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

Friday, January 28, 2022

Good News, Bad News

     I got my first Social Security deposit of 2022 last week. The good news: the gross amount has increased by . . . 5.9% is what they tell us.

     The bad news: The deduction for Medicare has risen by twice as much or even more. Net result: My take-home has gone up by all of $34 per month. As they say, don't spend it all in one place. Right?

     The good news: Last week we embarked on our annual trip south to see grandchildren and to get a taste of warmer weather. The bad news: It involves a 700-mile, two-day drive down I95, fighting traffic, negotiating the Washington, DC, beltway, dueling with 40-ton semi-tractor trailer trucks the whole time.

     The good news: For whatever reason, traffic on I95 was noticeably lighter than normal -- maybe because of Covid, or the weather, or because we drove on Saturday and Sunday when there's no rush hour, and fewer trucks menace the road.

     Despite our expectations for warmer weather, we saw snow on the ground all through North Carolina and into South Carolina. But the good news: Today, here outside of Charleston, SC, it's 30 degrees warmer than it is at home in  Pennsylvania. The bad news. It's still only 52 degrees outside. 

View from our rental -- nice but chilly
     The good news: Back in Pennsylvania the incidence of Covid is now going down. According to the CDC, Pennsylvania saw 113,000 cases last week, down from 162,000 the previous week.

     The bad news: The disease is still raging in South Carolina. The air is thick with Omicron.

     South Carolina is one of the worst states in the nation right now, behind only Alaska, Oklahoma and one or two others. The incidence of Covid in Charleston County is 294 cases per 100,000, compared to only 85 at home in Bucks County, PA.

    The good news. We got to see the grandchildren yesterday. We played with them outside. They are healthy and Covid-free, and so are we.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Does Our Spirit Carry On?

     I recently read a novel called Bewilderment by Richard Powers. The author, a professor at Stanford University, has an impressive resume, so maybe he knows something we don't.

     He has studied both physics and English literature. He has written a dozen books. He was awarded a MacArthur genius fellow, won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize, and is, according to Oprah Winfrey, "one of our country's greatest living writers."

     Bewilderment follows the story of Theo Byrne, an astrobiologist at the University of Wisconsin who lost his wife in a car accident and now takes care of his son Robin who is “on the spectrum.” Science comes to the rescue, as the boy takes part in an experimental program that allows him to feel his deceased mother’s emotions. Unfortunately, political pressures intervene and shut down the program, leading the boy to . . . well, I won't give away the story.

     The book is strictly secular. It's ridiculous to think, according to the author, that there's a God who has given us a special place in the universe, who watches over us, planning rewards and punishments for our actions on Earth. The universe is too large, the possibilities for other life -- even intelligent life -- are too great, and it's just an act of narcissism to think there is anything unique or special about us humans.

     Yet a fellow scientist at the university has developed this computer system that captures the emotions of Theo's dead wife, and allows Robin to connect with his mother. The boy begins to feel what his mother feels, to understand how she loves him and what she wants for him. This in turn brings the troubled boy a measure of relief. It calms him down, dissipates his anger, gives him perspective, and offers the boy an almost normal life.

     The story made me realize what some religious conservatives mean when they claim that science is another religion all in itself. After all, science seeks to discover how we got here, why we are here, and what happens to us after we're gone. Isn't that what religion is all about?

     So even in the Powers non-religious world, we're not completely gone when we die. Science has a way to keep us around -- not just in photos and films and recordings, but in our emotional and aspirational essence, so we can communicate with people we've left behind and help guide the lives of our loved ones.

     I guess all of us hope that there is some form of life after death, however murky our view of it may be. No one wants to believe that death is the bitter, final end.

     There are many songs and speeches, prayers and poems to inspire us to believe in some kind of afterlife. You likely have your own favorites. Here is an unlikely one from the rock band Dream Theater called Our Spirit Carries On. It gives me chills every time I hear it. I hope it does something for you, too.

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Oh, My Aching Tooth

     When I first went on Medicare I signed up for a dental insurance plan through AARP. It's called Delta Dental, and I'm sure some of you have it.

     I gave it up last year because the premium was going up, and it seemed like the coverage was very limited.

     Originally, my old dentist in New York gave me a discount because of the insurance. Then Delta Dental reimbursed the dentist for a portion of the bill, so I never had to pay more than $20 or $30 for a visit.

     When I moved to Pennsylvania the dentists in the Delta network all seemed like cut-rate operators. And I didn't want to end up in a Dollar Store for my dental work.

     A friend recommended a dentist who was supposed to be very good, but not in my plan. So that's where I went. It seemed like a thriving practice The office was modern, with all the latest technology. But I had to pay $200 to $300 for a regular visit, and Delta only reimbursed me a scant $40. That was bad enough. But then I needed to replace an old crown. The charge was $1600. Delta ended up paying about $200.

     I finally decided the insurance just wasn't worth it, especially since in addition to the deductible there was also a cap on the reimbursements. The maximum was $1000 a year. Anything beyond that, I was on my own.

     So I ditched my insurance. But maybe it wasn't such a great idea. Because a few months ago I had to have another crown replaced. Ouch. In more ways than one.

     I got the crown in, paid my $1600. But it wasn't right. I went back for an adjustment. Then another, and another.

     And yet another. This time the dentist brought in the endodondist to check to see if I needed a root canal. He banged on my tooth. He tried to freeze it. He took an x-ray. And he concluded I did not need a root canal.

     So why does my tooth still hurt? It doesn't hurt all the time, doesn't keep me awake at night. It only hurts when I try to chew on it. But isn't that kind of what a tooth is for?

     Now the dentist has recommended I get fitted for a night guard. He thinks I grind my teeth, and maybe that's causing the problem. Oh, and by the way, that's another $700.

     So I don't know. My friend still swears by this dentist. Linda at Thoughts from a Bag Lady in Waiting relates her story of traveling to Mexico to get her dental work done. She seemed pretty happy with the results. But she's from Arizona. I live a long way from Mexico.

     One of the items proposed in President Biden's so-called Build Back Better plan is to include dental work in Medicare. I think that would be a great idea. Don't you?

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Things I Just Don't Understand

     The cliche says that people our age start to lose touch. We don't know what's going on in the world. We don't know the trends, and we sure don't know what's in store for the future.

     Well, I guess I've gotten to that stage, because there sure are a lot of things I don't understand

     For example, I don't understand why people refuse to wear masks. They don't work, they say. Well, they don't work perfectly, but they do help to prevent the spread of the virus. And really, donning a mask when you're on a plane, a bus, or in the supermarket . . . it's not that big a deal.

     But then, I don't understand why people line up to go to Starbucks to buy bitter, overpriced coffee.

     And I don't understand why people drive 75 mph, often 15 or 20 mph over the speed limit, risking their lives just to save a few minutes on a trip. Are we all in that much of a hurry?

     And how it is that these same people are up in arms about global warming, yet as a group Americans are now buying more gas-guzzling SUVs than ever before?

     Another thing I don't understand . . . why are all the most popular movies these days cartoons?

     I don't understand why people say the U.S. is anti-immigration. There are 47 million foreign-born people living in America today. That's almost ten times as many foreigners as there were during the great immigration of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today's 47 million represent 17% of the U. S. population. When we were kids, in 1970, foreigners represented less than 5% of the U. S. population. So that's a lot of immigrants for a country that's supposed to be anti-immigrant.

     Here's one that really makes me wonder:  Pro-choice liberals use the slogan: My Body My Choice. Conservative anti-vaccers use the slogan: My Body My Choice. How does that make any sense?

     Republicans are supposed to care about law and order. Yet they want to do away with gun rules and take the law into their own hands. They flout safety regulations. They thumb their nose at the criminal justice system.

     Meanwhile, Democrats want to give more money to the poor and raise taxes on the rich. Yet they also want to expand tax breaks that mostly favor the wealthy, like the state and local tax deduction (SALT) that according to the Fiscal Times would "provide a tax cut of $285 billion over five years with almost all the benefits going to the top ten percent of earners."

     We're also in an age of instant communication with smartphones, texting, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and a myriad of ways to connect with people. Yet a study by the insurance company Cigna found that about half of Americans say they're lonely. NPR says older adults are especially vulnerable since many live in isolation. Loneliness has led to greater drug use, and higher suicide rates especially among the elderly.

     Finally, sports teams are renaming themselves to avoid offending Native Americans. But in Colorado a Native American group is suing to prevent the renaming of schools with Native American mascots. They oppose the use of caricatures that mock their heritage, but claim that erasing Native American names from the public square comes from "a paternalistic assumption that we must protect Native Americans by erasing references to them and their heritage." I get why some names are negative. But what's wrong with Braves or Warriors?

     As you may know, the Washington football team abandoned its monikor of "Redskins". Now, after more than a year of trying to settle on a new nickname, they've announced the team will make its big reveal on February 2. Drum roll please . . . 

     The point of a name is to make the team seem scary and ferocious, with the idea that it will boost morale and intimidate opponents. So if they really want to scare people they should name the team the Washington Representatives, for there are plenty of scary people in Congress. Or how about the Washington Lobbyists? Or maybe even the Washington Anti-Vaccers?

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Blame the Upper Middle Class

     I usually don't talk about the books I read, mostly because they're not worth talking about -- mysteries and thrillers by Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Tana French, Louise Penny. I just started Y Is for Yesterday, the last book by Sue Grafton.

     But I recently read two interesting nonfiction books mentioned in the NY Times book review. They both basically blame all the economic ills of our country not on the super-rich, but on the upper middle class. Not the top 1%, but the other top 9% -- the doctors, lawyers, professors, accountants and faceless administrators and bureaucrats who run our government-regulated capitalistic society.

     These are the people who believe in our merit-based economic system. They credit their success to talent, education and hard work. But according to these authors, this professional class consists for the most part of people (as was said of George Bush) who were born on third base and think they hit a triple.

     There's just enough truth to their view that it makes sense . . . to them. It does take a good education and marketable skills to get ahead in our world. But much of their success has less to do with hard work, and more to do with winning the lottery of birth. Most are born to rich, educated parents. They benefit from an enriched childhood, good suburban public schools (or private schools), a ticket to a good college, and maybe even a leg up to find that cushy well-paying job. 

     Just one example. A prized experience many job interviewers look for these days is an internship. It shows interest, dedication, knowledge. Many internships are unpaid. Who can afford to spend months working an unpaid internship? The children of the upper middle class. And how do you get one of those prized internships? Sure, some are broadcast to the public and can be applied for on an even basis. But many are posted on the bulletin boards of those exclusive colleges, or heard about from a vice president who lives in the McMansion down the street.

     Just so you know, the median individual income in the U. S. today is about $44,000 per year. (It depends where you live. The average is about $35,000 in Mississippi or New Mexico, but $55,000 in Maryland or Massachusetts.) To be in the top 10% of earners, you need to make about $110,000 a year as an individual, or over $200,000 in household income. (If you live in Maryland or Massachusetts you need more than $280,000 to reach the top 10%!)

     Why so much more as a household? Blame it on what the authors call "assortive mating." College graduates tend to marry other college graduates, and since college graduates make more money than those who don't go to college, these households have comparatively more income. When lawyers marry other lawyers, or financial analysts marry other financial analysts, the cycle of inequality just gets worse.

     The authors are careful not to blame people who want to succeed, or parents who want their kids to get ahead. It's only natural. But as a class, that top 9% -- the upper middle class -- gets the lion's share of economic benefits, and thus perpetuates inequality. They're the ones who can afford to reap the tax benefits of IRAs and 401Ks, for example, while people on the bottom rungs of the economic ladder can't afford to take advantage of these retirement vehicles.

     It's the upper middle class that rushes to open tax-advantaged 529 plans to fund their offsprings' college education -- making sure their children and grandchildren go to college and perhaps graduate school, to perpetuate their prized economic status into the next generation and beyond.

     It's also the upper middle class that reaps the most rewards of home ownership. They get a tax deduction for mortgage and real-estate tax -- the more expensive the house, the more rewards they reap. And the expensive house gains them entry into a good local school system, easing the way for the kids to attend a private college or top state university.

     There's a lot more to the story of how the upper middle class maintains its favored status, and why that's a problem for the rest of the country. If you want to know more, the first book is: Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust by Richard Reeves.

     The second one is: The 9.9 Percent: The New Aristocracy That Is Entrenching Inequality by Matthew Stewart.

     I like the Reeves book better. It's shorter, more to the point, and seems more factual. I recommend it to anyone who's a member of the 9.9%, who resents the 9.9%, or who cares about how our economic society really works. To me, the Stewart book seems like more of a political rant. Besides, you can access his 2018 article in The Atlantic which will give you the bones of the book in a tenth of the time.

     What . . . you thought when 2022 arrived there'd be no more homework?!?