The Thinker

No right to work in “right to work” laws

Wisconsin is the latest state to enact a so-called “right to work” law. With this law exactly half of the states are now right to work states. If your state is a right to work state, this means that you cannot be required to join a union as a condition for taking a job. If collective bargaining exists at a job site, the union can still negotiate benefits for you. You just have the right not to pay them union dues.

The effects on employees in these states are easily documented. In general you will earn less for the same job than in a state with no such laws. Unsurprisingly, this is because it is harder for a union to win the right to negotiate wages and benefits when they have fewer resources (union dues) to do it with. If paying union dues bothers you, there is an alternative: don’t take a job in the first place. If you think union dues are too high, as a union member you can petition for changes. Like any union (such as a credit union) a labor union is owned by its members. A union can disband itself if its members feel it is ineffective or if its dues are too onerous.

The supposed rationalization for right to work laws is that you as an employee should not have to pay from your wages fees that you do not want to pay. However, we are already required to have withheld from our wages federal income taxes, state income taxes, often city income taxes, pension contributions, Social Security and Medicare taxes. We can’t opt out of these. In many states other things are automatically withheld unless you explicitly opt out, such as your contribution to a 401-K retirement fund.

What if anything does all this have with a “right to work”? The theory seems to be that paying union dues by itself might be the difference between having a job that pays a wage you can live on and one you cannot live on. This is at best a dubious proposition, since you would be hard pressed to find a service-related profession where the real wage (after union dues) is less than a similar job without a union. It’s almost guaranteed that union members will negotiate better benefits for their members than you would by yourself bargaining with your employer.

“Right to work” laws are misnamed. You have no right to a job in any state. The closest we came was during the Great Depression. Government-created agencies like the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps hired the unemployed to build bridges and improve our national parks when private industry would not. My grandfather was one of these people that depended on a WPA job during the Great Depression. Today, if you are unemployed the best you can hope for are some limited unemployment benefits and food stamps. The reality for most people is that these benefits don’t begin to cover the real cost of living, so they are employed. They are just not employed enough to have a living wage. Many of these people are so good at finding jobs that they have two or three jobs simultaneously, generally part time with no benefits. Yet they still cannot afford to live and they survive at the margins, perhaps in group housing but often they end up homeless.

So right to work states don’t guarantee any right to work. Such laws thus provide no particular incentive to get work. And if you can’t find a job, state assistance at helping you find a job will be marginal at best. Maybe there is a state unemployment office where you can go to look at local job listings, although this is mostly done online now. To the extent you can get unemployment benefits, you will likely have to prove you are diligently searching for a job. This isn’t normally a problem because you cannot survive long on unemployment benefits. At best you will draw from your savings less quickly than you would without them.

What would a right to work look like? A right is distinguished from a privilege because it is inherent and inalienable. You have the right to practice the religion of your choice. If you had a true right to work then either a employer would have to hire you or the government would be the employer of last resort. You might not like the work they would give you but it would be work that you are capable of doing. And since it would be work instead of free labor, they would have to pay you a wage. And since we work to survive, the work would have to pay a living wage, i.e. you should be able to live above the poverty line from a full time job.

You’ll see none of this in any “right to work” state, or any state at all, which means there is no right to work in this country. What they really are is “the right to opt out of paying union dues while enjoying the benefits of a union should your job be covered by a collective bargaining agreement.” Of course if because of insufficient union dues, the union goes bankrupt then you are out of luck. And as is often the case in right to work states, with no requirement for you to pay union dues, most unions can’t organize to win collective bargaining rights. Unsurprisingly “right to work” states have much lower rates of unionized workers than other states.

Without a labor union not only are you likely to have fewer benefits, you are also more likely to lose your job, which contradicts the whole “right to work” philosophy. You are an “at will” employee, which means you can quit for anytime and any reason and leave your employer in the lurch. Your employer also has the right to fire you at any time, and generally for any reason except those few reasons (like due to your sex or race) prohibited by law. Of course, it is very hard to prove that you were deliberately fired due to these factors, so basically you can be let go at any time, for any reason or no reason at all, and with no severance pay unless there is a state law on that. You might be able to retain your health insurance under the COBRA law, only if you can pay the full cost of the premiums while getting no income.

Right to work laws are simply snake oil wherein the state gives you the “right” not to pay union dues at the almost certain cost of a reduced standard of living and with a greater likelihood of sudden unemployment. If it were explained to workers this way almost no employees would want them.

 
The Thinker

Two movie reviews

The Avengers: The Age of Ultron

I’m sure it’s just me, but I’m kind of hoping that one of these days between major crises the Avengers use their fantastic powers to do something about more pedestrian problems, like global warming or making sure litter is getting picked up along our highways. Instead, they are usually busy saving our world that these days seems frequently less worth saving.

In The Avengers: The Age of Ultron we at least get a different kind of criminal: one entirely of the Avengers own creation. Tony Stark and Bruce Banner just can’t help themselves after The Avengers raid a Hydra outpost and in the process acquire some artificial intelligence from a scepter once owned by Loki. The fighting is hardly over before they have pumped the A.I. software into J.A.R.V.I.S, Stark’s talking virtual machine with a mission to completely defend the planet. The result is Ultron. This sounds worthwhile: it would put The Avengers out of business. Naturally it’s not quite that simple and the only way Ultron can figure out how to keep the planet safe is to destroy all of humanity, which at least shows you that Ultron is not stupid. The Avengers get to spend the rest of the movie cleaning up their mistake. It probably won’t spoil any endings to tell you they eventually succeed, but of course not without a lot of work, sweat and character exposition. It was up to Joss Whedon to once again to pull it off.

Perhaps because of his original Avengers movie in 2012, the public was primed for more of the same. The result is that the movie is turning out to be one of the highest grossing movies of all time. However, the movie often feels anticlimactic, and a bit of a hot mess with a lot of it not making a whole lot of sense. Presumably audiences didn’t care too much, as they were far more interested in the spectacle and the nuances between character interactions than to worry about how coherent the story would be. There’s no time to ponder its logical holes and its directorial flaws however. Like the last Avengers movie, this is a speeding bullet and it’s all the audience can do to keep up with the moment-to-moment details.

For those into Marvel comics there is plenty to marvel over. Whedon clearly has not lost any of his directorial talent. Since Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Whedon can credit his success to a combination of story and interesting characters. When his superheroes aren’t trying to defeat Ultron, they are arguing with each other, or he’ll meander into controversial plot points such as a budding relationship between Black Widow and The Hulk. This is the part of the movie that brings home the bacon. The Ultron plot and all the carnage that results is mostly window dressing. What we really care about? Can Tony Stark’s bloated ego be controlled? Will Captain America stay pure? Can anyone but Thor wield his mighty hammer? This movie then is really a complex exploration of these many Marvel superheroes for you to enjoy. And enjoy it you will if you are into this stuff. If like me you didn’t read many comic books growing up and are not familiar with the nuances of all these characters, it’s more of a bloated shoot-em-up movie and thus more of the same.

The financial success of the movie speaks for itself and for Whedon’s wise choices directing the movie. While engaging, the movie arguably gets lost in these conflicts and contrasts of characterization. Just as Star Trek movies have a long backstory, so do these Marvel characters. The more you know the backstory, the more you are likely to enjoy it or be upset by Whedon’s interpretation. Without the backstory, it is just another bloated but reasonably engaging superhero movie, just with lots of superheroes imperfectly trying to work together. Frankly, I’d prefer more attention to the superhero part instead of the character part, which is why I’m probably rating it lower than most of those who waited in line for midnight showings have.

3.2 out of four-stars.

Rating: ★★★¼ 

The Interview

I hadn’t planned to watch The Interview, but that was before I read this recent NPR story about North Korea’s unique way of killing its defense minister: using anti-aircraft guns. North Korea desperately tried to stop the release of The Interview some months back because it was not complementary to its dear leader. North Korea’s hack of Columbia Pictures though simply gave people reason to see a terrible movie. I have to wonder why Columbia Pictures executives, after having viewed this mess of a movie, would have released it at all. Releasing it at least let them cut their losses.

If you like sophomoric movies like Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues then you might like this movie, but I doubt it. This movie is highly grating, not the least bit funny even if inebriated and actually makes you feel sympathetic toward the North Korean dictator. He may be evil, but at least he’s not Dave Skylark. Kim Jong-un, like his father, is known for quietly having western tastes, at least in cars, women and bad TV. One of these bad TV shows is “Skylark Tonight”, starring Dave Skylark (James Franco), which is produced by his buddy Aaron (Seth Rogen). Skylark gives wild interviews with celebrities like Eminem, but Aaron is bored with their formula and hungers for the show to be newsier. When they discover Kim Jong-un is a big fan of his show, he reaches out to North Korea and is quickly granted an interview. This helps elevates their show in the ratings.

The plot involves an attempt by the CIA to use Skylark to kill the dictator. All it takes is a simple handshake and about twelve hours of waiting. Once the two actually meet though Skylark finds Kim to be his new bestest buddy and can’t imagine that he is as evil as he is portrayed. The humor of this movie, such as it is, includes lots of Lord of the Rings references, blowing things up with a tank, backslapping, and hard to watch buddy-love. There are also potty-mouth scenes that are not the least bit humorous and make sophomoric humor in the Anchorman movies seems somewhat elevated. Does Kim Jong-un “pee and poo”? This is one of the “humorous” plot points that this “movie” turns on.

In short, it’s a mess of a movie, and largely Seth Rogan’s carnage since he helped direct and write the movie. It’s amazing that they found backers for this piece of garbage. I’ve seen worse movies than this, but only a few, with Ishtar coming immediately to mind. I can’t actually assign a rating to this movie. It’s not quite zero, but its heartbeat is simply too feeble to read. Its dismal box office totals ($6.1M gross to date, with an estimated production cost of $44M) attest to this waste of money.

As with Anchorman 2 if you are going to watch this a few beers before the movie may help you sit through it, as anything that will lower your critical thinking is likely to help. But there’s really no way to turn this ugly weed into anything of redeeming value. The only funny thing about this movie is why North Korea went through the bother of trying to stop its release.

 
The Thinker

Settlement shenanigans

Having recently completed a half-million dollar transaction (the sale of our house) I have been pondering the HUD-1 form we got at settlement. This is a standard form issued by the settlement agency that indicates all the costs of the buying and selling transaction. If a form could stink, this one would stink, at least a little.

Clearly commissions cost money, and the seller typically pays the commissions, both for the listing agent and the buyer’s agent. Traditionally this was six percent of the sale, split equally between agents. In recent years most realtors seems ready to bargain with sellers, perhaps because home prices are so inflated now. 5% is probably typical these days. Some sellers bargain for 4% and probably wonder if they get the same quality of service for this price. Some may get less than that. Our listing agent said she would take 2% in commission, so we agreed to pay 5%, with the buyer’s agent getting 3%. More than once I raised the fairness issue with our agent. She did most of the work and got 2% while the buyer’s agent earned more. She shrugged. That’s the way it goes. She often acts as a buyer’s agent and comes out ahead in those transactions.

Anyhow, the HUD-1 lays it all out. Since we sold the house for $505,000, our agent got $10,100 and the buyer’s agent got $15,150. Nice money if you can get it. But the buyer’s agent didn’t get $15,150. Unknown to us until settlement was the figure in the buyer’s column on Line 205. It’s called “Realtor credit” and it showed $7,000. This is money that the buyer’s agent will give back to the buyer for the privilege of being their agent. So she really got $8,150 from us for the sale of our house, and gave $7,000 of her $15,150 to the seller.

This means in effect that the buyer bought our house for $505,000 but really paid only $498,000 for the property. And this was because we were not savvy enough in the real estate trade to know we should try to discount the commission because the buyer would get a kickback, sorry a credit from his agent.

I am at once upset about this and wanting to shake our buyer’s hand. He’s one crafty dude. It’s not just us whose pocket he picked without us even knowing. He also got a kickback, sorry a credit from his lender (line 204), for $1000. Yes, for the privilege of taking out a loan with PrimeLending of Dallas, Texas, they gave him $1000 at settlement, which means in effect he paid only $497,000 for our $505,000 house. To the buyer’s credit, he did put 22% down in cash and financed the rest. Perhaps that had something to do with the credit.

Of course neither my wife nor I at any time knew we were effectively giving $7000 to the buyer. There was no piece of paper with the offer that said anything about this at all. Maybe there should be. We had two competing offers on the table, both for full price. Maybe we would have accepted the other one had we known. Or maybe we would have countered and asked for a credit from the buyer too. We could have asked for a higher asking price, of course, I just didn’t know these details.

What’s missing is transparency. These credits/kickbacks really affected the entire real estate purchase. Without them the buyer might not have made us an offer, or perhaps he would have raised his offer. We were just in ignorance.

The buyer’s agent just happens to be the top selling agent at our agent’s office. She has found a profitable niche. You see she is Indian and caters to the Indian community. Asians including many Indians are rapidly moving into our former zip code. I looked up the census data, and Asians went from 15% to 30% of our population between the 2000 and 2010 census, so it’s a growing market. There’s nothing wrong with this of course. Indians are likely to ask around mostly inside of their community when looking for an agent. Most likely they heard about her and heard that she offered generous credits on her commissions. In this case, it was a very generous credit, as $7000 is 46% of the money she could have gotten from us if she hadn’t kicked it back.

What she does get to do is to count the $505,000 sales price of our former house to her yearly sales total. It helps make her the #1 agent in that office. Doubtless nowhere in her marketing material is she calling attention to the fact that while she was one of two agents in the sale, she effectively earned a commission of 1.6%. So our agent really made more from the deal. The effect of our sale was that 3.6% was paid in commissions, but we were charged a 5% commission. We apparently gave the buyer a 1.4% rebate, but it’s not listed anywhere. The HUD-1 form at least provides this transparency; it just came too late to be useful.

I’m unlikely to do many more house sales in my lifetime. But if there is a next time I will be more wary. I will relate my experience to my new agent and suggest because we were effectively discounted, maybe 2% for each agent is appropriate. At least that way the buyer pays a higher percentage of the actual house sale, which will end up in our bank account. What I really want is all these details in the offer up front. I know I’m probably Don Quixote pointing my lance at a windmill on this issue.

So it’s too late for me, but not for you:

  • Sellers: if you are planning to sell your home you can at least be wise to what’s going on behind the scenes. Perhaps say you don’t want to pay more than 4% in commissions because you know it is likely that the buyer’s agent will give the buyer a credit.
  • Buyers: find an agent with both a good record of finding people the homes they want at a good price and who is willing to give you a substantial credit on their commission. Apparently 40 or 50 percent is not an unreasonable credit.

If this information is valuable to you, please send me 1.4% of the sale price. Thanks.

 
The Thinker

Texans needs an intervention, not an invasion

“Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”
“A Republic, if you can keep it.”

Response by Dr. Benjamin Franklin to an onlooker after the close of the 1787 constitutional convention

In case you missed the news, Texas Governor Greg Abbott has ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the activities of the U.S. military in Texas during their upcoming military exercise Jade Helm. No, I swear I’m not making this up! When I first heard it, I chuckled. “I can’t wait to read The Onion article,” I said. To my astonishment, it’s true. Conspiracy theorists have whipped up yet another dazzling conspiracy theory: that this multi-state military exercise to train our special forces against enemies like ISIS is actually an invasion of Texas by our own military. It’s an attempt to subjugate and subdue Texans, and to allow the Mexicans and radical Muslims in, because as everyone knows President Obama is not actually an American, but is a secret Muslim. Yeah, the same guy who brought down Osama bin Laden when George W. Bush could not. Go figure!

Conspiracy theorists of course are always dreaming up something. The only thing different here is that the governor of Texas – the governor – gave some legitimacy to these nutcases. It was not by offering some token sympathy to these people; it was by taking some deliberate action to appease them.

So I guess it’s official: the lunatics are running the government of Texas and Greg Abbott is one of them. I’m going to hope this was just an exercise in political cowardice, something you would not expect from Texans where the primary preoccupation seems to be asserting your state’s manliness and your right to do things your way. As the saying goes, don’t mess with Texas. Abbott is hoping for former governor Rick Perry’s hold on office. As Rick Perry learned you can’t possibly run too far to the right if you want to stay elected in Texas. Abbott’s political calculus may have been that this is simply the next step. Maybe he’s just acknowledging that most of his fellow Texans, at least the ones that vote, are nutcases so he better make them happy. Or he’s a nutcase too.

It doesn’t really matter because either scenario is appalling. This crazy response to a batshit crazy conspiracy theory does suggest that Texas needs an intervention instead of an invasion. Detroit got taken over by the state because it couldn’t keep itself solvent. The grownups, if there are any of them left in the state, need to stage a Texas intervention. It’s gotten so bad that former governor Rick Perry now sounds like a reasonable person.

It doesn’t matter who does it as long as it is someone who can separate fantasy from reality. The proper response to these conspiracy theorists is not respect but derisive laughter. I mean, it’s right on the floor funny. It certainly was for me, because the more I read the harder I laughed. Because many of these conspiracy theorists also believe this is somehow tied to the recent closure of six Walmart stores due to plumbing problems. The conspiracy theorists see this as related: these stores are actually going to be used as staging areas for Texans who are going to be shipped from there to FEMA camps.

Perhaps this is the logical result of progressive gerrymandering. When you create increasingly polarized voting districts you tend to elect only progressively more partisan legislators. It’s no longer okay just to be conservative. To get elected you have to be conservative, fundamentalist, against abortion, want to take away all subsidies for the poor and disenfranchise anyone who doesn’t look like you or parrot your behavior. Now it has been demonstrated that even governors can feel forced to take lunatic acts like this one simply to appease their base. Whether it will work is unclear, and there are plenty of conspiracy theorists that think Abbott’s actions aren’t nearly enough.

Perhaps as part of an intervention it would help for Texans to recall why they joined the United States in the first place. Basically, Texans could not beat the Mexicans alone, so it petitioned to join the United States because with its forces they could (read up on the Mexican-American War). By joining the Union, Mexico lost and Texas was saved for white people. Texas was stronger as part of the United States than it was as a republic. For all their macho posturing, if Texas did leave the union they would be back in a similar situation. It would be entirely up to them to stop migrations from Mexico and other parts of the Americas. Texans though seem incapable of admitting that they are needy; that their survival as a culture is predicated on belonging to a larger entity. Unless all the other forty-nine states do things exactly as they would do them, they don’t really feel an affiliation.

I do know one thing: if the Texas republic did reemerge, it wouldn’t last very long. These same nuts would be in charge, but since they can’t seem to manage reality, they would be easy prey. For all their mean mouthing and domineering attitudes, it’s all bravado and they are mostly cowards. They need the United States much more than the rest of us need Texas. Acts like this one would have me gladly voting for the state to succeed. Eventually they would realize it was a big mistake and put the sane people in charge again. Then I would let them back in.

Maybe.

 
The Thinker

Don’t be the roadkill on the global climate change super highway

Most Americans are comfortably in denial about global climate change. In some places, like in the Florida state government, saying the phrases global warming or global climate change may get you in trouble. Governor Tim Scott doesn’t believe it’s happening and doesn’t want to hear his minions utter these naughty words. His overwhelmingly Republican legislature is happy to back him up. Meanwhile, in places like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, where rising sea levels are already happening, city and county officials are funding mitigation strategies to minimize flooding that is already underway. A king tide can pull ocean water onto streets at certain times of the year when the earth is closest to the sun and the moon is closest to the earth. Meanwhile, condos keep going up along Florida’s coasts.

My sister lives in Hollywood near Fort Lauderdale. She has the typical ranch house. Despite having a house on concrete blocks, twice in the last few years her house has flooded. Like most of her neighbors, she loves living in Florida and particularly near the coast. Her boat is parked at a local marina. Retirement is on her horizon. She is not stupid and understands that rising sea levels are already affecting her and it will be more of a problem in their future. Her retirement plans, such as they are, are to move inland to Arcadia, where the cost of living is very cheap and the elevation is 57 feet above sea level, which it at least higher than Hollywood’s 9 feet.

Perhaps that will work for her. As sea levels rise, it will be harder to get goods to places like Arcadia. In general there will be a lot of people along Florida’s coasts slowly coming to grasp the magnitude of climate change events underway. It’s not hard to predict more dikes and heightened sand dunes along the coasts as a coping mechanism. It’s not hard to figure out who will eventually win: Mother Nature. Rick Scott may want to deny it, but you can’t change chemistry or pretend it’s not happening. Add more carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, and the atmosphere will warm, ice will melt and sea levels will rise. I’ve urged my sister to move out of Florida altogether, or if she must live in Florida to pick a place like Tallahassee where the elevation gets as high as 203 feet.

Meanwhile, California is trying to grasp with the magnitude of its issues, which is driven by global climate change, which was triggered by global warming. It’s not news to read they are about a decade into a steadily worsening drought. Only 5% of the normal snowpack fell in the mountains this year. Governor Jerry Brown, who does acknowledge global climate change, is trying to ration water but there are lots of legal exemptions. California is browning up, but it’s hardly alone in the west. Much of its population is in real risk of having their taps run dry in the next few years. In some places in California, it already has as wells run dry.

As Bachman-Turner Overdrive sang: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” To grasp the future, look at what is happening today in the Mediterranean Sea. Almost daily there are heartbreaking stories of refugees fleeing Africa and the east coast of the Mediterranean for Europe, and many are drowning at sea when their boats capsize or are deliberately sunk. It’s true that a lot of these refugees are escaping war or political unrest, and overpopulation in that area is also straining resources, which is contributing to their poverty and desperation. But climate change is certainly a factor there as well and some believe provided the fuel for wars in Syria. When it becomes sufficiently painful, people will use whatever resources they have to move from poverty to wealth and from war to peace. Thousands have already perished at sea but still they come despite the risks. As climate change worsens we’ll see this problem only get worse, and it will drive a lot of war and conflict. As sea levels rise people will simply vote with their feet and move to higher elevations, causing political instability and turmoil.

Global climate change is inescapable, but that doesn’t mean a lot of it cannot be mitigated. My wife and I are now residents of Massachusetts and were formerly residents of Northern Virginia. Nestled now in mountainous western Massachusetts, we are strategically positioned to minimize the effects of global climate change on our lives. The one comment we invariably got when we disclosed we were moving north was, “But you are supposed to move south when you retire.”

That’s the old rules. In 36 years of living in Northern Virginia we have already witnessed climate change (not to mention explosive growth). What were once native plantings in our area are no longer suited for the new climate reality. They are now considered native further north. We’ve seen temperatures rising in general and more frequent severe weather. Life was a lot more bearable in Northern Virginia in 1984 when I first moved to Reston than 31 years later. New England is changing too. It’s becoming the new Mid-Atlantic, with more severe weather and higher temperatures. It will get into the eighties up here this week, and it’s only the first week of May.

We made a conscious decision not to retire out west, at least not to those areas that are already impacted by climate change, which is most of the west. Their problems are only exacerbated by population growth. California is very vulnerable, but it is hardly alone. Most of the population of the southwest survives due to the largess of the Colorado River, which on average is recording reduced streamflow every year. The Colorado River is typically dry before it hits the Pacific Ocean, all due to human usage.

That’s not a problem out here in western Massachusetts, at least not yet. We’re nowhere near the coast, so coastal storms will affect us less, although the last few years around here have seen record snowfalls. Water is in abundant supply and there are huge reservoirs to supplement the supply during droughts. We are close to local farms as well as major interstates. Not coincidentally we are not too far from major cities like New York and Boston, so we can enjoy their amenities as we age.

In short, our retirement choices were built around the reality of global climate change to maximize our happiness and to reduce our costs and vulnerabilities due to climate change. We have chosen to be proactive about this obvious problem rather than stick our heads in the sand like Rick Scott is doing.

We will all be impacted by climate change, and I suspect the majority will be severely impacted eventually. I can and do advocate for changes to reduce the rate of global warming. Entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who sees the future and plans to profit from it by offering batteries to power the home encourage me. In the new neighborhood we will call home when our house constructed is finished, about half the homes already have solar panels. I expect within a few years we will as well, with the eventual goal of going off-grid if we can. Massachusetts agrees as well, and offers generous credits for those interested in solar power and reducing energy usage. Don’t expect Rick Scott to do anything this intelligent for his citizens.

Human nature being what it is, most of us will live in ignorance or choose denial about global climate change until it is too late. By then it will be far more costly to do something about it than it is today. In the case of my sister in Florida, I’ve urged her to sell her house now. It’s not practical for her at the moment since she is not retired, but now she can get full price for her house. As the reality of global climate change settles in down there, it’s going to lower everyone’s home prices. Eventually these properties will be worthless and much of her net worth could be irretrievably lost.

I don’t want her to become roadkill on the global climate change superhighway. I don’t want you too either. It is time to get past the self-destructive denial on the issue, and plan your lives to minimize its impact. It’s coming at you and it will change everything but unfortunately it’s hard to see because it seems so abstract and nebulous. But it’s coming nonetheless.

Be prepared.

 
The Thinker

Home-ish

Another quick four hundred mile commute between states. The path varies a bit each time we go. Lately I have been trading money for time. The New Jersey Turnpike is no guarantee of a quick commute but when it works it’s worth the tolls. When you travel this path frequently you look for the optimal path.

There are two major obstacles between Easthampton, Massachusetts and Herndon, Virginia. One major obstacle is New York City, where the choice is either to drive through it or drive around it. If you drive through it, you should drive through it from east to west because the pricey George Washington Bridge is free in that direction. The cost of congestion sitting on I-95 in the Bronx is borne pretty much any day and at any time. Which leaves your options either avoiding the city and New Jersey altogether or driving around it. Around it means either I-287 or our more recent discovery: the Garden State Parkway that conveniently connects to the New Jersey turnpike west of Staten Island.

Obstacle two is Washington, D.C. itself, with arguably worse traffic than New York City. If you have to arrive there at evening rush hour it is better to go from east to west too because more people live in Maryland and work in Northern Virginia than the other way around. There are still inevitable slowdowns but it is less hellish.

This trip to our house settlement that spanned much of our week and that kept me from blogging was at least our last one, at least for the foreseeable future. Which is why I was glad to trade money for time. We have driven this route many times now and it is getting old. When the traffic is with you it is not too bad: six and a half hours without potty breaks with NPR stations along the whole route. But traffic can easily make it eight or ten hours or more, and there is no way to know; it’s a crapshoot. I don’t feel too bad doing 80 mph on the turnpike because plenty of others are going 85. Also, much of the turnpike is eight lanes in each direction, with four inner lanes reserved for cars-only. It’s so hard to police that the New Jersey cops have pretty much given up trying.

Still, it’s a sedentary trip and all the gear shifting (we were driving my wife’s manual car) and micro changes in speed to accommodate traffic dynamics hurt my feet. From bucolic Mount Tom in the morning to traffic soaked Reston, Virginia in the afternoon, but not to end up at our house in Herndon of 21 years. We ended up instead in a friend’s spare bedroom. Outside a Virginia spring told us we were going to miss the area. Dogwoods and ornamental cherry trees were in full bloom. The grass was a green as an Irish spring. And the temperature, at least this week, was ideal.

Also ideal were those last hours at our house before we said goodbye. Both our front trees were flowering, as were the flowers along the porch and in the main garden. The house was largely clean when the movers left. All that was left was some final sweeping and mopping of floors. Our buyers paid top dollar for our house. They deserved to walk into a house that sparkled. With almost everything outside blossoming, moving in should be a joy for them.

Last moments at our house

Last moments at our house

But for us this was an ending, not a beginning. Empty of our belongings our house looked surprisingly small, but it also felt lonely. Its future inhabitants will include a man named Rajkumar, his pregnant wife beginning her third semester and shortly after the baby arrives, her mother from India. Raj probably targeted our house for the mother in law suite in the basement, but also for its proximity to Washington Dulles airport. Years of working with Indians made me realize that they see themselves as part time inhabitants. At least once a year, sometimes more often, they jet half a world away to be with their real family, always very extended. Our modest house with the one car garage will doubtless seem palatial by Indian standards. In short, while we have departed, Raj has arrived, both figuratively and literally.

We arrived at the settlement a few minutes early to discover that they had beer in the fridge and plentiful snacks in the waiting room. I guess the writer’s cramp goes easier when you are mildly intoxicated and as long as it is just one beer, you are less likely to dispute items on the HUD-1 form. The settlement experience is much different when you are the seller. Within thirty minutes we had signed all our forms, turned over our keys and the remote controls to the garage door and a stack of manuals and had left, while an impressive stack of forms remained for Raj to sign. While settlement turned out to be the event that drew us back to Virginia, my wife had two medical appointments to keep. And there were family obligations too: a drive to Silver Spring to see my aging father and his wife, one final visit to Lake Anne in Reston to take a friend out to dinner and a six a.m. wakeup call on Wednesday to rendezvous with our daughter for breakfast. She works nights and goes to be around 8 a.m. The trip back from breakfast had us sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic along traffic clogged Route 28 in a 75-minute trip that should take twenty minutes.

Yes, Virginia traffic taxed us to the very end. It was literally taxing, as we were forced to pay $768 for a “congestion relief tax” as part of the house settlement. Doubtless the money would only cause more congestion, as 35 years had taught me that in Northern Virginia developer money talks and politicians will figure out how to accommodate all the extra traffic and people when hell freezes over. Speaking of traffic, it was stop and go much of the way from Sterling, Virginia (where my wife had an appointment with an eye doctor) to Columbia, Maryland where we spent our final night with my sister Mary.

Yesterday we did the trip all in reverse, but at least we started near Baltimore, which kept us from more hellish commuter traffic, easy to see from the solid mass of cars and trucks going south on I-95 toward Washington. The New Jersey Turnpike did not disappoint us. While we were making our journey home, $415K in settlement funds was making its way electronically into our bank account. We gave up a beautiful house with a gorgeous lawn with trees and flowers in bloom for a tiny two-bedroom apartment in Easthampton. But at least we were debt free for the first time in more than thirty years.

Back in Easthampton four days later, our apartment did not feel like home to me, but home it will be for a few more months. Our real home is under construction in nearby Florence. It will be built almost entirely from cash from our settlement. While we have yet to actually purchase and occupy the property, in a way we are already part of our neighborhood to be. Sunday we attended services at the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence, and we almost immediately introduced to three people from our new neighborhood. We’re already booked to attend a party there later this month, and my wife has been invited to join their book club. Nearly everyday we pick up our mail from their mail kiosk, and our days are often spent with vendors nailing down the details of this new home to be.

So we are home-ish. I am wrung out from the last eight months, but with most of the hassle and work of relocation behind us I now have an opportunity to begin to recharge now and ponder what new adventures await us.

 
The Thinker

Breathing easier

I’ve spent three years now connected to a machine while I sleep. This is because I suffer from sleep apnea. Until recently much of that sleep was restless. For the first couple of months it was downright annoying. This was because while the respirator that controls my sleep apnea made sure I breathed regularly, it was loud and noisy.

In response, I plugged my ears with silicon to try to deaden the noise, but it didn’t work that well. Sound still leaked in. In addition it took months to get the air pressure adjusted right. Too little and the machine could trigger sleep apnea. Too much and it was hard to sleep. It’s like sleeping while taking a brisk walk.

When I could tune out its noise, I did sleep pretty well and I enjoyed all sorts of vivid dreams I had been deprived of for years. But it’s hardly natural to sleep connected to a tube and a machine. For example, if you turn in bed then the tube comes with you, and it sometimes drapes over your face, so you wake just enough to push it out of the way.

My respirator merely helps me cope with my sleep apnea. It does not solve the condition. Sleep physicians have all sorts of suggestions for maybe curing the problem. One involves losing a lot of weight. Even if you are successful the success rate is problematic at best, particularly since most people who lose weight eventually put it back on. Another involves trimming the uvula (the thing that hangs in the back of your throat) and various tissues in the back of the throat to improve airflow. This requires surgery and is no guarantee of success. There is also a dental appliance that forces the lower jaw forward to improve airflow through the throat. My brother tried it for his condition and found it painful and impossible to deal with.

The real problem may simply be the width of my windpipe. It’s inherited of course, and if that is the real issue I can’t make it wider. In this case, I will have to just deal with the problem. Moreover, the root of sleep apnea is really in the brain. During sleep it periodically stops sending signals to my lungs to breathe regularly. So far I’ve not opted for any surgery, mainly because of its poor success rate. And given my brother’s reaction to the dental appliance, I ruled out that approach as well.

So I’ve become accustomed to dragging around my respirator with me when I travel. It means I probably won’t be doing any camping, unless I have power source sufficient to keep my machine running overnight.

A couple of months ago I noticed that my machine occasionally rebooted itself during the night. It beeped when it did this, which at least let me know about the problem. After a while it was happening regularly. This is a bit alarming since without the machine on you don’t get a whole lot of air through the vents in the mask. When I went to see the sleep doctor, I asked for a new machine. Fortunately, my insurance paid for it. Since February I’ve been using the latest ResMed bi-level machine.

There are no more nightly reboots of my machine. But the real startling discovery was how quiet the new machine is. It’s nearly silent, even when wearing the same masks over my mouth and nose. With the old machine the vents in the masks typically hissed noisily during exhalation. With the new machine, there is no hiss at all. What I had thought was an issue with the design of the mask was actually due to the way my old machine was pushing air through it. The new machine seems to scale up the air pressure more evenly and naturally, presumably doing a better job of mimicking the way lungs take in air. It’s the difference between driving a noisy car and a Cadillac. It’s the difference between getting some sleep and sleeping very well most nights.

What a relief to be breathing (and sleeping) easier.

 
The Thinker

Life on Dartmouth Street

It’s a strange thing these days to see children at play. At least in Northern Virginia where I used to live, to the extent children play, it is at structured play. It is managed play. It is soccer league, or Little League, or basketball or for the girls perhaps 4-H or Girl Scouts. If mom or dad can’t attend practice, the nanny is there with a wary eye and taking notes.

They haven’t gotten the message here in Easthampton, Massachusetts that kids, even kids in their single digits, shouldn’t be allowed outside basically unsupervised just to play and roam. But play and roam they do here on Dartmouth Street, and in particular they play just outside the small two-bedroom apartment we now call our temporary home. No smartphones to distract them; they just want to be kids. Dartmouth Street is at best an irregularly traveled street, with large houses generally turned into duplexes with virtually non-existent lawns that hug the sidewalk. They are clearly rentals as of course is our building. There are lots of these houses, but most of them are rented and most suffer from somewhat deferred maintenance. They were built in a city that can trace its incorporation to 1785, and when such things as homeowner associations were unknown. This means gravel or buckled pavement parking lots (if there is a parking lot), bumpy roads where the potholes sometimes have potholes and curbs where chunks of the concrete may be missing. It means it’s okay for one of the renters to jack up the front end of his truck and work on it late into the night. Dartmouth Street is a neighborhood not built for show, or for improving your house’s resale value, or for fitting in with the Joneses, but for simple living. It means you rent a small apartment or duplex, your car is probably a little beat up but there is nothing particularly to be worried about. Easthampton may be old but at least it feels safe.

It’s so safe you can watch two kids (brothers?) sort of beat up each other in the middle of the road. There are no cars coming, and it’s clear there are no real body blows, but they laugh and wrestle and hoot and holler and in general are just excelling at being kids. It’s the sort of childhood I lived, when the phrase free-range kids had yet to be invented. The parents knew the neighborhood was safe and that if you were doing something really stupid one of the other parents would tell you about it. On Dartmouth Street it means squirt gun fights, yes, even in fifty-degree weather, lying on your back in the middle of the road giggling and then wrestling half-heartedly with your brother. It means kicking a ball down the street or into your brother’s groin. I am not sure where the parents are, but no one seems to care, and certainly not me.

Part of the reason no one seems to care may be that everyone here is about the same. Easthampton is not entirely white, just almost entirely. There may be a few lawyers and doctors here, but they probably live outside the city. Easthampton, and Dartmouth Street in particular is white working class. Mom is a teacher, or is bussing tables, and maybe doing both. Dad may be working at the auto body shop nearby or tending the package store around the corner. Life just sort of goes on here. No one seems to have pretensions. Pretensions are a relatively recent concept and largely unknown around here. You count your blessings for your job or jobs, you do your best, and you arise the next morning and then start the cycle over again. And if you are a kid, you are largely left to be a kid.

I’m the new Mr. Wilson in the neighborhood. Recently retired, it’s hard not to emulate my father who drew kids to him like moths to a flame, simply because everyone saw him as a wholesome, harmless and gentle man. So I smile at the boys across the yard and give another a wary stink eye when I see something that might get out of hand. I do that and I unpack.

We moved in yesterday. The morning was spent at a storage place across the Connecticut River. There me and two movers succeeded in getting all our long term storage stuff into a 10 x 20 foot storage unit, but just barely. Then the guys from JK Moving came here to Easthampton and deposited our much smaller cache here in this apartment. No complaints from me about JK Moving. They did a great job and everything went according to schedule. The weather even cooperated except for a little light rain. By three p.m. they had left and we were taking stuff out of boxes and setting up the apartment. Thank goodness for our wire cage in the basement. Some of the surplus we thought would fit in the apartment would not, so it is stored there, along with lots of boxes we will fill again in a few months.

From the outside our apartment is not much to look at. From the inside it has been gutted and rebuilt, and that includes the windows, doors and the walls. It’s all new; it’s just way too small. So my desk and our files are in the second bedroom and its closet doubles as an extra pantry and as our pharmaceutical chest. My wife’s desk is in the living room. The sofa has been replaced by a loveseat; it’s not big enough a living room for a real sofa. It takes us back to 1984, when we first started living together, and our quarters were only marginally bigger. But amazingly the technology all works. HD TV streams on our HD TV screen. Charter Communications delivers a reliable 64mbs download speed as well. I’ve moved 400 miles but the technology transition is flawless. As someone who made his living in Information Technology, this is definitely weird.

Still, our new pad is small and seeing a neighbor trying to fix his car on a gravel lot outside my bedroom window is not something I enjoy. So I’ll be content to leave Dartmouth Street in a few months for our more spacious house under construction. We drove by our house yesterday and noted that shingles went on during the day. The house is now fully enclosed. It seems like it should take a few weeks at most to finish the inside.

We are reliably informed the inside is the hard part. So many pieces have to come together, and each requires an inspection. Inspectors typically show up late. Meanwhile, we can contribute to the house building process by going through with an electrician and indicating where the wires should go. That will happen on Friday. And there will be more visits to various vendors to refine amenities like the color of our bathroom tiles and the model of our light fixtures. Our mailbox at least is already there, in a kiosk, and there was mail and a package waiting for us.

Mainly we are taking a breather today after four days of being mostly in hyperdrive. For me this means going through various papers and tying up loose ends. For my wife it means finding the local grocer and deciding if she will shop there regularly or opt for the more distant Big Y instead. It’s a day for ordering address labels and filling out forms for the DMV (it’s called a RMV around here). It means hauling my bike to the local bike shop for a tune up. When life settles down a little, I’ll be on the local bike trails regularly.

Meanwhile I am living on Dartmouth Street, eyeing the auto mechanic’s shop across the street and wondering about the Schlitz sign I saw on a building on Ferry Street. I wonder: do people still actually drink Schlitz? And are there some people that prefer it? I wonder if the roads are ever smooth around here. And I wonder if now that I am here if I will miss the crazy, traffic clogged place I used to call home.

 
The Thinker

Between states

It took many more boxes. Toward the end it took a quick trip to our local Public Storage for a few extra boxes. It took many more boxes and many six packs of packaging tape. It took takeout from the local Silver Diner for breakfast on the day of the move, since our kitchen was all packed up. It took me following behind the moving crew after they emptied a room with a vacuum and/or a broom. It took a large trash bag to toss stuff into. For the moving crew, moving us out of our house took about nine hours, and it involved disassembling lots of furniture, wrapping our furniture in blankets and packing tape and moving awkward pieces of furniture down a harrowing flight of stairs. For my wife it took a trip to a retinal specialist.

There are times when I feel like I married a Calamity Jane. It happens with such regularity that I’ve come to anticipate her medical surprises at the worst possible moment. The other shoe is always ready to drop in my house, so naturally it happened on the night before we were to move four hundred miles. Cooking dinner was not an option the last night in our house, so my wife used the event as an excuse for fast food. On her way back from the Arby’s, her cornea tore, obscuring most of her vision in that eye. So for her moving day was partially spent at a retinal specialist’s office. As emergencies go this one went pretty well. She was seen right away and they did laser surgery on the spot. In two to three weeks she should be back to normal, assuming some other sort of minor emergency doesn’t happen before then.

So it was up to me to supervise the moving crew. Mostly they could be left alone while I fretted over events I could not control. Still, if you have to move yesterday turned out to be the perfect day for it. Temperatures hovered near seventy. Our trees were flowering and spreading petals on our lawn. The sun shown pleasantly through the trees and fluffy cumulus clouds adorned the sky. The doors were flung open while three white guys and a very big moving truck did their thing. Slowly the house that I inhabited for twenty one years emptied. Toward the end we were reduced to sitting in lawn chairs on our deck communicating with our smartphones. (The cable equipment had been returned to Verizon around noon.)

The red stuff went first, by which I mean boxes with red packing tape. They will go into our apartment in Easthampton, Massachusetts so must come off last, thus had to go in first. The rest of it is destined for a storage unit across the Connecticut River in Hadley, Massachusetts. Sometime in July or August when our house is finished, all our possessions will be reunited in Florence, Massachusetts. Eventually all the boxes will be emptied and recycled. My incessant dreams of boxes and packing tape will recede.

For now though we are playing our parts in a well planned time stream. For two nights we are inhabiting a bedroom at my sister’s house in Columbia, Maryland, about an hour away. Sunday morning will find us driving to Massachusetts in separate cars (yes, it’s okay for my wife to drive), and we will begin two nights in a hotel in Holyoke. Monday will find us at our apartment but without furniture. We need to meet the cable guy and get all the internet plumbing working. Tuesday we will meet the movers in Hadley and wait hours while they dump most of our stuff into a storage unit. Then we will follow them to Easthampton and watch them dump the rest into our apartment. We’ll also see our new house which should have a roof on, pick up the key to our mailbox, and discuss electrical connections with the builder.

By the 28th we’ll be back in Northern Virginia one last time. My wife has two doctors’ appointments, one with the retinal specialist. But mainly we will be there to settle on the purchase of our house, which means a few hours more cleaning our now empty house and hopefully meeting our daughter one morning for breakfast as well. On the 30th we’ll make one last trip back to New England, all obligations settled and home for real.

Meanwhile we are literally between states, two wayfarers trying to close one door in our lives while simultaneously opening another.

 
The Thinker

Not quite ready for Hillary

To no one’s surprise, Hillary Clinton is planning to finally confirm that yes, she is running for president in 2016. This will happen probably via a Twitter post tomorrow that will link to a video of her announcement. Officially she’s been undecided, but given all the backstage machinations going on within the Clinton camp it’s been obvious for months if not years that she was going to run. Thence she will be off on a listening tour. She has learned from previous campaigns that she does better when she is not giving speeches and when she is seen as relatable.

I hope I am not the only one out there feeling underwhelmed. It’s not that I can’t support her for president, particularly since there is not a sane Republican running for president. Hillary for President sounds about as exciting to me as a bowl of mushy oatmeal for breakfast. Maybe it’s good for me but most mornings I don’t want to eat it. I’m not sure who I am looking for, but it’s not Hillary Clinton.

For most on the Democratic left, the choice would be Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA), who will soon be my senator. I could get behind her of course if she were going to run, which she is not, even though I doubt she would be an effective president. She has been quite clear about not wanting to run for president. Hillary is not quite without competition. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley is running, some say in the hope to end up on her ticket. Former Republican governor of Rhode Island and Democratic senator Lincoln Chafee sounds like he will be running. And former Virginia senator Jim Webb sounds like he might do the same.

O’Malley is definitely politically left but is otherwise uninspiring. Lincoln Chafee is virtually unknown outside his tiny home state. Jim Webb is an intriguing possibility. He was a decent if unconventional senator, without much in the way of accomplishments for his six years in the senate, but with lots of interesting ideas that succumbed to the usual partisanship. Webb seemed happy to leave after a single term. However, Webb likes to flit from thing to thing. Flitting with the presidency is his current thing. He would be the closest thing to a non-controversial and mainstream candidate that the Democrats could nominate. Hillary brings baggage.

With Hillary I think: Is this really the best we can do? Perhaps so. Hillary hits all the right demographics. She is broadly popular, particularly among women. She is well known and won’t surprise us. We know all her dirt and in particular we know all of her husband’s dirt. We have seen her as First Lady, senator, candidate and secretary of state. As First Lady she was seen as uppity and controversial. As a senator she learned to be toned down and conventional. She also made some really bad calls, such as voting for the Iraq War resolution. As a candidate in 2008 she ran an overly scripted, haughty and very flawed campaign that was as exciting as, well, my bowl of morning oatmeal. Her only real political success was as our Secretary of State. That’s not a bad asset to bring to the presidency. Like it or not, foreign policy will occupy much of the next president’s time. It’s not something that voters will care much about.

What does she bring to a campaign? She brings an I’m not one of those nutty Republicans, pretty much any of whom with the possible exception of Jeb Bush are unelectable. Mostly she brings the undeniable fact that she is a woman with a serious chance of winning her party’s nomination. Seeing the mess so many men have made of the presidency, we’d like to see a female in that post in the hopes that she would bring more pragmatism and common sense to the office. Certainly the tone would be different, wouldn’t it?

Perhaps but tone doesn’t change much. The power dynamics will not change much when Obama exits stage right and if Clinton enters stage left. The senate has a decent chance of returning to Democratic control in 2016, but unless there is a huge wave election for Hillary the House will stay with the GOP. Districts are too tightly gerrymandered for a switch there. Democrats really have to hope they can win sufficient power in key states in 2020 when the next census takes place. Any first term for Hillary Clinton would look a lot like Obama’s current term.

So electing Hillary certainly won’t solve the gridlock in Congress or change the overall political dynamics. It would not surprise me if Republican misogyny toward Hillary replaces their obvious racism toward Obama. Clinton would certainly do her best to keep the status quo in place: no major changes on the Supreme Court or changed to entitlements. In that sense her presidency would feel comfortable. The biggest political problem today is actually within the Republican Party. They don’t know what they stand for. The libertarians and Wall Street Republicans loathe the social conservatives and visa versa. The party refuses to come down to earth and wants to chase bogeymen and impossible goals. Just like modern Christianity bears no resemblance to the religion Jesus founded, today’s Republican party bears no resemblance to Ronald Reagan’s vision of the party. It’s become impossibly twisted and bizarrely out of the mainstream.

A vote for Hillary is really a vote for more of the same, which is not necessarily bad given that with the reigns of power Republicans would likely be doing insane things like turning over our national parks to the private sector. However, there is nothing compelling about her candidacy, nothing to inspire voters other than she is a woman, and no coherent and inspiring message to rally around. The power of such a message should not be discounted. It provided a mandate for Barack Obama in 2008 and both a Democratic House and Senate. Real change happens when people have a strong motivation to vote, not just for a candidate, but also for candidates supporting a distinct and credible platform.

Given Clinton’s cautious nature, we are likely to see more of her 2008 campaign. It is likely to be carefully scripted and stage-managed. It will be a cautious and focus group tested campaign rather than a bold one. If Hillary were a man instead of a woman, would any of us vote for her with the same interest and enthusiasm? I doubt it. She would be another milquetoast Martin O’Malley, but much more centrist and likely less inspiring.

So I’m not ready for Hillary. I probably never will be. I can’t see myself voting for any of the crazy Republican candidates. If she wins the nomination she will likely get my vote. Unless she can demonstrate a passion and a compelling vision I’ve never seen from her I’ll probably dutifully vote for her. I just won’t feel inspired doing so.

 

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