Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Transportation Blues - and other dollars and sense (intentional!)

Title stolen (in part) from this article, which says that our highway fund is basically broke. That is, broke as far as "out of money" (I know it's already broken in other ways, such as our lack of education and common courtesy in highway driving, which will likely become the basis of the second installment of the courtesy series, whenever it comes about). And, yet, the government can provide $1.5 billion in federal aid to Pakistan (which I discussed here, regarding how my tax money goes to provide free higher education to Pakistani students, while I'm left footing the bill for my own children's higher education).

Now, granted, the US only gives about 1% of its total budget to foreign aid (check out the info available at the Finance Degree Center). But how much is that 1%? Nearly $38 billion. Yes, billion, as in 9 zeros after the "big" numbers. But look closer at the data: the transportation system that's "running dry"? That's 3% of the budget. Seems like we could cut the foreign aid and shore up some "local/national" aid. Oh, and we're spending 6% on "net interest" - or $221 billion (per this US government resource data, which is another interesting resource). Seems like maybe paying of our national credit lines might be a good idea after all... there's a giant chunk of money that could finance roads for a while. And I'm not quite sure what "income security" refers to, but the US government spends 15% of its budget on that.

By the way, if you check out page 185 of this US budget summary, there's something interesting to note: while the budget includes some $50 million (this year, with $237 million in coming years) to "Establish Veterans Job Corps," it plans to cut $30 million this year, $69 million next year, and increasing each year in reductions of cost-of-living adjustments to those veterans. That is, the folk who have given up basically everything to defend the freedom we cherish, we'll be reducing their cost-of-living adjustments on their retirements. We already pay the military way too little (been there, done that), and now we want to reduce the yearly pay adjustment (it probably doesn't match inflation already).

But back to the original article. Proposed solutions to the problem include tax increases ("closing loopholes"), and it mentioned that we already had a gas tax hike back in the 90s to help bolster the highway trust fund. It just seems like there could be better financial decisions made by "the board of directors of the largest economic entity in the world" as regards our national budget and spending. (That quote is from Jim Moran, the congressman who thinks the congressional salary, a "measly" $174k/year, is insufficient.)

As for my household, we're working on getting our house ready to put on the market. So we can get a less expensive one. So we can pay our new "affordable" health insurance premiums and not go bankrupt. (Side note: the new insurance, besides being more expensive up front and leaving less in our bank account, also cost more when we go to the doctor, so another side effect of the ACA is that we will elect not to go to the doctor in situations under the new insurance that we might have under the old, because it will cost more and we have less to pay it with.) Oh, and speaking of ACA:


Just sayin', it's out there. That's a Google Play Music link; it's coming soon to iTunes and Amazon Music as well. Note: the "band name" of "Stab the Finger" - that's going to change (after submitting to the stores, I found there's a guy in Italy who does music under "Stab Finger" - so I won't use a name so close to his; the next submission, Robot Chickens from Mars, will be using a new name... stay tuned!). Feel free to buy that multiple times to help ensure my children are insured. Oh, and college. Etc.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Renounce your citizenship, get a place in college...

If you are a high school student in Florida (or have a child who is), and you're a legal resident of the US/state, you might just have your in-state tuition spot handed to an illegal immigrant in the near future. This article talks about a bill (well, two, actually: one in the Florida house and one in the Florida senate) that, per this analysis, will cost the state about $21 million (the first year) and displace about 5,000 legal resident students from higher education institutions in order to provide "College Tuition Subsidy for Illegal Aliens."

Yep, that's what it says: the bill(s), if passed, will attempt to "aid" illegal immigrants, but does so without regard to the impact to citizens and legal residents, without attempting to expand capacity, leading to their displacement. The benefit? Proponents of the bill(s) say that it will "lead to economic and fiscal benefits in the long-term" - that is, that it's an investment with a payoff two or three decades down the road. Those benefits may or may not pan out, and some have reason to doubt the claims (see the analysis for details).

Is it just me, or is this wrong? Similar to my qualms about US (government-sponsored) tuition for Pakistani students (paid for, in part, by my tax money, while my own children don't even get enough loans from the government to cover their college education, and which saddles them with debt, while my own money - which could be used for their education - is being sent overseas to pay for education of Pakistani students), this seems backward from a national perspective, that we're providing all sorts of aid and benefits for non-Americans, while leaving Americans (who are paying for those benefits) out in the cold.

Wrong. Just wrong. Is it time to reboot America?

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Courtesy Part I: Concert Etiquette

First, let me point out: this "concert etiquette" is referring to choral-type concerts, or school band concerts, or similar things, not pop or rock concerts. Etiquette for those is, well, quite different from what I'm presenting here.

This will be the first in a multi-part series about Courtesy, which seems to be increasingly lacking in modern people. I don't yet know when the next installment(s) will be posted, and likely they won't be consecutive (i.e., there will likely be intervening other posts). Anyway, here we go.

My two youngest boys were in the Alabama Vocal Association's All-State Choral Festival this past weekend. Yay, boys! (One super-highlight of their going to All-State: it's at Samford University in Birmingham, where Milo's Hamburgers is; of all the things I miss most from Birmingham, it's Milo's - they had one in Foley for a while, but it shut down shortly after we moved down here. If you haven't been to Milo's, and you live near one, you should check it out - burger & fries combo with their famous sweet tea.)

The concert was great! Well, the choirs were great. The rudeness and inconsiderate behavior of people - which is increasingly worse every year (we've been to the AVA All-State concert pretty much every year for nearly a decade now, thanks to incredibly talented children) - that is not so great. In case anyone is reading this who attended and was one of the offenders, I didn't come over halfway across the state to listen to you talking, your bag of chips rattling, or to see and hear you clomping around during the songs. Absurdly ridiculous behavior.

So, some concert etiquette tips for these kinds of concerts (this applies to band concerts, choir concerts, school plays, and similar types of activities, such as operas, musicals, plays, etc.):

  1. Don't talk. Period. No one came to hear you talk. Whatever it is you're saying can WAIT (until between songs, between sets/choirs, etc.). It really doesn't have to be said right now, while the choir is singing. And, yes, I can hear you, even if you're trying to whisper. We're in an auditorium, designed to carry sound. So, keep your mouth shut. So what if your kids in the first choir and we're now halfway through the last choir? Someone else's kid is in that choir, and that person was considerate and respectful and didn't talk through your kid's choir's performance, so show the same courtesy for others. (At one point I even turned and tried to do the "shh" sign to some people who were chatting against the back wall - we were in the last row on the lower level - but they totally ignored me; I was videoing at the time, so didn't want to make a lot more noise that would get picked up on the camera as well.)
  2. Don't rustle . Whether it's a foil bag of chips, your concert program, keys, your purse, or whatever else, PLEASE be respectful and don't rustle it. It can WAIT. Like the guy sitting in our row who was eating chips from a foil bag during the boys' songs - it doesn't matter how carefully you try to maneuver your hand in there, it's going to make noise. It's a foil bag - that's what it does. Oh, and the chips, when you crunch them, that's noisy, too. Eat your snack between songs or between sets, but not while the kids are singing (or playing a band tune or whatever). It's rude. Note: this applies to opening bottles of whatever as well, especially carbonated whatever - that little hiss, it's distracting (especially during softer choral pieces). At least wait until between songs, and then take a swig of your Pepsi.*
  3. Don't get up and leave. There's one situation where this is acceptable: if you have a small child who need to go to the restroom, sometimes it's imperative to get that kid to the restroom. (OK, two scenarios: puking - please do leave if you, or your child, are about to puke.) In that situation, please exit quickly and quietly. But if you're, say, mid 30s (or mid 40s or mid 20s, several of the ages that I saw doing this), don't get up and leave in the middle of a song. At the very least, wait until between songs; better, wait till between choirs, when there's a lot of activity anyway (choirs leaving, choirs entering, etc.). It's really rude to be walking around during the choir's singing (rude and distracting), especially if you're clomping around in weird high shoes (like the one early 20s girl who left from the middle of a middle-section row, doing "excuse me" the whole way while traipsing past people still seated, then clomped out the back). And, if you do have to leave, be sure to do so quietly - don't be banging the doors around, and be sure to let them close quietly behind you instead of slamming shut.
  4. Don't enter. If you've had to leave for some reason (or you're late getting there), don't open the door and come into the auditorium and either try to find a seat or go back to your seat. Wait until the set is over (at the very least, wait until the song is over, although it's much more respectful if you wait until the set is over and the choir is changing - you'll have more time to get to your seat, won't bother people as much getting to your seat, etc.). That early 20s girl who got up mid-song, clomped out, and was very noisy the whole time, yeah, she came back in the middle of the next song, clomping in, "excuse me" as she was climbing past people to get back to her seat in the middle of the row, with the bottle of water and bag of chips she got from the snack bar, and then proceeded to eat her chips. Yep: she got up and left in the middle of a song to go to the snack bar, and then returned in the middle of the next song and ate the snack. And I lost count of the number of people - even elderly people who you'd think would have better concert manners - who would leave in the middle of a song and then return in the middle of the next song (instead of waiting till between choirs or, at the very least, between songs). Seriously, people, it's rude enough to leave during a song, but that aside, returning during a song is a total, complete, utter, willful lack of respect to those who are on the stage (and those who are trying to listen to those who are on the stage). Even if you felt you had to get up and leave for whatever reason, STAY OUT until the set is over.
  5. If you have a child who is distracting, please remove the child from the area. I get that a sneeze is involuntary, as is a cough. But if the child is chronically coughing over the entire performance, perhaps you should take that child outside the auditorium and get him some water or something, so that people can hear the concert instead of the coughing. I'm not trying to be mean here - I've had a child who was a distraction before, and I removed that child from the area. It's nothing personal against the child, and like I said, I understand that a cough or a sneeze is involuntary, but if chronic, it becomes more than a momentary distraction and should be addressed.
These are just a few of the etiquette rules that were blatantly ignored during the AVA All-State concert this past weekend. From what I could tell, the choirs did a great job. I just wish I could have heard more of them, and less of the audience. And, if you're interested, here's one of the boys' choir's pieces:

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Tale of Health Care

First, let me share with you this email that the President of the United States sent directly to my inbox (well, to mine and probably millions of others he spams nowadays) - click for larger view:


From the email:


  • "Doesn't include the 100 million folks who now have better health care -- who are receiving additional benefits, like mammograms and contraceptive care, at no extra cost." 
... yeah, that doesn't seem to apply to my family, who have LOWER coverage at nearly TWICE the upfront cost (monthly premiums), while having to maintain two separate health care plans with two separate insurers (one for the kids and me and one for my wife, and they're not even the same type of plan - the kids and I are on a high deductible plan while my wife is on a copayment style plan), with higher out-of-pocket costs and higher deductibles across the board. (And I know quite a few others in the same predicament.) In fact, we strongly considered NOT carrying insurance this year because of the increased cost (of the, you know, "affordable" health care plan). And our dental is now preventive only in order to try to keep the out of pocket costs reasonable (reasonable, haha, that's funny, except it's not).


  • "While our long-broken health care system may not be completely fixed, it's without question a lot better. That's something to be proud of -- and there's no good reason to go back."
... I can think of a good reason to go back. Well, over 600 of them, namely the $600+ that my former plan would have cost had I kept it. Well, not it exactly, something slightly resembling it, with higher copays, higher deductibles, and just generally higher cost and lower coverage. All for a "mere" extra small house payment per month. Even with having our plans all split up, we're out nearly $400 extra per month, just in premiums, with additional out-of-pocket costs whenever we make use of the "benefits" of our coverage.


  • "Something that's good for our economy and our country."

... well, it's good for someone's economy, namely the health insurance companies. And the government from the additional tax burden for those who don't comply. Not so sure it's good for my family's economy, as we're paying more and receiving less for something we aren't really seeing any major benefits from (like I said, our benefits are lower, and they're costing us more). Not so sure it's good for our local economy, as now we have less to spend on things like clothes, food, etc. Maybe it's good for our realtor's economy as we're getting our house ready to sell in order to buy a less expensive one to be able to afford this new insurance. (Anyone looking to move to Spanish Fort? I have a house that's less than four years old that will be on the market very soon.)

Oh, and consider this: the new, "affordable" health care is actually preventing health coverage for my family. How? Well, consider that every time I (or anyone in my family) go to the doctor now, it's going to cost more. And we're already dealing with less cash in our bank account due to higher premiums. Add it all up and we will, in fact, not seek medical care in instances where, last year, we might have. And the preventive only dental coverage has me thinking that maybe I won't get the fillings and crown that my dentist wants to put in my mouth (the build up and crown, by itself, is over $1k). Stomach pains? Eh, deal with it, it will go away, either that or it'll get worse to the point that you have to call 911 and take advantage of the great ambulance coverage in your new health care plan. Cold? Flu? Over-the-counter-only, baby. Broken arm? Well, we have some sticks out in the woods in the adjacent lot and an old ace bandage around here somewhere; it'll grow back eventually, I mean, they didn't have X-rays and casts to set those things back when they were still nailing people they don't like to crosses. (Well, I think they didn't, although I didn't actually live back then.) You cut your finger off? That's OK, God gave you 9 spares.

But let's look at some numbers from a different perspective. Per this article, which links this one regarding a RAND study, of those who signed up, only 1/3 of the signups were previously uninsured. And, based on other surveys, only about half of the previously uninsured have actually paid for the plans they selected on the exchanges. In other words, the majority of those who've signed up are previously insured people, and less than a million previously uninsured Americans have selected and actually gone through with paying for new insurance plans.

And if you happen to live in Alabama (like I do)? Terrible all around... per this Gallup study, 24% of Alabamians said in 2013 that they couldn't afford healthcare or medicine needed by their families (weird: I don't recall responding to that survey... I guess the results are extrapolated from a smaller survey set). And yet, BCBSAL, the one insurer in the gov't exchange for Alabama, cancelled their previous individual plans in order to offer the new plans. Which, for our family, were a nice $600+ per month more expensive than the previous plans, with lower coverage.

Thanks, ACA. Not to mention the stress around trying to 1) find a health care plan; 2) navigate the health care exchange (which STILL doesn't work for me); 3) get a house ready to sell; 4) move (if/once the house sells); 5) figure out whether to pay for college for the kids, mortgage, health or auto insurance, car payments, food, or utilities for maintaining the household... fun times!

I leave you with this: