"In this sticky web that we're all in, behaving decently is no small task." -- Novelist Stacey D'Erasmo

Sunday, July 26, 2020

We've All Canceled Plans

     My wife and I were supposed to leave for Wisconsin today, on a two-week trip to visit my daughter and grandchild. Instead, we decided to stay home.

     We'd booked the trip back in May, when Covid cases were going down from an average of 30,000 a day to 20,000 a day. The virus was supposed to take the summer off, with the experts only worried about a second wave that might come in the fall.

     So we booked an airbnb, and I told my daughter: "We've got reservations, and we'll be there ...  you know, unless the Coronavirus makes a big comeback and stops us from traveling."

     We carved out the time on our calendar and looked forward to a Wisconsin vacation -- we'd never been to Wisconsin. We were doubly excited because we'd already had two trips canceled because of Covid. We were going to take a long weekend back home in New York at the end of April, but the event got canceled, and we were wary of traveling anyway, so we didn't go. Airbnb was good to us -- it gave us a full refund.

     Then our summer trip to Cape Cod was canceled. We had signed up for a week in July, but the woman who rents us her house called us and said they'd decided not to rent at all during the summer.

     We found out later, from a friend who lives on the Cape, that a lot of Bostonians and New Yorkers who have summer places on the Cape have moved there for the duration. The Cape is pretty crowded -- not with tourists, but with second homeowners.

     B read that on nearby Martha's Vineyard, where the rich and famous summer, they're experiencing a surge in fall school registrations. A number of second homeowners intend to spend the next year there, working from home and sending their kids to the local school.

     Anyway, we had two trips canceled. But I bet we're not alone. I'd guess a lot of us have had to cancel travel plans because of Covid.

     Still, we were looking forward to the trip to Wisconsin. And we prepared. We checked with our airbnb host to make sure she cleaned and disinfected. We made reservations at a hotel along the way with a "CleanStay" program. We stocked up on disinfectants and masks, and even researched how we could avoid public restrooms on the highway.

Not going to Wisconsin
     But there was no way around it. Instead of going down, the cases of Covid began to rise again. Big time.

     On May 17 new cases were down to 13,000 a day nationwide. There were several other days at the end of May when new cases came in under 20,000. But then they began to go up again -- 21,000, 23,000, 25,000. They crested 30,000 again on June 19. They hit 40,000 on June 25. They climbed to over 50,000 by July 1. And over 60,000 by July 8.

     This was making us nervous. The virus was supposed to go to sleep for the summer; instead, it was raging back. I began to drill down, looking at the cases in Wisconsin -- and in Ohio where we'd have to spend a night in the hotel. In July, Wisconsin went from 500 cases a day to 700 cases a day, to 900 cases a day. On Friday new cases in Wisconsin numbered 1,058. Ohio was worse. The state has suffered over 1,000 cases every day since the beginning of July, hitting 1,560 on Friday.

     The numbers at home have also been going up. But more gently. Pennsylvania currently has about 800 cases a day. So we finally decided it would be foolish to drive into the teeth of the epidemic.  Even if we're careful, we realized, we'd have more contact when we're away and on the road, exposing ourselves to more public touch points.

     So it's back to stay-at-home, self-isolation, talking to people on Zoom. But that's better than contracting Covid, maybe ending up in the hospital, or worse, and possibly giving it to my daughter and her family.

     So this morning I woke up. And my first thought was: What about Thanksgiving? Maybe we could go to Wisconsin for Thanksgiving! And then there's our winter trip ...

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Do You Know Your Geography?

     We've been planning a trip to Wisconsin for a couple of months now, to see my daughter who moved there in the spring. So I've been spending a lot of time hunched over maps, drawing routes on google, checking out the states we will drive through -- Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.

     It's still up in the air about whether we will actually hazard this trip, considering the rise in Covid-19. But for all the aching back I've suffered in the planning, I have come across a few geographic surprises. I thought I'd share them with you, in the form of a quiz. So how much do you know about these United States of ours? Answers are at the bottom of the page.

     1. I used to live in New York State which is larger in area than Pennsylvania. But is New York larger than Wisconsin? So you tell me, which covers a larger area, New York or Wisconsin?

     2. Then which of these states is larger -- Pennsylvania or Ohio?

     3. Going farther afield (and out of my way), how about Florida or Idaho -- which is larger, area-wise?

     4. Now to population. Which state has more people, Wisconsin or Indiana?

     5. How about Pennsylvania vs. Illinois? Which one has the larger population?

     6. Okay, back to Idaho. Which state has a larger population, Idaho or Hawaii?

     7. Do you know the capital of Wisconsin -- is it Madison or Milwaukee?

     8.  Like I said, I used to live in New York. But when I did, I actually lived closer to the capital of Connecticut than I did to the capital of New York. The capital of New York is Albany. What's the capital of Connecticut?

     9. Now live in Pennsylvania. But I live closer to the capital of New Jersey than the capital of Pennsylvania. The capital of Pennsylvania is Harrisburg. What's the capital of New Jersey?

     10. The other place I like to visit is South Carolina. Is the capital Charleston or Columbia?

     Bonus:  I'm sorry I had to research this question. But it turns out that Wisconsin has twice the rate of Covid-19 as Pennsylvania -- just as many cases, with half the population. Which state currently has the most cases of Covid: California, Florida or Texas?


     1. Wisconsin at 65 thousand square miles compared to New York's 55 thousand. 2. Pennsylvania edges out Ohio, with 46 thousand sq. mi. compared to Ohio at a little less than 45 thousand. 3. Idaho. This one surprised me. Idaho is larger than Florida, with 84 thousand sq. mi. compared to 66 thousand 4. Indiana at 6.7 million people compared to Wisconsin's 5.8 million. 5. Pennsylvania wins at 12.8 million compared to 12.7 for Illinois -- Illinois used to be more populous but it is one of the few states that has lost population in recent years. 6. Idaho wins again, with 1.8 million compared to Hawaii's 1.4 million. 7. Madison. 8. Hartford. 9. Trenton. 10. Columbia. Bonus: Florida, with a seven-day average of over 11,000 new cases; Texas is averaging 10,000 a day and California 9,000. Pennsylvania has fewer than 1,000 cases a day.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

Is Joe Biden Good for Retirees?

     Presidential candidate Joe Biden recently announced his economic plan for America. Normally, I try to stay away from politics on this blog. But a tax plan is something you can analyze, not just to judge whether you're for it or against it, but in terms of who it would help and who it would hurt.

     By way of full disclosure, I like to think I know what I'm talking about when it comes to these matters (I did get an MBA back in the dark ages), but I am not an expert so I invite anyone to correct or expand on my analysis.

     Here's a rundown of his proposals.

     Income taxes. Biden wants to take back the Trump tax cut. For example, he would increase the top individual tax rate for incomes above $400,000 from the current 37%  to the pre-tax-cut level of 39.6%. This might affect certain individual retirees ... but I doubt those individuals would get much sympathy from the rest of us.

     Payroll taxes. Biden wants to impose a 12.4% payroll tax on wages over $400,000. Currently, only wages up to $137,700 are subject to payroll tax. The new tax would benefit retirees since it would help shore up Social Security. It would benefit retirees even more if Biden didn't create a "donut hole" to exempt wages between $137,700 and $400,000, and just make all wages subject to the payroll tax.

     Capital gains taxes. He proposes raising the capital gains rate up to the same rate as earned income. Many people think this is perfectly fair -- why should investors get a tax break over workers? -- but make no mistake, it would be costly for anyone who has built up investments outside of an IRA or 401k.

     Itemized deductions. Biden would restore a higher limit, up to $400,000, on itemized deductions. This would be a favor for high income people in high-tax states such as New York and California, bringing them a tax cut. But who retires to New York or California? So theoretically it would hurt the rest of us, since we'd have to make up for those lost revenues.

     Corporate income taxes. Biden proposes raising the corporate income tax from 21% to 28%, which is halfway back to the old rate of 35%. Obviously, increasing the corporate rate doesn't affect individuals, except in a very indirect way. Some Wall Streeters warn a corporate tax increase could take down the stock market by 10 - 25%. But that's sheer speculation. If the stock market takes a tumble it's much more likely to be caused by the Covid economy than a corporate tax plan.

     Minimum corporate tax. He would create an alternative minimum tax on corporations with profits of more than $100 million. The idea is that it would tax at least some profits of companies, such as Amazon and Netflix, that have evaded taxes by the clever management of tax laws and business regulations.

     Special interests. Biden would offer tax credits to small businesses for adopting workplace retirement plans. This would not help current retirees, but it would help many future retirees who work for small businesses. He would expand some tax credits for renewable energy and restrict tax credits for fossil fuels. Again, this wouldn't affect current retirees; but it would make one small step toward helping the future of the planet. He's also proposing an $8000 tax credit for child care, eliminating some real-estate tax loopholes, expanding Affordable Care Act tax subsidies.

     Bottom Line. Only you can decide whether Joe Biden will make you richer or poorer, whether his ideas strike you as "more fair" or "more just" than the current system. But I can tell you two things:

     1) The plan is hardly radical. That may disappoint progressives, but reassure moderates. He is not proposing a wealth tax or even an increase in the estate tax. He is not proposing a single-payer medical plan. Instead, he calls for an extension of Medicare and an expansion of Affordable Care Act. He has put forth a more ambitious climate-change plan, but has not said how he would pay for it (so you have to question whether it's real). As a response to the economic upheaval caused by Covid-19 he claims he'll create at least 5 million "good paying" jobs in clean energy, research and development, and minority-owned businesses.

     2) Joe Biden's plan will not make the U. S. tax system any simpler. Unlike Amazon or Netflix, we will not be able to "game" the tax system, yet we will still need an accountant or Turbotax just to fill out all our tax forms. And the lawyers and accountants who feed off the complications of the tax code will not have to worry about any loss of business.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Is It a New World?

     Some people are acclimating themselves to the Covid-19 pandemic. They're going outside, eating at restaurants, playing sports. They've decided that the disease will be with us for a while. We can't continue living the shut-in life that we went through in April and May. And so we have to take measured risks just to live our lives.

     Others are more nervous than ever. They're realizing that over 130,000 Americans have died of the disease -- more Americans than died in the entire Vietnam war. They feel like they're playing Russian Roulette. They squeezed the trigger in April, and again in May, and it came up a blank. But how many more times can they squeeze the trigger before there's a bullet in the chamber?

     I know a few who have had the disease and survived. A 68-year-old fellow golfer was in bed for five days, then recovered. He's okay now. A couple in their 60s both had to go into the hospital. She was put on oxygen, he had to go on a ventilator. They both suffered terrible pain and fear. They, too, survived, but may suffer permanent effects.

     And the experts say we haven't yet reached the peak of even the first phase of the disease -- not to mention a second wave that may come in the fall or sometime next year.

The new normal
     So what are we doing? Some people are still in lock down. They are going out only to collect curbside pickup at the grocery store, or get takeout pizza. They're taking a walk down empty streets. But for the most part they're still staying home, closing themselves off like hermits.

     Some people are behaving selfishly. They are hoarding everything from groceries to toilet paper to hand sanitizer. Others display blatant disregard for both themselves and others. What, me worry? they say. And so they go out to parties or the beach or the amusement park and just have fun. They don't wear a mask because . . . well, it makes it hard to breathe.

     One couple in our community owns an RV. They are currently traveling out West and posting pictures on their Facebook page. Are they offering us some vicarious pleasures of their travels? Or are they just rubbing it in?

     Some people are going out of their way to be helpful. My town offers a program where people can call locked-down residents of senior living facilities to provide a friendly voice and give people news from the outside world. Some are going shopping for elderly or disabled people, or holding Zoom meetings for kids to help keep them entertained.

     Most of us are just being sensible. We go out when we have to, but stay home most of the time. I'm guessing our lawns and gardens look better this year, because we're spending time in the yard. Maybe we've used the time to clear out some clutter in the garage or basement; or we've organized our photo collection or knitted a sweater or scarf.

     Some people are thinking that our lifestyles have contributed to the problem. Are pollution, overpopulation, climate change and global warming contributing to increased pathogens and disease? Nobody really knows. We do know that less human activity associated with Coronavirus has cleared up the skies in some major metropolitan areas, at least temporarily.

     We also know that co-morbidity factors such as diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure can make us more vulnerable to the virus. Some people have taken this as a wake-up call to improve their lifestyles -- eat better, get more exercise, lose weight. I certainly see more people than normal walking and jogging up and down my street these days.

     Some people are trying to get creative, find new ways to do things. How many of us have learned how to Facetime or Zoom in the last few months? We have several teachers who live on our block, and they held spring classes on Google Classroom, exploring new ways to reach out to their young students using photos, games, videos.

     School administrators are trying to figure out how to hold classes in the fall. There are all manner of compromises and creative solutions being proposed. At my own Center for Learning in Retirement, we are holding all fall classes online. The good news: almost all the instructors have agreed to teach their classes online, and so far enrollment looks like it's going to be at least as good as last year, if not better.

     So where do we go next? I'm still hoping that researchers will come up with a cure or a vaccine -- and in a year or 18 months this will be but a bitter memory. My wife B thinks Covid-19 will be with us for a long time. In her opinion, we will have to learn how to adapt. Be cautious. Be safe. Wash hands. Use hand sanitizer. Wear a mask. But there are still going to be people who get sick and die. We'll have to live with the toll of Covid as a price of modern life, just as we live with the toll of crime or car accidents.

    That's why I'm at home right now, pecking away at my computer. And she is out this morning, taking a walk down to the farmer's market. It has reopened -- restricted to 50% capacity, with mandated face masks -- even though the number of new cases is rising again in our state.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

You Think THAT'S an Insult!

     One thing people probably agree on is that our world has become coarser. People don't hesitate to insult people on Facebook or anywhere else online. As Vivek Murthy and Alice Chen wrote on CNN.com, "The values of social media [are] sensationalism, us-vs-them rhetoric and curating one's life to look perfect."

     And no matter where you go you can't get away from the cursing. It used to be the most common word in the English language was the. Now it's a word that begins with F.

     Of course, insulting people is nothing new. But it used to be done with more class, more panache. Here are some examples:

     Said New York theater critic Walter Kerr about a rival: "He had delusions of adequacy."

     Or Winston Churchill about a fellow politician: "He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire."

     Winston Churchill was always good for a laugh. Playwright George Bernard Shaw once sent a note to Churchill: "I am enclosing two tickets to the first night of my new play. Bring a friend, if you have one." Churchill's reply: "Cannot possibly attend first night. Will attend second ... if there is one."

     Or how about another retort. A member of Parliament told Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, "Sir, you will either die on the gallows or of some unspeakable disease." To which Disraeli responded, "That depends, sir, on whether I embrace your policies or your mistress."

     William Faulkner insulted fellow novelist Ernest Hemingway: "He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary."

     Another writer, Moses Hadas, sent this response to a colleague: "Thank you for sending me a copy of your book. I'll waste no time reading it."

     Okay, here's a groaner from movie director Billy Wilder: "He has Van Gogh's ear for music."

     Some go for the jugular, like this one from lawyer Clarence Darrow: "I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure."

     Or Mark Twain: "I didn't attend the funeral, but I sent a nice letter saying I approved of it."

     And then American journalist Irwin S. Cobb: "I've just learned about his illness. Let's hope it's nothing trivial."

     Some insults are fairly subtle, but no less cutting. Oscar Wilde remarked about one person: "He has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends."

     Or British statesman John Bright: "He is a self-made man and worships his creator."

     Then the old Samuel Johnson who said of a fellow Englishman: "He is not only dull himself, he is the cause of dullness in others."

     Actress Mae West was always good for an insult: "His mother should have thrown him away and kept the stork."

     American actor Forrest Tucker along the same lines: "He loves nature in spite of what it did to him."

     Here's one from Scottish writer Andrew Lang, to keep in mind whenever you're reading something on Facebook or anywhere else on or offline: "He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts ... for support rather than illumination."

     And finally, another from Oscar Wilde: "Some cause happiness wherever they go; others, whenever they go."

     And so ... I'd better go!

Saturday, July 4, 2020

More Stuff I Don't Understand

     I wrote a few months ago about several things going on in the world that I just don't understand -- how prices keep going up, but there's no inflation; how we have so many new ways to communicate, yet Americans suffer from loneliness more than ever; how we're not having enough babies to replace the population (or pay Social Security benefits), yet there are too many people in the world causing global warming -- and breeding pandemics.

     I have to admit that there are a few more things I just don't understand. For example, the U. S. unemployment rate is over 15%, yet the stock markets are near record highs. It's not just stocks. CNBC recently reported that banks are taking in record deposits -- an increase of over $2 trillion in the last six months -- and the savings rate among Americans recently hit 33% of income. I guess what we need is . . . more unemployment?

     Also, I marvel in our age of super-fast electronics. You don't even have to go to the bank to deposit a check. You can do it on your phone. And when was the last time you even used a check anyway? Yet even with the high unemployment rate there is one job category that's expanding -- couriers and messengers. I thought couriers and messengers went out with the Civil War. But according to the U. S. Labor Department there are now 904,000 Americans employed as couriers and messengers, up from 859,000 in January. Go figure.

     Something else I don't understand. In April there were roughly 30,000 new cases of Covid-19 per day. Victims were flooding hospitals. People were panicked. They stayed home as schools were shut down and stores and restaurants were closed. Roads were empty of traffic. Only essential places like supermarkets and pharmacies were allowed to stay open.

     Now, today, new cases of Covid-19 are over 50,000 a day. Almost twice as many as April. Hospitals are still crowded; the death toll mounts. Yet the stores are open (yes, with restrictions). The restaurants are crowded. Traffic is back to normal. People are having parties. What am I missing?

     Like I said, all this just adds to what I've already admitted in that previous post Things I Just Don't Understand.

     The polls only bring more confusion. Something like 40% of Americans approve of our current president. About 55% disapprove. But Congress scores even worse. Only about 20% of Americans approve of Congress. Yet where do the political parties go to find new presidential candidates? To the one place even less popular than the presidency -- Congress (i.e Gabbard, Gillibrand, Booker, Harris, Warren, Sanders -- and remember, before that, Cruz, Rubio, etc.).

     I admit I thought a few of those candidates were okay. But don't you think it would be better to look elsewhere? Doctors, dentists, engineers, teachers, firefighters, accountants and nurses all enjoy higher approval ratings than politicians. 

     Well, we did turn to a real-estate developer once. Didn't work out too well. Meanwhile, I couldn't find any data on approval ratings for former vice presidents. But I'd guess they do okay. After all, for the most part they're unobjectionable.

     One last thing. When pollsters ask people if they approve of the direction of the country, only about 25% now say it's going in "the right direction." Over 60% say our country is on "the wrong track."

     Say what you want about the now-uncool Bill Clinton, and George Bush the first before him, but according to the polls the last time a majority of Americans agreed the country was going in "the right direction" was back in the 1990s. Is there anything to be learned from that?