada and he'll have enough electoral votes to win the presidency. So Pennsylvania will not be a deciding factor. It will be irrelevant.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Saving the Planet with Covid

      One silver lining to the Covid-19 pandemic is that air pollution levels have gone down, not just around metropolitan areas but throughout the country -- and even in China!

     Most of us are driving less. I last filled my gas tank over three weeks ago, on October 9, and the tank is still 3/4 full. Instead of grumbling about the cost of gas, I'm complaining about the monthly payment for the lease on my car that sits in the garage all week.

     But maybe it's better this way. We live in town. Our street is not a major artery, but it is a through street so we normally get a medium amount of traffic. But lately, we can sit on our front porch and not see a single car go by for ten minutes.

     For the past six months, having two cars has been a hassle, and so we're now starting to think maybe we can get along with just one. My lease runs out next June. My plan right now is to replace the car with a bicycle. A bicycle is not the perfect way to get around. There's traffic to negotiate, and it's no good in the rain or the winter. But it might be worth a try.

     If that doesn't work, maybe we'll get an electric car. But I'm not quite sold on the idea. I've read that an electric car, after you account for making and disposing of the batteries and generating the electricity, saves only about 20% of the pollution. Now 20% is better than nothing. But you can do just as well simply by trading in a 22 mpg SUV for a 27 mpg car. 

     Covid is definitely changing our thinking and our habits. Is the pandemic changing yours?

No more of this
     We've been recycling paper and plastic for years now. The only problem is, I've read that they can't recycle all the plastic. It's just too much. A lot of it ends up in a landfill anyway. So we're trying to cut back on plastic. I used to drink bottled water. Now I fill my glass at the tap. Our town water is perfectly fine. 

     We've tried all along to bring our own tote bags to the grocery store -- but somehow we hardly ever remembered. So we went through a lot of plastic bags. But now with Covid, we wouldn't be caught dead taking a plastic bag from the supermarket. We've completely changed that habit. We never go anywhere without our tote bags.

     It almost goes without saying that we're traveling less. Covid has been killing the airline industry. But it's saved a whole lot of jet fuel. Maybe after this is all over, the airlines will be downsized, and we can spend less time flying in jet planes. Sure, you might want to take that special trip to Hawaii or Europe, or to see family. But we won't be quite so casual about contributing to all those jet fumes.

     Instead, we're discovering the charms of the Microadventure  For us it's been an afternoon at a park, a drive to visit another town. But even more adventuresome people are discovering sights closer to home -- Boston or Washington instead of Paris or Helsinki; one of the national parks instead of el Camino de Santiago, a local beach instead of Cancun.

     We don't eat much meat anymore, not because it's environmentally punishing -- although it is -- but because we're trying to be more healthy. We had a steak dinner for B's birthday. And we ate hot dogs exactly one time this summer when we had a cookout. Other than that it's chicken and fish and lots and lots of vegetables. (Not that we're perfect; we do like our baked goods.)

     We do not grow any of our own food. That would be a good thing, but we don't have the property or the green thumb. Instead, we signed up with a local farm to supply fresh produce. It's a little more expansive, but still cheaper than all that meat. And nothing comes wrapped in plastic. 

     We've also been more careful about throwing away food. We have leftovers once or twice a week -- again, not trying to save the environment -- although it does -- but because in these pandemic times we want to cut down on the number of trips to the grocery store.

     Like many other people, we use the library more. We haven't needed much in the way of clothes. We support our local restaurants by doing take-out -- for us, mostly curbside pickup at the pizza place.

     In many ways I can't wait to get back to normal. But maybe, just maybe, a few of these new habits will stick with us -- and we'll take one small step toward saving the planet. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Change of Scenery

     We've been told that walking is the best exercise, especially for seniors. So I'm taking a page from DJan-ity's blog and offering a glimpse of a walk we took recently.    

In our neighborhood

     To be honest, my wife B does a lot more walking than I do. She takes a three-to-four-mile route around our neighborhood almost every day. I only walk three times a week -- and that's a good week. Sometimes it's only twice.

I found these fellows downtown

     I find walking kind of boring. I mean, it doesn't take a lot of concentration to put one foot in front of the other. And then what else do you do? Look at the scenery? I usually walk into town, a little over a mile, and it's basically the same scenery every time, even if I do vary the route a little bit on the way there or back. 

One large New Jersey leaf

     But sometimes B and I go farther afield. During the self-isolation of the last six months we've traveled to several nearby towns to walk around and see different sights. We've been to a few local parks. In the summer we drove over to Princeton University, and another day up to Lehigh University, to walk around a college campus.

The reservoir was low

    Some friends suggested we take a short trip over to a park they knew about in New Jersey. So on a warm and cloudy day last week we crossed the Delaware River and turned north up into the Jersey hills. Following their directions, we found Round Valley State Park which surrounds a reservoir outside the small town of Lebanon.

We started uphill. Can you tell?

     The several-thousand-acre park offers swimming, boating, even camping. But everything was closed down except the hiking trails.

Pine trees against a cloudy sky

     We drove in and parked. We walked along the shoreline, then climbed up a path into the trees. We saw a few people down by the water, and passed some other hikers on the trails. But not many, and most were wearing masks.

A shot of red

     It was a nice fall day, and by the time we circled around a small peninsula and got back to the parking lot we had covered about four miles.

The way home

     The outing was nothing spectacular, nothing challenging. But we got out in nature. We got our exercise. We got some fresh air. And now tomorrow, it's another walk into town.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

How We Got Here

     How did we end up in this situation where everyone is so polarized, so surrounded by like-minded people, and so dismissive of others who have a different opinion or different lifestyle?

     It all started with television, according to Jill Lepore, Harvard history professor and author of the new book If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future.

     When television started broadcasting the news, back in the 1940s and 1950s, it put newspapers in a difficult position. Everyone already had the news from TV, so why would they want to read it the next day in the newspaper? So newspapers reinvented themselves by focusing more on analysis than straight news, and before long the line between analysis and opinion was blurred. Now newspapers give us more opinion than news, and sometimes the opinion is disguised as news.

     But the main thrust of Lepore's book is the story of how Simulmatics, an early computer-based organization that came out of MIT, pioneered the process of collecting data, massaging it, and selling it to businesses and governments in an effort to predict and even manipulate people's behavior.

     Simulmatics failed. But like what AOL was to the internet, Simulmatics pioneered the era of Big Data. Both big government and big business began to electronically spy on people, collect enormous amounts of personal data, then slice it up into special interest groups so that they could manipulate minds, sell products, win over votes.

     John Kennedy and later Lyndon Johnson, for example, used computerized research to develop political messages appealing to the Black vote. Richard Nixon identified the Silent Majority and crafted a message to appeal to the white middle-class concerned about communism and law-and-order.

     At the same time, Proctor & Gamble and other consumer goods companies targeted their ad campaigns to different market segments, from the working stiff to the suburban housewife to the Pepsi Generation. The politicians wanted power. The corporations wanted money.

     Meanwhile, news organizations and university professors began to question the very notion of objective facts. New Journalists argued that everything is relative. Everyone's view of the world is colored by their own experience. There is no Truth. There is only your opinion.

     As time went on, mass media carved the audience into thinner and thinner slices, tailoring their content to the interests of very specific groups. General interest magazines like Life and Look went out of business, replaced by specialized publications on fly fishing, race-car driving, organic farming, or long-distance running. Then along came cable TV, again slicing up the audience to special interest groups. Gone were Ed Sullivan and Carol Burnett, who appealed to the mass audience. Those shows were replaced by the food network, the classic movie network, the history channel, a dozen different sports channels -- and the left-wing and right-wing news channels.

     From there it was only a short step to what we have today on the internet and social media. Organizations collect data, detect patterns, identify our interests, exploit our biases, and classify us into precise targets for their messages. They enlist our sympathies, sell us their products, win our votes, all in a system that "manipulates opinion, exploits attention, commodifies information, divides voters, fractures communities, alienates individuals and undermines democracy."

     Lepore is not saying that all Big Data is bad. Computer-aided analysis has helped us build better buildings, safer cars, more powerful medicines. It has opened up the mysteries of space, and now can help us meet the challenge of climate change. 

     The problem is that we humans have a natural tendency to seek out information that confirms our pre-existing convictions, and we tend to ignore or discredit information that runs counter to them. Modern marketing, polarized politics and the mean-spirited media all benefit by exploiting this trait and splitting us farther and farther apart. But people should not allow themselves to be "managed" into micro-markets just to they can sell us more products or focus-group us into gender/race/class divisions to make us easier to influence or control. 

     All knowledge is not biased. There are facts that are true beyond our own views of the world. We should not let the social scientists and market researchers tell us what to think or do. But it takes a conscious effort to resist these divisive forces. And it takes a willingness to walk a mile in someone else's shoes to rebuild a sense of community. 

     Or as Shakespeare said long ago: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Part 2: Review Your Supplemental Plan

     I read last week that our Social Security increase for next year will be 1.3%. Will that be enough to even cover the increase in our health-insurance premiums?

     Last week I decided to review our medical insurance, because open enrollment is about to start. And I thought maybe I could find a way to save a little money. My wife and I have the same supplemental Medicare plans. Plan N. But we have them with different companies, and it turns out I pay $190 a month, while she's only paying $120 per month 

     That didn't seem right to me, so I decided to look into it. I also wanted to see if Plan N is still the best option for me. I checked several websites and found that the cost of the premium depends on the insurance company, as well as where you live (but B and I live in the same house!), your age, your gender, your marital status, and the way you answer some key health questions.

     I found out that men pay a higher premium than women. Is that fair? It seems to me that women go to the doctor more often than men, so they should pay a higher premium. But maybe men have more expensive problems like heart attacks and strokes.

     And that brings up the fact that men don't live as long, either. According to the Social Security life expectancy table, the average life expectancy of a female, at birth, is fully five years longer than it is for a male. Isn't that the ultimate sex discrimination? Even if a guy like me makes it to age 70 (by avoiding dangerous jobs, the military and risky male behavior) his life expectancy still falls more than two years short of the average woman.

     Anyway, I really couldn't get any specifics on the websites, so I called my Supplemental carrier, which is United Health Care through AARP. Yes, there was a phone tree, but before long a friendly young woman answered the call, and she seemed fairly knowledgeable.

     First, we went over the various plans. I have original Medicare Supplemental Plan, not a Medicare Advantage plan. It's slightly more expensive. But I don't have to stay in network. I like having the option of going to any doctor I want -- especially if I end up getting some complicated disease that my local doctors don't know too much about.

     There were less expensive plans, and one that was more expensive. Plan F. The less expensive plans didn't cover enough and made me feel insecure. Plan F pays for more deductibles, as well as "excess charges above Medicare approved amounts." But Plan F is another $80-some a month. I decided it wasn't worth it. I'll stick with Plan N.

     Then I asked the United Health Care woman about the cost. Was I eligible for any discounts? I mentioned that my wife has Plan N with another carrier and pays much less than I do. She took a minute to check for me, but then came back and told me: No, you've got the lowest rate.

     So I said: I'm married now. I wasn't when I first signed up for the plan. Do you offer any marital discount that could save me some money?

     No, she said. If my wife and I were on the same plan we'd each get a 5% discount. But just being married doesn't qualify for the discount when my wife has her insurance from a different company.

     The young woman went on to explain that I already have one discount, one that I got when I first signed up. But the discount decreases every year. I started out at age 65 with a 39% discount. But every year since then the discount has gone down by 3%.

     I thought about that for a second. In other words, I asked, in addition to whatever usual price increases are involved, the insurance company tacks on an extra 3% every year just because I get older?

     She laughed. Well, I guess that's another way to put it.

     B is four years younger than I am. So if her insurance company works the same way, that accounts for 12% of the price difference between her policy and mine. Add in the male surcharge, and probably a few other hidden fees, and -- bottom line, I'm just keep my same Supplemental Plan.

    Together, B and I pay almost $1000 a month for medical insurance, when you count Medicare, Plan B, Plan D, plus a relatively modest dental plan. But I think it's worth it, when you consider how expensive medical care can be. But clearly, anyone who suggests that Medicare for All is the same as free medical care doesn't know what they're talking about.

      Anyway, I guess the only real strategy to save money is to keep away from the doctor. So I'll eat my vegetables, get some exercise, avoid too much stress, get plenty of sleep, wear my mask and keep my distance. And the hardest part . . . try not to do anything stupid!

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Pumpkin Patch

     Halloween is soon upon us, so B and I take a drive across the Delaware River to a park in New Jersey that holds an annual pumpkin fest.

     We get scared as soon as we arrive!

     We have a pumpkin fest in our town as well, and I'm sure there are thousands of others all across America. But as far as pumpkins go, this is a pretty haunting collection.

     This one is truly CarnEvil.

     A fire-breathing dragon turns up the heat.

     This witch is giving me the chills.

     My, what big ears you have . . . and the nose!

     He has a sinister grin and fierce eyes.

     But this one looks more friendly, a little like Santa Claus. Is he trying to warm us up for Christmas . . . or just hiding something behind that grin?

     Whew, home sweet home! But it looks like we have a few skeletons in our own closet!


Saturday, October 10, 2020

Part 1: Medicare Just Got Cheaper

     Okay, Medicare is not getting cheaper for everybody. But it is for us, because there's been a screw up. Yes, it turns out that Medicare can make a mistake, so it's best to pay attention.

     Medicare uses your 2018 tax return to figure out your Medicare premiums for 2020. If you make too much money, there's a surcharge on both your Medicare Part B and also Part D. For example, if you're single and make over $87,000 and less than $109,000, you pay a $57.80 surcharge every month for Part B, plus an extra $12.20 for Part D.

     B and I got married in 2018. Once you're married, as a couple you can make up to $174,000 per year before the first surcharge sets in.

     All this year I've been paying my basic Medicare premiums, no problem, no complaints. But this past week I decided to review our medical insurance, because open enrollment is about to begin.

     I thought I'd start by checking our Medicare payments, and that's where I found the problem. B's Medicare premiums were more than mine. She was being hit with a surcharge. That didn't seem right. We filed a joint tax return in 2018, so shouldn't our payments be the same?

     I searched the Medicare website for an answer then, finding nothing relevant, called the main Medicare number. After negotiating the phone tree and waiting 40 minutes on hold, I finally got a very nice man on the phone.

     It was a little hard to explain, but after 20 minutes of going back and forth he discovered the problem. Medicare never received B's 2018 tax information from the IRS. Medicare had mine for 2018. But not hers. Even though we filed jointly, and they were on the same tax form!

     Therefore, Medicare was using B's 2017 taxes to base her Medicare premium. She was single in 2017, and her income was over the threshold of $87,000. So she was getting a surcharge.

     The man from Medicare sent me to the IRS to straighten out the issue. After another 20 minutes on hold, I got a real person who . . . turned out to be no help. The IRS representative said I should talk to Social Security, and gave me the main number.

     By that point I could not abide sitting on hold on the telephone for another 40 minutes. So I got an idea. I found the number for our local Social Security office. A real woman answered the phone. I told her my problem, and she put me through to the man who handles these things. Surprise, surprise. He had access to our records!

     He could see the problem right away. Yes, Medicare was using B's 2017 tax form instead of the 2018 tax form to base her Medicare rate. So he told me to send him a copy of our 2018 Form 1040 along with a copy of our marriage license. And he would take care of it.

   "You'll get a refund," he said. "But it may take a while because it has to wend its way through the bureaucracy." So if everything works out, we'll get a refund of several hundred dollars; plus, B's Medicare premium should go down for 2021, because they'll be using the correct information, now from our 2019 tax form. A double win!

     He said the situation should be corrected for next year and beyond. But I should double check. When I receive the notice for my 2021 Medicare premium -- sometime around Thanksgiving -- I should check and make sure the premiums are based on our 2019 married-filing-jointly tax forms.

     The takeaway? Sometimes it's a good idea to check Medicare, especially if you've had a life-changing event in the last few years. Things change, and what you had when you turned 65 may be different by now. Also, if you have to deal with the government, don't call the main 800 number. Find a number for your Social Security office. That might save you some time and aggravation.

     We all love Medicare. And it usually works pretty well. But -- as they say -- pobody's nerfect, not even the government.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

The Changing Tides

     For many people retirement is like diving into a pool. They take the plunge. One day their lives are crammed with work, bills, children. The next day they're free. Suddenly they can do whatever they want.

     It wasn't like that for me. I tiptoed into retirement. I got packaged out in my 50s. I still had to make some money, so I continued to work part time. Some weeks I worked; other weeks I dabbled in retirement. As the years went on, I worked less and retired more. It was an easy and long-lasting transition from working to retirement.  And there were many changes along the way. I moved. Got divorced and remarried. Watched the kids go off to college and careers. Downsized to a new town in a different state.

     What I now realize is that after we retire -- whether we retire all at once in a great seismic shift, or retire slowly over the years -- our lives do continue to change. Retirement is not static. It changes like the tides.

     I recently mentioned to a new friend that my wife and I were getting ready to celebrate our third anniversary.

     "Oh, that's nice," he said. "Your 30th anniversary."

     "No, not the 30th," I corrected. "Our third."

     "Oh . . ." He was slightly embarrassed, because he'd made an assumption. But there was also an uplift to his voice. He was glad to hear it, reminding himself that life still happens even after we're retired.

     I'm not working at all anymore, but I still find my life slowly changing, my goals evolving. Don't you?

     The pandemic has shifted the sands beneath us once again. Last year I was at the community center twice a week playing table tennis. Now I haven't played at all since March.

     Last summer we made a trip Arizona to see my sister and her family. This year we were planning to drive to Wisconsin to visit my daughter. But this year the trip got canceled.

     Last year at this time we were getting ready to go to South Carolina for Thanksgiving, and making plans to return for the month of February. This year, we're not going for Thanksgiving, that's for sure. Are we going in February? We don't know yet. It's hard to make plans this year. What's the old saying? Man makes plans, and God laughs. 

     Retirement is a time for exploring, for developing old skills and trying out new interests. Even trying out new identities. In the old days, when we were working, people would ask us: What do you do? And we'd answer: I'm a teacher, or I'm a lawyer, or I manage a business.

     For a while, after we retire, we tell people: I'm a retired teacher, or I'm a retired lawyer. But I think, after a few years, we  lose that identity. And sometimes we flounder, or feel the stigma of not "being" anything anymore. So we we reel off a string of activities. I play tennis and babysit my grands . . . and I like to read a lot.

     But over time we settle into our new identities, we become more comfortable with our new lives, even if they sometimes seem less important or less comprehensive than before. Sometimes we're forced to change by events, or physical limitations. Sometimes we just lose interest in old activities and develop new ones. So we say: I volunteer at the library, or I've taken up painting; or I live at Sunrise Village, or I'm heading to my place in Florida next month.

     For me, for many years, my answer was: I'm semi-retired, as though that answered all the questions. Then for a while I was playing a lot of golf, and started getting into pickleball and table tennis, and I would joke that I was an aging jock. 

     These days, since Covid came on the scene, I'm still playing some golf, but I find myself more focused on volunteering at our senior learning center, and tutoring at the educational services organization. Times change. And we adapt. So now I say: Oh, I'm with the Center for Learning in Retirement.

     Retirement is not a one-time event. It takes place over time, and we develop new interests, explore different parts of ourselves, meet new people and yes, form new identities. 

     I wonder what I'll be doing this time next year. How will I define myself in 2021 and beyond?

Sunday, September 27, 2020

After the Fall

     It happened to me about three weeks ago. I was on the golf course. It had rained the day before, but now the sun was shining, with temperatures in the near-perfect high 70s. About an hour into the round I climbed up onto the tee box, and without even thinking about it, stepped onto a wet railroad tie. My feet shot out from under me. Boom! Next thing I knew I was on the ground, lying on my left side, my head swimming and leg screaming pain.

     I lay there for a few moments, shaken. My golfing partners came over and hovered and asked if I was okay. I nodded, and said yes, just give me a moment.

     After two or three minutes I labored to my feet. I was still a little fuzzy. So I told my friends I would sit out the hole. We were riding carts. So I just cruised in my cart down the next fairway, gathering my wits. 

     I was okay. My leg hurt, but I could tell nothing was broken, nothing strained. No bleeding, not that I could tell.

     By the next tee I felt able to resume play, and so I did. I was a little sore for the rest of the round -- about two more hours -- but I didn't feel that I was being seriously hampered. After the game I got in the car and drove home. No problem . . . until I pulled into my garage and tried to get out of the car. My left thigh had swollen up, and I had trouble bending the knee. I had to swivel around and gingerly angle my leg out of the door. When I stood up, my leg was killing me.

     I hobbled upstairs, took a shower and examined the damage. It didn't look too bad. It was swelling up, but my leg seemed intact. After the shower I sat down in front of the TV, put some ice on my leg, and just relaxed the rest of the day.

    In the morning it looked looked like I had a football attached to my thigh. That's how swollen it was. And the black-and-blue was starting to show up. Also, as I was getting dressed, I felt a twinge in my left shoulder. 

     I limped around for the next few days, watching my leg get uglier and uglier. The black-and-blue mark went from my hip down my thigh and extended along the back of my knee. It looked worse than ever. But actually, it was feeling a bit better. I thought about going to the doctor, just to make sure, but I decided, really, it wasn't that bad.

     Slowly, my leg began to heal. I skipped golf the following week, but then played the week after -- being very careful around the railroad ties. Now, today, my leg is virtually back to normal. I still feel a twinge in my shoulder, but that's slowly going away as well.

   I'm not I telling you this story just to get your sympathy. I'm telling it as a warning. Falls are a leading cause of injury in older adults. The older we get the more likely we are to fall, and the longer it takes to heal after an injury. Falls can also be extremely serious, even life-threatening. If you break something and are laid up for a time, it's extremely difficult to work your way back -- if you come back at all.

     According to the CDC, one out of five falls causes serious injury like a broken bone or head injury.  Each year over 3 million older people are treated in emergency rooms for fall-related injuries. More than 95% of hip fractures are caused by falls.

     So please, be careful. I'm sure you know what to do. But if you're like me, that doesn't mean you actually do it. So . . . make sure your stairs well-lit. Keep a light on in the house at night. Get rid of throw rugs and other tripping hazards. Keep hallways and other walkways free of cables and wires.

     Be extra careful of wet tiles in bathrooms and kitchens. Wipe up spills right away. Install grab bars and railings. Do not store things in high cabinets, and whatever you do, do not get on a ladder or stepstool.

     Wear shoes that give you some support, and clothes that won't drag on the floor or catch on something. Be extra cautious if you're taking any medications. Consider doing some strength exercises to improve your balance.

     Are there other tripping or falling hazards we should know about? There probably are, but all I've got left to say is:  Watch out for those wet, slippery railroad ties!

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Top 10 Places to Retire 2030

     Yes, that's right. Not the best places in 2020, but the best places ten years from now.

     We all know that today the most popular place to retire is Florida. Warm weather. Low taxes. Lots of golf courses. Plenty of beaches. What's not to like? Florida is followed by Arizona, then Texas, then the Carolinas. Retirees are drawn by the low cost of living, the warm weather, the recreational activities.

     But things are changing. Florida and the Gulf Coast are pummeled by more and more hurricanes and tropical storms. Arizona has been roasting in 100 degree heat all summer, with Phoenix topping 110 on more than 50 days.

     Will retirees really want to move into an area where the flood waters rise, forcing them to evacuate as soon as they arrive? Will they want to bake in the hot sun of the Southwest . . . or, just in case anyone can afford to retire to California, risk the fires and rolling blackouts of the West Coast?

     According to most experts, the country is getting hotter. Climate journalist Abraham Lustgarten in an article for ProPublica and the New York Times, says that Buffalo, NY (believe it or not!), "may feel in a few decades like Tempe, Ariz., does today." Meanwhile, Tempe itself will be sweating away in the triple digits.  

Buffalo, NY, street scene
   He also says that extreme humidity in the Mississippi valley, from New Orleans north, will make living conditions unbearable. Fresh water will be in short supply throughout the West and also across Florida, Tennessee and Alabama. He sees California-type megafires threatening the South from Texas to Georgia.

     While some parts of the U. S. bake in the heat, rising sea levels will chew up shorelines along the East and Gulf coasts, swamping many coastal areas and infiltrating underground aquifers. One estimate projects that high water will force some 13 million Americans to move away from the coastline.

     Experts predict the recent migration of retirees toward the coasts, and toward warmer weather, will reverse. Now instead of retiring to Florida or Arizona, people will head north. They will seek cooler summers. They will avoid fire-prone regions and shy away from low-lying areas subject to flooding.  

     So where will people be retiring in 2030? Okay . . . nobody really knows. But here's a good guess.

     1. Minnesota. The land of 1000 lakes is already rated high on many retirement lists for its low crime rate and great medical care (think Mayo Clinic). Minnesota residents also enjoy the longest life expectancy of any people in the country. Jesse Keenan, Harvard climate-change professor, seriously suggests Duluth as a promising location. He says the city should brace for a coming real-estate boom as climate migrants move north.

     2. Colorado. The state is high and dry, with clear air and access to plenty of recreational activities. There are good medical facilities and a wide array of cultural offerings. According to the Business Insider website Colorado has already become the quarantine location of choice, mostly for people moving from Texas and the West coast.

     3. Northern Florida. In 2030 people will still like the sun and warm breezes. Southern Florida will be awash in brackish water, with cities like Miami and Ft. Lauderdale separated from a beachless waterfront by huge concrete walls. But northern Florida is protected from the hurricanes, has more access to drinking water, and has a slightly more temperate climate. Lustgarten thinks Orlando alone may receive more than a quarter million new residents as a result of sea-level displacement, and it's possible that the Atlantic coast north of Cape Canaveral may still be habitable.

     4. Coastal Oregon and Washington. According to Lustgarten the migration from California, particularly Southern California, to the Pacific Northwest will only increase as people look for a better economy and more temperate climate. The megalopolis of Seattle will essentially merge with Vancouver to its north.

     5. Idaho. Another refuge for West coasters looking for clearer air, cooler temperatures, lower crime rate . . . and its up-and-coming wine country is not threatened by constant fires.

     6. Michigan. Lustgarten suggests Michigan has a climate that will only get "more temperate, verdant and inviting." He predicts a renaissance for currently downtrodden Detroit.

     7. Wisconsin. Almost as good as Minnesota, with plenty of drinkable water, cooler temperatures and a healthy lifestyle. Madison is home to a top university, while Milwaukee on Lake Michigan offers an underused infrastructure that could be brought back to life.

     8. Pennsylvania. The state has the cultural and seasonal advantages of the Northeast, without the high taxes and high cost of living. New Yorkers are already fleeing the city to settle in eastern Pennsylvania . . . close enough to the ocean to visit, but far enough away to avoid the storms and floods. Like football? Penn State hosts Big Ten sports (as does Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota).

     9. Vermont. It has the Green mountains and a green lifestyle . . . and according to Lustgarten, will soon have a more temperate climate. 

     10. Upstate New York. Cities like Rochester and Buffalo could revitalize an already-existing infrastructure, and offer safe, secure neighborhoods overlooking Lake Erie and Lake Ontario -- all with, you guessed it, cooler summers and milder winters.  

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Mastering Our Power

     "Mastering others is strength," wrote Lao Tzu, "mastering yourself is true power." 

     I just saw an article by someone who was mastering the power in himself. He wrote that for most of his life he had never voted in any elections. He felt that politics was dirty. Political people were often angry and unpleasant to be around. He didn't want any part of them. He also figured that one vote has no impact. One vote out of tens of millions? It's insignificant.

     He had heard all the arguments about how it was his civic duty, how if he didn't vote he had no right to complain, how one vote really can make a difference. None of those arguments moved him.

     So what finally changed his mind? He realized that politics doesn't affect him very much, but they do affect many other people he knows -- people with disabilities or chronic illnesses, people fleeing domestic violence, people suffering from racism, genderism, ageism. So he asked himself: How can I say I support these people if I can't take a few minutes to vote? It costs me almost nothing, but it means a great deal to many of my neighbors, including those who have the misfortune to be in the way of a wildfire, hurricane or pandemic.

     It's the power of the vote. And maybe because we all feel so powerless these days, this week Baby Boomers are talking about power. 

     Laurie Stone of Musings, Rants & Scribbles asks us to picture a female brought up without any gender conditioning, a female who does what she wants whenever she wants. Picture a dog named Libby. Then you can picture all the things Laurie admires about her Yorkie's chutzpah in An Untamed Unfettered Female.

Libby does her thing
Libby does her thing
     Carol Cassara at A Healing Spirit addresses another aspect of empowerment. We have created and directed our lives, she says. We're the make-it-happen generation. So it's no surprise that some of us have trouble sitting around, doing nothing, and letting things happen of their own accord.  She offers a simple exercise to discover The (Sometimes Painful) Gift of Sitting with a Blank Canvas.

     Meanwhile consumer journalist Rita R. Robison provides information that will give us power in the marketplace. In Price Gouging Persists on Amazon she reports on an analysis showing that some items on Amazon were up to 14 times more expensive than identical products sold at other retailers.

     (I second Rita's report. I was on Amazon looking for health and cleaning supplies. A bottle of simple rubbing alcohol was priced at $10. That seemed like a lot to me. So I checked out Walmart.com. Sure enough, there was a same-size bottle for $3.92 -- for a two-pack! So I continued my shopping on the Walmart site.) 

     Then we have Rebecca Olkowski with BabyBoomster.com who is Remembering Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The justice, who died on Friday at age 87, spent her life fighting for equal rights and the empowerment of women everywhere.

     For her part, Meryl Baer of Beach Boomer Bulletin focuses on overcoming discrimination and the relentless push for change in Notorious RBG and the Women Who Persevere.

     Finally, as a postscript, you might want to check out Kathy Gottberg's vlog Today Is a Good Day to Live. She reminds us that regardless of our circumstances, we each have the power to shift our mindset and create days filled with things that matter to us. 

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Old Dog, New Trick

     Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks? B and I have not only learned something this summer. We've become experts. On Zoom.

     We started out attending Zoom sessions hosted by someone else. That's Zooming 101. It's pretty easy. Someone schedules a meeting, they send you an email with a link, and you open the link. The only thing you have to know is how to turn on your camera and make sure your audio is on.

     We belong to the Center for Learning in Retirement (CLR) at our local university, and after closing down the spring session in March, the university decided to hold summer courses online. So I signed up for "Strategic Leadership in Times of Crisis." All on Zoom. The course focused on the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and drew lessons about leadership from how John Kennedy and others handled that historic crisis.

     So I logged in, listened to a presentation by the host, watched a few video clips he shared with us, then took part in a discussion about what we could learn from it all. The only thing I had to do was log on (see above) and then press the space bar on my keyboard whenever I wanted to participate in the class discussion.

     A few days later I joined a movie discussion group through our local movie theater. We each watched the movie in advance on Netflix -- Mount Rushmore, a 1998 coming-of-age film starring Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray. Then we all logged onto Zoom. The discussion was led by an independent movie director who filled us in on some background, then opened up the session for discussion. I didn't like the movie -- I found the characters unappealing, the situations unbelievable -- but I was in the minority. What I learned is that the movie is beloved by people growing up in the late 1990s and early 2000s (ask your kids about it).

     In July, B and I stepped up to actually host a CLR discussion group via Zoom. It wasn't too hard. All we had to do was figure out how to schedule the session, then admit people to the meeting and master the art of calling on people electronically. Yes, we made a few mistakes. But everyone was new at this. Our audience was very forgiving.

     Zoom offers a free version, but you can also buy an upgraded version, Zoom Pro, for around $13 a month. The main advantage is that while the free version limits a session to 40 minutes, the Pro version allows unlimited time. We knew we would be hosting an hour-long course in the fall, and we wanted to set up Zoom to meet with friends and family, so we ponied up for the Pro version. Well, actually, B ponied up for the Pro version.

     Since then we have held a birthday party online with Zoom. We have hosted a family reunion. We've met with a number of friends. B also does church meetings via Zoom, and she recently joined the League of Women Voters which now holds meetings on Zoom.

     Lately, we've been getting ready for the class we'll host in the fall, "Great Decisions in Foreign Policy," a program from the Foreign Policy Association. We've directed this program before in person. Now we have to do it via Zoom. The format calls for us to share a video, then direct a discussion with 25 people. So we have to know how to screen share. That's the AP course in Zooming. Now we've enlisted a few friends to practice how to share a DVD video, then go into discussion mode without totally messing things up.

     Does it sound like I'm bragging about how smart I am learning all about Zoom? Darn right I am!

     I'd say, with all due modesty, that I have the equivalent of a Master's degree in the program. But to be honest, if I have a Master's, then B has a Zoom Ph.D.!

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Held in Contempt

     I once read an article about how psychologists could predict which couples in therapy would end up getting divorced and which ones would patch things up and re-establish their relationship. The key element was not how much they argued, how different their views were, or how much they screamed or cried. The key element was contempt. If husbands or wives felt contempt for their partner, then divorce was almost inevitable.
      This came to mind as I was scrolling down my Facebook feed -- which I try not to do because there's little to be gained from the exercise. But sometimes in the middle of a self-isolating-induced coma of boredom, I can't help myself.

     And what strikes me is how much contempt my liberal friends have for their fellow Americans who are conservatives -- or anyone who happens to disagree with them -- and how they attack anyone who's not on board with their woke agenda. Their call their opponents dumb or stupid. They are liars, racists, even Nazis.

     Meanwhile, conservatives on social media reply in kind. They take pride in denying established facts, disdaining legal authority, ridiculing academia, the media, the government. They say liberals are either rich power-hungry hypocrites or else poor morally corrupt losers.

     That's on Facebook, or other social media, or sometimes on the so-called news channels on TV. It's enough to make you think that there are two different realities -- and that the country is falling apart.

     But then there's real life. I'd say most of my friends are liberals, some vehemently so. But I have a few conservative relatives who voted for Trump, and some neighbors who by all outward signs are proud flag-waving conservatives. And the funny thing is, in real life, we all get along pretty well.

     Okay, part of that is the natural tendency of people to avoid religion and politics in polite conversation. But a good part of it is that the stereotypes posted on social media are not just misleading, they are downright false.

     For example, in real life my across-the-street neighbor is a truck driver who hangs a big American flag outside his front door, and I've heard him make a few comments about how he's out-of-touch with our generally more liberal town. A selfish, narcissistic racist? Well, actually, no. He mows the lawn and plows the driveway of the elderly widow next door, for free as a neighborly gesture. And I've stood around with him on the sidewalk more than once having a friendly conversation with the African-American woman who lives down the street or the Asian couple that lives around the corner.

     Or there's my brother-in-law who is devoted to his conservative Christian church. I know he voted for Trump and -- yes, he's denies global warming and is socially conservative. But is he your typical non-college-educated redneck? No. He graduated from college and he's also taken some continuing education courses. But more than that, he defies the stereotype because he volunteers in the community helping people less fortunate than he is, and despite his views on global warming he drives a gas-sipping VW, has no a/c in his home, grows his own vegetables, and composts most of his garbage. Despite his political views, he actually lives the lifestyle of an ultra-liberal Vermont hippie!

     Then there's the nephew from Chicago. He and his wife are both Trump supporters. You get them started, and sometimes it's a bit much. And yet he's in the music business and somehow gets along with his liberal colleagues. And they live in an integrated building in an integrated neighborhood, so in terms of anti-racism they're way ahead of my liberal friends who live in middle-class white neighborhoods.

     On the other side of the ledger, one of my friends is self-consciously super-liberal. So is his wife. They support Black Lives Matter, LBGTQ rights, free health care -- and I'm guessing they'd support AOC if she ran for president. And yet they actually lead lives that any conservative would  aspire to. They're not welfare cheats. They're not morally corrupt by even the most conservative standards. They both have jobs; work hard; pay their taxes, go to church, don't do drugs. They own their own home, and they've raised two responsible children. Given their actual lifestyle, they could be Mormons!

     Now I'm not saying that there aren't some truly hateful people in the world. But most of us have good intentions based on our own beliefs. Each of us may think that we have better ideas, or support policies that are more fair or more effective. But as people we are no better than our neighbors. Besides, do you really think you'll convert someone to your point of view by insulting and demeaning them?

     I have another relative who lives in Florida. She's a card-carrying feminist -- her hero is Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- but she's been married for over 20 years to a retired military engineer who's about as conservative as you would expect. Yes, I've seen an eye roll or two when the subject of politics comes up. But for the most part they get along just fine. They agree to disagree on some items, but they respect each other as people and for the most part their lives and values are compatible. They obey the law, love their children, pay their taxes, get along with their neighbors, and they both volunteer to help out other people in the community. She volunteers at the art museum and helps raise money for community services, and he supports an organization for retired servicemen.

      So it is possible. We can disagree about things. We can argue and yell and scream. But we need to remember that above all we are Americans who believe in democracy -- and to believe in democracy we have to respect our fellow citizens, even if they have a different point of view. Question their assumptions, tear apart their logic, disagree with their opinions. But there's no benefit in insulting them or calling them names. We cannot hold our fellow citizens in contempt.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

The Health and Wealth Gap

     Retirees are not worried about money. We are worried about contracting Covid. Our children are not worried about Covid. They are worried about money.

     So Covid presents a health gap between young and old, as well as a wealth gap between young and old. That's an undeniable conclusion from an Edward Jones and Age Wave multi-generational study of some 9,000 Americans.

     It makes sense when you realize that Covid-19 has in six months killed over three times the number of Americans who died in all the years of the Vietnam War. Today Covid is the third leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer, but ahead of Alzheimer's, accidents and any kind of criminal activity including gun violence.

     Most of the people who get Covid are under 40. But most of the people who die from Covid are over 60. A quarter of people over age 60 who come down with Covid end up in the hospital. But only 3% of those under 40 spend any time in the hospital. And they usually get better. It's extremely rare for someone under age 40 to die of Covid.

     But if retirees have to worry about Covid, we are not by and large worried about our income. We're not losing a job or suffering a cutback in pay. Our incomes are secure, from Social Security, pensions, IRAs and other non-earned income. Plus, three-quarters of retirees own their own homes, half of us owning outright with no more mortgage. So only about 10% of retirees report that Covid has "negatively impacted" their financial security.

     For our children it's a different story. They have lost over 20 million jobs. Some of those jobs have come back in the last two months. But further layoffs linger. And nobody knows how many are still working but are taking home half a salary, or even less.

     In our case, out of four children, two are still working at full salary. One was furloughed for three months on a fraction of his salary. He's now back at work, hoping for the best. The fourth kept his full salary until June, then was cut back by 50%, and recently was cut another 15%. He still has a job, but there are no clients and there's not much to do . . . and he's fearing the worst.

     Our own experience reflects the broader picture. According to the survey, a third of Millennials say their finances have been impacted by the pandemic. Many of them have stopped making contributions to their retirement plan, and a significant number have dipped into their retirement account to pay current bills. Some adult children have even been forced to move back to their parents' home due to a job loss.

     The financial stress has also caused mental health issues. Over a third of young adults say they have suffered mental health declines since the pandemic began, compared to just 10% of their parents

     It's another story for younger Baby Boomers who are not yet retired, but suddenly find themselves out of work. Some Baby Boomers Are Pressured to Cut Spending since they're too young for Medicare or Social Security, but they may still have children to support or college tuition to pay -- and yet their prospects for finding a new job are slim to none due to ageism. Even 50-somethings who are up on the latest technologies are often passed over in favor of younger people with fewer skills.

     Meanwhile, almost half of retired Americans said the pandemic has made them worry more about their children. Some 24 million Americans say they have provided some financial support to their adult children during the last six months. Many of us have had no problem helping our kids. Our income has remained steady, but expenses have gone down, so we have more money sloshing around in our accounts -- money we can afford to give away.

     But others have to put off more necessary expenses in order to help their kids -- delaying home repairs, foregoing new clothes, stretching out credit-card payments. Yet the majority of retirees still say they would offer financial support to their kids even if it did jeopardize their own financial future.

     Many of us can afford to help our kids now, but we worry the economic impacts will linger, causing us to compromise our longer-term financial security. The majority of retirees see retirement not just as an end to work, but as a new chapter in our lives, when we can pursue new dreams, enjoy new freedoms, take on new challenges. Covid by itself puts a brake on pursuing new opportunities since it's hard to connect with a new group or a new cause when we can't meet people face-to-face. Any financial squeeze just further inhibits our pursuit of new opportunities.

     There is at least one silver lining to Covid. According to the survey, two-thirds of Americans said the pandemic has brought their families closer together. The experience has inspired them to have important discussions about financial planning, preparing for retirement, end-of-life issues, and strategies for protecting and improving health. Perhaps we could also count our new proficiency in Zoom and FaceTime!

     Also, we retirees have something going for us:  We have seen a lot of problems come and go. We have a longer-term view. We realize that as hard as it is, this too shall pass.