Downsizing in retirement: My own observations, Part 1

I am nearing the completion of my downsizing, selling and moving out of an “estate” house and into a smaller condo.

I approached this subject with a posting here May 13, and said this would be an OJT experience.  I tried to preview the issues that could come up, and indeed there were a lot of unexpected twists.

It will take several postings to cover in detail some important points of what I learned from what actually happened, and some of this will be discussed with more specifics on my “doaskdotellnotes” blog where I talk about my obligations under my own trust.

I did want to hit one point hard tonight: the value of decluttering before downsizing. The house had a lot of unnecessary “stuff’ (kitchen related) that my parents had used.  I have also accumulated a lot of books and CD’s over the years, partly before my life played out largely before you could put your collections in the Cloud in digital format. I also had a lot of personal papers on various matters (like substitute teaching, and various matters concerning the original publication of my books).  Finally I had a lot of excess clothing.

 

 

What struck me was the amount of manual labor required to pack (by the moving company) and to haul away the junk (by junk removal companies, which I had really started before, especially with excess furniture).  All of this was on top of some furniture donations through the realtor to hurricane victims.

I remember on some volunteer assignments how much effort goes into sorting used clothing for distribution to clients in various community assistance and service events.  It takes a lot of time to deal with an unneeded item, either to give it away to someone who would really need it, or to dispose of it safely.  It does add perspective on volunteerism, which  may be more of a matter of hours and time than I used to think.

(Posted: Thursday, November 16, 2017, at 7L30 PM EST)

Humans belong to groups (more the way dogs do, than cats); the paradox of distributed consciousness and mandatory competition

Okay, one of the moral imperatives I get bombarded with is to join a cause larger than myself.

And, I can’t claim to be part of Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation (but neither can many young adults in the not so wild West today).

In fact, as an “unbalanced personality” in the world of the Paul Rosenfels Community (or the Ninth Street Center of the 1970s through 1991) it’s very important to me to follow goals that I choose and develop myself.

That’s one reason why I don’t sign up to brand myself with “other people’s causes” or to enter contests, say selling pies for Food and Friends (instead I buy more than one and use the extras for potlucks).

And I could say I wish I had accomplished more in my life in individual sport – chess, which deteriorated for me somewhat once I became a self-published author and blogger.  (I do admire Magnus Carlsen, but so does Donald Trump, from what I hear.)   In chess, only your own mistakes can beat you.  Giving away the opposition in an endgame isn’t the same thing as hanging a slider as a MLB pitcher.

But, we always belong to something (as Martin Fowler maintained in his 2014 book (“You Always Belonged and You Always Will: A Philosophy of Belonging”).  Some of these we don’t have a lot of choice about.  For example the family you are born into, or religion, or nationality, or tribe.

As we become adults we hopefully make progress in choosing our own connections, but we often find that once we do, we need to respect to “social hierarchy” of our new allegiances, however benevolent their intentions at the outset. That’s often hard for me to accept.

But “groups” serve a purpose.  They give individuals support and backup, so they don’t remain accidents waiting to happen. (Marriage does that, of course, which is one reason, as Jonathan Rauch argued in the 1990s, gay marriage became important to LGBTQ people.)  And they give us purposes larger than ourselves.  But, these purposes come at the partial cost of loss of some independence in fine tuning our own beliefs or over-analyzing the logical inconsistences in positions taken by groups to benefit their members.  An expectation that singleton individuals with some privilege (like me) will report to some sort of structured community engagement might be viewed as a major “eusocial” tool against inequality.

In practice, individuals share some of the moral responsibility and consequences, sometimes very personally, of the actions of the groups to which they belong, whether by complete free will or not.

Yet, individuals seem to find some relief in the prospect of a little “distributed consciousness”.  We know this happens in other animals (even dolphins), although the modern idea of IIT or “integrated information theory” may make this hard to see.

Before (like on June 6), I’ve noted that, in the larger space-time sense of modern physics and string theory, after passing of an individual’s life, the information set produced by that life still exists indefinitely.  Is that the basis for a “soul”?  But if there is some sort of distributed consciousness at the group level (even family lineage), does it have access to this information set?

Music may provide a clue to “cosmic consciousness”, more so than visual art (even images of danganonpa dolls) because it requires the brain to span time.  Music seems to provide an alternative outlet for the “emotional body” when it engages the brain in its own logical progressions, from Back to Beethoven to the romantics and moderns.  The controversy over how to end Bruckner’s Ninth Symphony (which of two competing concepts did Bruckner intend for his coda for all his composition?) seems to engage the heart as well as mind.  What, then, to make of the group experience in music like, say, hip-hop on the disco floor, or songs of praise in church, particularly singing the same verse in unison over and over again to get some sort of religious experience.  There are other ways to caste the experience of sound and music, like hemi-sync at the Monroe Institute, which I have not really experienced yet.

There’s one other ancillary point here:  the Paradox of Involuntary Competition. That is, once you join a group, you compete with others in the group for status, even if your purpose was “functionably” communal (Nov. 6)    That could lead the powers-that-be in a group to want to keep it small and exclusive (like those “closed talk groups” at the Ninth Street Center in the 1970s, an interview for which led to a major personal confrontation in October 1974, so shortly soon after I had moved into the Village).  But it’s just as often that the leadership wants the group to be so valuable that everyone else must try to get in and play – the whole “no spectators” problem like in the movie “Rebirth”).  That ultimately can compare to the model particularly for left-wing authoritarianism. There’s a curious analogy to the problems I had in the dorms at William and Mary that fall of 1961. I would have thought at other boys – most of all my roommate – would be relieved that I wouldn’t provide any romantic competition for girl friends .  That general expectation may have been diluted by the fact that at the time the male student body was about twice the female. But the real point was that the less secure boys (about their own “maleness” which does not always equate to masculinity, even in the eyes of Milo Yiannopoulos) wanted me to provide the reassurance that there really is someone (female, of the opposite sex) for everyone, that everyone can have a family linage and live forever however vicariously.

(Posted: Wednesday, November 8, 2017 at 9:30 PM EDT)

After the Equifax breach, we need a policy solution for identity theft

While CNN Money has a pretty mainstream article of advice on the Equifax hack here, a supplementary article by David Goldman lays it on the line, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

The absolute worst might be being framed for a crime, like sex trafficking or child pornography.  In most circumstances that a novelist can imagine, it would still be pretty easy to prove that physically the culprit couldn’t have been “you”.  There are a variety of other outcomes, including job loss or denial or a mortage or lease. For millennials, the risk can extend for decades.  For seniors, it’s probably very minimal.

One comment that gets made by social conservatives particularly (and some libertarians) is that you are ultimately responsible for your own reputation, no matter what, because you live in a society that offers you the benefits of civilization.  I can remember an employer warning us about this in the late 1980s when we suddenly had to pass credit checks to keep our jobs.   I can remember that ten years ago there were prosecutors who looked at finding child pornography on a personal computer as an “strict  liability offense”, although since they they have accepted the idea that malware can put it there. This seems to be a very disturbing philosophy that transcends the plain meaning idea of the law normally, and that most of us cannot live with (especially those on the margins).

Maybe maintaining credit freezes would protect everyone, but it sounds pretty impractical in the long run.

So I think that in the identity theft idea, we need a new policy solution.  I had outlined an idea back in 2006 using “National Change of Address” at USPS, which I had worked on in Minneapolis on my own career back in 1998.

Now I would say, the credit reporting companies should develop the idea of a secondary social security number verifier, which a user can add to her file, and which could not have been hacked yet because it does not yet exist.   I would not be so comfortable with letting the Social Security administration run it. Get some security companies (not Kaspersky, in Russia) to help develop it.  It could be put into two-step verification required to pull a credit report, although it so it would need to be tied to sim cards and not just to phone numbers, which can also be stolen.

(Posted: Sunday, September 17, 2017 at 9:15 AM)

“Stability” really matters, for people who already have capital (earned or inherited)

OK, I am “retired”, and I “depend” on past accumulated wealth, much earned but some inherited, to keep these blogs going because they don’t pay for themselves.  They don’t require much money (or Piketty-style capital) to run in the grand scheme of things, but they depend on stable infrastructure, security, and stable economic and personal circumstances for me.

Yes, stability.  And judging from the “outside world” events of recent weeks, it doesn’t sound like something I can count on as much as I have.

For most of my adult working life, I was very much in command of the possibility for my own mistakes to undo me and possibly end my stable I.T. career (as with bad elevations into production).

But early in my life I was forced to be much more aware of eternal demands by the community I was brought in.  Gender conformity had to do with that.  Then came the military draft and Vietnam.  There was an expectation of eventually having a family even if running a gauntlet that could expose me to some personal fair share of community hazards.  This had much more to do with my own “mental health” problems in the age 19-21 range than I probably realized (including a brush with nihilism in 1964).

It is true, of course, that my employment could be affected by outside business events like mergers and takeovers, but in my case these actually worked out in my favor.  And earlier in my work life I was concerned about staying near a large city (New York) where it would be easier for me to “come out”;  the energy crisis was actually a threat to my mobility, as was potentially NYC’s “drop dead” financial meltdown when I was (finally) living there.

So it is, in retirement.  If you have accumulated wealth, you want the world to be stable so you don’t have to watch your back, and face sudden expropriation because of political deterioration (maybe combined with a natural catastrophe).  You want to believe if you pay your bills, make good choices, and play by the “rules” you will be OK.  And you find people knocking for attention your life, and you have to deal with the knowledge that they didn’t have the situational stability that “you” did.

It’s possible to find one’s life suddenly becomes a political bargaining chip. For example, Congress could try to means-test Social Security recipients (even current one) as part of its debt (and debt ceiling) issue.

I have to say I do have a gut reaction from “extremists”, whether associated with Communism (North Korea) or radical Islam, who make threats that sound personal, as if they saw someone like me as a personal enemy.  I do understand the racial contact, that some people will take statements (hate speech) made on the alt-right that way, also. But combativeness has become a problem that I had not anticipated throughout most of my working life.

It is true, also, that the most extreme scenarios from foreign enemies could reduce me personally to nothing.  The conservative Weekly Standard, after 9/11, liked to use the term, being “brought low” because of the resentment of others.  In the North Korean threat, there are many nuances.  The right wing talks about EMP, and the major media refuses to mention it.  It could become a real threat, but my own probing of the utility world suggests it is making some progress in making transformers less vulnerable (to “E3” threats, also posed by extreme solar storms).  (The power companies won’t say exactly what they are doing, for good security reasons.)  Personal electronics, cars, and data can face threats from a different mechanism (“E1”) which actually might be easier for an enemy (including retaliation by the DPRK) to pull off.  This is a developing topic that the major media just doesn’t want to cover yet (outside of cyberwar, which is better known, as with the psychological warfare implications of the Sony hack).

I have to say, too, that for one’s life to come to an end out of political expropriation or violence is particularly ugly.  I was privileged enough to avoid Vietnam combat, and I was “safe” enough not to get HIV, which previously could have been the most dangerous threats I faced.  I was economically stable for my entire work career, which sometime after 9/11.  I did have some family cushion.

The basic reaction from most people is to “belong” to something bigger than the self.  I think all this relates to “the afterlife” and I won’t get into that further right here. In retirement, I’ve had to deal with constant reminders of how narrow my capacity for personal intimacy can be, even if it can be intense in the right circumstances.  Yes, now I have to throw the “psychological defenses” (Rosenfels) to maintain my personal independence and stop being dragged into the causes as others.  Solidarity alone seems rather alien to me, even if I can’t count on affording that kind of attitude forever.

Again, as to the “belonging” idea, throughout history, individuals have suffered because of the actions of their leadership.  In Biblical times, it was considered morally appropriate that all members of a tribe be punished together for “disobedience” (to “Jehovah”).  In modern times, it’s the “everybody gets detention for the sins of one in middle school” problem,

I want to reemphasize my intention so see all my own media initiatives through.  That includes getting a novel out in early 2018, trying to market a screenplay, getting some of my music (written over 50 years, some of it embedded in two big sonatas) performed.  The best chance to make some of this pay for itself would be to get some (perhaps conservative) news outlets interested in some of my blog content, especially in undercovered areas (power grid security, filial responsibility laws, downstream liability protections in online speech scenarios including copyright, defamation, and implicit content (which can include criminal misuse like trafficking).  The intention is to help solve problems in non-partisan manners away from the bundled demands common with “identity politics”.

I tend not to respond to demands for mass “solidarity” with so many other causes, and I usually am not willing to “pimp” someone else’s causes as my own.  But I realize I could be riding on partially unearned privilege, which can become dangerous.  Indeed, having inherited wealth subsumes a responsibility to address needs as they arise;  to ignore them would be tantamount to stealing. I tend to think that helping others is easier if you are in a relationship or have had kids (that became an issue when I was working as a substitute teacher).  I think there can be situations where one has to be prepared to accept others as dependents and “play family” (and this often happens in estate and inheritance situations anyway, although it did not specifically in my own situation). We saw this idea in films like “Raising Helen” and in the TV series “Summerland”.

I’ll mention that it looks like I’m selling the estate house and moving out in October. That would remove the hosting opportunities for now; but, after downsizing, it could make other volunteering much easier and even open up the possibility of volunteer travel (although I need to stay “connected” at all times when traveling as it is now).

I have to add that taking on dependents grates against complacency. It means more willingness to sell other people’s messages rather than on sticking to your own.  Our culture has developed a certain split personality: resistance to sales people or middlemen and to being contacted by cold calls (the robocall and cold call problem), yet an expectation of voluntary personal generosity and inclusivity online.

The sudden announcement of the intended termination of DACA is a good example of how instability affects those less fortunate. Although I really believe Congress will fix it in the required six months, today “dreamers” would have to deal with employers or schools who are uncertain as to what their legal status might be in less than a year.

(Posted: Tuesday, September 5, 2017, at 7 PM EDT)

Retirees could face rental qualification issues as they downsize

This blog is not the normal place where I discuss personal history details, but personal experience does jive with policy and business issues for me when it comes to retirement and growing older, just as it has with gay issues.

I did come out of my “career ending” (so to speak) IT layoff at the end of 2001 with ING (now Voya) in better shape than most, with very ample severance and retirement pension.  And I did land from a seven-plus year eldercare experience, with a lot of hired caregiver help in the last 18 months (over $100,000 worth) much better of that I might have.  For example, in 2013 the “estate” amounted to private insurance to cover my dental implants (no, Medicare doesn’t cover them).

You don’t get to drop out of the competitive world and yet stay in “public life” (to quote one of actor Anthony Hopkins’s more notorious characters) forever, as you know it is a mathematical certainty that you will have a last day, a last supper (so to speak), a last plane trip, a last film, a last blog post. At some point it is likely (though not certain) that “my” brain will have to deal with the idea that it is over.  It gives me more reason to ponder the afterlife (the “Focus” areas as much as the Hallow Heavens, as the Monroe Institute puts it), the nature of how “I-ness” (a “strange loop” of Hofstadter) embeds itself into some sort of permanent distributed consciousness.

One of the issues is downsizing.  I am in an “inherited” house, which technically belongs to a trust.  There can occur some situations where this could be risky (like recovering from a big natural disaster).  It could be easier for me to focus on my “journalism”, fiction and music if I was in a modern, secure building, like I was in Minneapolis (the Churchill) from 1997-2003.  I could be more credible with others.  Yes, I have “space”, but housing others involves time and risk and is hard to set up to do properly (this has come up with the asylum seeker issue, as I have written here before). There is a particular risk of holding real estate assets whose value could disappear in a major WMD terror attack.  Yes, we don’t like to talk about it.  Renting might be safe.  Of course, you can get into Stansberry (or Ron Paul) -like debates on how personal nest eggs can disappear quickly because of global currency manipulation – who knows where Donald Trump’s stumbles can lead? I do understand the appeal of the doomsday prepper position after all, but am not equipped to deal with it. I remain dedicated to solving problems and making civilization work and sustainable.  (Hey, I voted for Hillary.  I wanted Al Gore in 2000, and we might have avoided 9/11 and the War in Iraq.)

I’ve recently started looking at the issue of how retirees who have assets but less income than normally qualify for an apartment.  I covered this on a legacy blog post in late April after looking into this a little while in NYC.   I would much rather live in a secure building with the “general population” than in a 55+ community, which is probably more expensive but may be easier to qualify.  Some of these communities are located farther in the exurbs (or all over Florida) and it would be hard to reach normal urban cultural activities from them – but some have their own theaters, for example.  Many senior centers bring in artists to perform but they are likely to be less intellectually challenging and more conventionally “popular”.

I’ve seen many comments that many apartment developments, those run by large property companies, do not want to use savings for qualification.  I can understand the reluctance:  investments can lose value, or be spent.  It sounds as if it is possible to convert (by having your financial institution sell some assets and set it up) some savings to secured cash accounts, for a year’s rent, and this may work with some landlords.  You would want to keep your name on rent for future periods (beyond a normal security deposit) in case something catastrophic happens to the building. That may or may not be safer than having cash tied up in conventional condo or co-op ownership.

Sometimes builders buy tear-downs from seniors in houses and let them live rent-free for a while, during which period the senior needs to find an apartment.  A senior might need to do it this way to have the cash to set up such a rent deposit account. Furthermore, pension income or even social security income could go down in the future due to problems at a previous employer or due to a more hostile political climate.

I was also told, and this seems disconcerting for someone with little family left, that the senior should be prepared to provide references to the landlord.  This is difficult if he or she hasn’t worked steadily in years but has lived on assets.  It does suggest that, given longer life spans and fewer kids,  seniors should consider trying to work as along as possible — even if it means some objectionable consumerist and myopic personal hucksterism — rather than ride on assets and play the pundit game (as I did).   There was a hint to use volunteer organizations for references.  But imagine the coercion involved in such an idea.  That gives the bureaucracy of larger charities in a position to judge the characters and reputations of people who need references – and encourages some charities to put more pressure on retirees to support their narrowly focused agendas.  This is a very disturbing comment.

I won’t go too far further into this problem here today, but in the past I’ve gotten feedback that it is difficult to be effective in any volunteer organization without really “belonging” to the group.  I’ll go into this more in another post soon.  Again, rather disturbing, but it is part of the whole problem of maintaining social capital among people without their own families, as even some libertarian writers like Charles Murray have noted.

Typical 55+ discussion.

(Posted on Saturday, May 13, 2017 at 3 PM EDT)

Guest Post: “How to Avoid Becoming a Financial Burden on your Kids”

Americans are living longer than ever, which means retirement could last 20 to 30 years for some people – maybe even longer.

That’s great for those who remain in reasonably good health and retire with plenty of financial stability.

But lengthy life spans also increase the odds that many seniors will deplete their savings, face debilitating health problems and need to turn to their children for financial help or caregiving.

That’s a far cry from the kind of retirement they dreamt of over the years.

“I’ve done focus groups where one of the chief concerns that comes up is people don’t want to become a burden on their kids,” says Jeannette Bajalia, a retirement-income planner, president of Woman’s Worth® (www.womans-worth.com) and author of Retirement Done Right and Wi$e Up Women.

It’s really too late to do much, though, when you’re 80 and your life starts unraveling.

That’s why it’s important to plan ahead to get your finances and health in the best shape possible, she says. Among some of the points worth thinking about:

• Unanticipated health care costs. It’s estimated that the average married couple will need to pay up to $250,000 in out-of-pocket expenses for healthcare during their retirement, beyond what Medicare and most Medicare Supplements will pay. “We’re beginning to see a lot of cost shifting out of both Medicare programs and private health plans, which means more out-of-pocket healthcare costs,” Bajalia says. “It’s entirely possible that the savings you thought would allow you to travel or to at least pay all the bills could be gobbled up by medical expenses. As you plan for retirement, you should make it a priority to discuss this concern with your adviser so the two of you can look at what options you might have to try to keep that from happening.”

• Long-term care planning. When it comes to aging, consider the possibility you might have to receive home healthcare or live in a nursing home or an assisted-living facility. The costs of such care can be daunting. For example, studies have shown that home healthcare can cost $50,000 or more per year, and nursing home care can run as high as 90,000 per year. “You don’t want your kids to have to pay for that,” Bajalia says. There are ways to prepare, such as buying a long-term care insurance policy or checking with a financial professional to help you develop a strategy for protecting your assets from nursing-home claims, she says.

• Self-care. Not every financial professional may do this, but Bajalia says she believes it’s important to integrate health education and a lot of self-care into a retirement plan. Spending money on preventive health routines to take care of yourself now can help you avoid significant health problems that lead to even costlier expenses later on, she says.  Research is now telling us that longevity is over 70 percent lifestyle.

“I know it’s important to older people that they be able to remain independent as long as possible and not have to turn to their children to help,” Bajalia says. “They just need to remember that careful planning is the route to accomplishing that.”

And one of the planning tools would be to help fund long term care insurance for your aging parents to keep assets in their estates, she says, so long term care is not simply for yourself but for your aging parents.

About Jeannette Bajalia

Jeannette Bajalia, author of Retirement Done Right and Wi$e Up Women, is president and principal advisor of Petros Estate & Retirement Planning, where she has designed and implemented innovate estate-planning solutions for clients and their families. She also is founder and president of Woman’s Worth® , which specializes in the unique needs facing women as they plan for their retirement.

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(Posted: Monday, January 23, 2017 at 6:45 PM EST)

“Moral Hazard”: some of us ask others to pay for our risks

“Moral hazard”, as an economic concept, really has little to do with everyday notions of “moral compass” or “deservedness”.  Rather, it refers to a situation where one party (often an individual person) uses more of a particular resource than he/she/it normally would because another party will pay for part of the cost, without that paying party’s direct knowledge or consent.

At the outset, however, the term seems related to our ideas about personal morality in the context of wealth and/or income inequality, because people often benefit from the unseen sacrifices (unelected costs) born by others.  Politically, the issue does get mixed into Marxist-related ideas about “to each according to his needs”, but also “from each according to his ability” must somehow be compelled.  It gets to be anti-libertarian.

The most obvious area where moral hazard will come up is in health insurance.  Some people will use more health care resources than others because they are inclined to be sicker.  Over a lifetime, age is less of an issue because we will all eventually die and all face increased risk of illness as we get older, so a “morally” appropriate strategy to deal with this problem can be imagined (whether Medicare achieves this is another debate).

Employer-based health insurance, as became common after WWII, tended to use moral hazard because some people in a company used it more than others.  The same is true when you try to regulate the individual market, and especially when you try to compel purchase of insurance, as with the Affordable Care Act (or “Obamacare”).

As an economic principle, when someone with a pre-existing condition uses medical services covered by insurance (without any surcharges) then that person is leveraging moral hazard, whether or not the condition is strictly inherited (genetic), or whether it involves the person’s behavioral “choices”.  As a “moral” (in the other sense) matter, probably most Americans think that genetic pre-existing conditions (like Type 1 diabetes or many childhood cancers) should be covered by the public in some way.  I have suggested that any health care rewrite under a Trump presidency would envision setting un a reinsurance company (public and private) to pay the additional health care expenses attributable to pre-existing conditions, so this issue doesn’t affect ordinary peoples’ premiums (and help lead to the escalation reported in the news shortly before the 2016 presidential election, which may be a bigger reason for Hillary Clinton’s electoral college loss than “the Russians”, fake news, or Comey and email-gate).  But it most be noted that right now, that even with the premium increases, it seems that insurance companies are getting stiffed by the federal government on the pre-existing condition issue (story).

But it is likely that there would be political (and culture-based) disputes on how to cover illness or injury related to behaviors.  The list is long:  cigarette smoking, drug-use, obesity (to the extent that it is perceived as overeating), for openers.  The last two of these behaviors (at least) probably have genetic influences as well as personal choices (the “thrifty gene” in native peoples and obesity and Type II diabetes).  You could add sexual behaviors, such as the “chain-letter” problem in the male homosexual community and HIV.  That aspect is today Themuch less than it was in the 1980s and early 90s, but still, modern successful clinical management of HIV can with protease inhibitors can cost about $60000 a year, or maybe $3 million in the lifetime of a young adult male.  You can also add sporting behaviors that have general social approval, like playing football and concussion risks.

Then, there is gender.  In purely economic terms, gender is the ultimate pre-existing condition.  Women have childbirth expenses and men, literally do not.  Women live longer than men, and their eldercare is likely to cost more (although today custodial care in old age is not normally covered by Medicare but may be covered by long term care insurance, which women are more likely to “use” than men).  Within families, generally husband and wife regard pregnancy as a joint experience and cost.  But in a total insurance pool, childless people would contribute premiums to pay for “other people’s children” (“OPC”).

The next place where “moral hazard” comes into play is workplace benefits, especially the push for paid family leave.  I’ve noted before that it is more “egalitarian” to offer parental leave to both parents than only maternity leave (which is all Trump wants to offer).  Most tech companies offer parental.  It is even more “egalitarian” to include adoption leave, and eldercare leave for caring for parents.  All of this costs a lot (I like charging another insurance premium deduction and making it at least contributory, so workers have to understand what it going on – rather than making employers (or “shareholders”) foot the entire bill out of anti-capitalist sentiment).  A benefit that most workers would eventually use becomes less a “moral hazard” situation.  But part of the paid leave problem is that when someone is out, other workers often do their jobs (even being on call for production problems in the I.T. world) without any more pay, often incurring personal sacrifices and expenses themselves.  Obama has been trying to fix this with new rules about overtime pay for salaried workers, but Trump is likely to roll that back.  But in the worst situation, a single or childless person bears personally some of the cost for a married co-worker’s sexual passion (as in “the Song of Solomon”).

There are other examples of moral hazard, as in finance, with the “securitization” of so many financial instruments (like mortgages), leading to the hiding of downstream risks and unsustainabilities, contributing to the subprime mortgage meltdown and then the financial crisis in 2008.  The bailouts amounted to the processing of moral hazard.

Although not usually viewed in an economic sense, we can relate other issues, like past military conscription (and the deferment history) as “real” moral hazard.  Like it or not, one’s own life (and assets) become behind-the-back bargaining chips for politicians to play.  Likewise, calls for volunteer work often involve a spontaneity that resists examination of the serious risks one is called upon to take to benefit others, and this brings us around from traditional economics to social capital.

“Scruffy hospitality”: especially for having friends over to watch baseball

wl23

On a humid Wednesday morning, July 29, 1959, about a month before I was to start my junior year in Washington-Lee High School in Arlington VA (with that American history class from the world’s greatest social studies teacher of all time, Simon Korczowski ) and compose my big D Minor piano sonata (on snow days 6 months later), I rode over with my father to the barber shop (still there) in Westover in Arlington VA.  This was the first morning back after we had ridden home from Kipton, Ohio on the Pennsylvania Turnpike (four tunnels then) and the Washington Post newspaper delivery hadn’t been restarted yet.  Right outside the barber shop, I saw a news stand with the morning Post, and a sports banner on top, “A’s Hop on Pascual, too, 6-1” (game )

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The Washington Senators, who had started out the baseball season decently, had just lost their tenth game in a row.  The Kansas City Athletics had won their ninth.  This had been a “late” game in the Midwest (and at the time, KCMO didn’t have DST), but somehow the Post edition at the barber shop was late enough to have all the scores.  Less than ten years later I would complete graduate school in that area.  Camilo Pascual had been the Nats one ace (comparable to Stephen Strasburg or Max Scherzer this year). The Senators would lose every game on a western trip (in those days, the West comprised Kansas City, Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland), for the first time ever.  The streak would end at 18 at home a week later with a second game twi-night 9-0 shutout over the Cleveland Indians, tossed by Tex Clevenger.

How well I remember baseball then – us kids even had, at one time, run a “league” in our own backyards (previous post).  OK, the point of this sermon – I could “feel” I was part of something “bigger than myself.”  From my earliest beginnings of hating sports, I rooted for the doomed Senators, in a representing a Nation’s capital city polarized by racial divisions that nobody would talk about, a city seriously compromised by the lack of democracy (call it “home rule”.  From a self-interest viewpoint, rooting for losers like the Senators made no sense. (The Redskins didn’t do well then, either.)  The Senators would do much better in the 1960 season, then suddenly move to Minnesota (where I would live 1997-2003 – funny how what goes around returns).

I recall that I didn’t even understand how baseball worked until third grade – that balls are batted and caught or fielded.  The physics (watching batted balls ricochet off the Green Monster in Fenway Park in Boston) was tantalizing. My third grade teacher and reported about my demanding too much attention and not having any feeling of affinity for my team or “group”.  How often today in MLB do we hear about “team” wins when a key star player had been injured?

Let me jump to another scenario, a sermon a few weeks ago at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Arlington VA, by Judith Fulp-Eickstaedt, where she spoke of “scruffy hospitality”.  She’s referring just being prepared to welcome guests in your home at any time without the necessity for ritual cleaning to perfection for company. That follows on a sermon from Oct. 27, 2012 when she talked about “radical hospitality”  one day before Hurricane Sandy was due.  (We had been through the power outages from the June 29 derecho).  As it would happen, there was little damage or inconvenience from Sandy here – the brief period of sudden low barometric pressure (and brief high winds) actually cleared up some hip arthritis I was having – nature’s cure.   I’ve heard the hospitality thing before – once being asked if I would consider using my home for a partisan fundraiser – oh, where was this coming from?   Of course, the hospitality thing comes up with so many real disasters – wildfires in the west, floods in West Virginia and recently Ellicott City, MD, but we’ll come back to that.

As for incidental hospitality, most of the social gatherings I attend are in public venues, often bars and restaurants (or, depending on the group, church gyms ready for “Godly play”, or even major league sports stadiums).  Not many are in private homes any more.  They were a lot more common when I was growing up (and, yes, my mother cleaned for them – I remember those shrimp creole dinner parties on winter Saturday nights.)

But “scruffy hospitality” goes along with another idea, something like “Lotsa Helping Hands”.  Churches (synagogues, and mosques) typically set this community up among their own fellowships.  Here’s were “socialization” comes down.  “You” are a member of a group before you express yourself as an individual.  Your content has no meaning until others benefit from it.  Others need to matter to you in a way that’s up close and personal.

The “helping hands” mentality is at odds with an individualistic “mind your own business” culture, to be sure.  When someone like me “returns” to a mainstream church – no matter how liberally politically (and today more and more mainstream churches support ideas like marriage equality, whatever the fringes are trying to do with “religious freedom” and the “bathroom bills”).  It is very difficult for me to step into a world like this and feel very welcome, because, for one thing, I never had my own kids.  I would be difficult for me to accept the idea of a “free ride” at work for a “new mom” (paid maternity leave) without wondering if I were being compelled to “sacrifice” for someone else’s benefit that I would never use.

So here we get to the heart of socialization – you have to start by belonging somewhere.  That was the point of Martin Fowler’s book on the subject.  If you “belong” you will feel natural empathy and willingness to chip in, even (to quote Judith) “when it costs you something”.  There’s been a lot written about this the past few days – in reaction to the aggressive hyper individualism of Donald Trump.

For example, David Brooks invokes Sebastian Junger’s new booklet “Tribe” in his piece “The Great Affluence Fallacy”; and then there’s a dual between Robert Putnam and libertarian Charles Murray over communitarianism, as implied in this book review invoking “I v. We” on Vox of Putman’s “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis”.   Then an effective LTE (“Loners can’t be fixers” ) slams Kathleen Parker’s libertarian interpretation of conservatism  in the Washington Post , Parker curiously had invoked Russell Kirk’s “10 Conservative Principles”, rather moralistic and proto-communitarian, where Kirk writes (in point 9) that power is, in political terms, “the ability to do as one likes, regardless of the wills of one’s fellows”.

The place where most people develop socialization is supposed to be the “natural family”, to borrow a term from a 2009 “manifesto” by Carlson and Mero.  (Sounds like saying “Most people walk in the direction they’re heading” – Shane’s famous admonition to Danny in “Judas Kiss”.)   Particularly, older kids are likely to learn to take care of younger siblings.  (I remember a mother’s saying that to me when I was working a Census survey in 2011 – like this was an off-the-wall moral imperative.)  That means that older kids in a family may have more opportunity to learn the personal value of “family” in relation to personalized achievement goals.  That may be one reason why younger kids may be less conventional or more “liberal” or rebellious, and insistent on their own paths.  Younger sons may be more likely to be gay for biological reasons having to do with epigenetics, but they also may have less opportunity to learn the “value” of becoming a future father and provider.   This all gets blown out – in reviewing a silly mainstream Hollywood comedy film on July 28 I noted David Skinner’s old-fashioned take on a supposed duty of men to become providers and protectors. And without the “reward” of having a family of one’s own (which in my generation required procreative sexual intercourse in most cases) it’s hard to fit in to a community centered around caring for other generations.  Family is the first place you learn to “love” people in a closed space unconditionally, regardless of “ability” (to borrow from Marx); it’s the first community where you learn to have each other’s backs.  In practice, that’s a big reason to need “relationships”. If you really want to learn more about “family values”, study the “distributed consciousness” of the (non-human person) orca (story). Cetaceans know no geography (or “Global Pursuit”).

Of course, that’s changing – with acceptance of gay marriage and of same-sex couples as parents.  That doesn’t “help” me “fit in” all that much.  I have to run on the record I have, and on what was possible earlier in my life in setting myself up.

So, then, what about all the other “communities” I “joined” during my adult life.  The most important may have been the Ninth Street Center  in New York in the 1970s.  Various others included the Oak Lawn Counseling Center in Dallas and then Whitman Walker in Washington, to volunteer for PWA’s, and social groups like Chrysalis and Adventuring, and there are others.  And of course there are political groups.  But in a couple of cases there have been incidents where I believe I did an “OK thing” and someone else thought something I did was wrong because I somehow didn’t “belong” enough to the group to know what was really going on behind the lines.

That leads to another place – whether knowledge should really be acquired in the “It’s Free” mode – the debate about open access, and even kicked off by Reid Ewing’s little short film about a public library.  A lot of people think that knowledge should come down through a family or social structure.  The Rosicrucian Order teaches that mystical knowledge is acquired as one moves through various levels of initiation (but then, so does Scientology).  Then, there is the “no spectators” mentality so well acted in the recent sci-fi film “Rebirth” (indeed, no “alien anthropologists” like me or Mark Zuckerberg).

There is a practical reality that today many people may not have total freedom to join other communities (for “socialization”) beyond their original family.  Of course, that’s the case in authoritarian societies, but even in democratic cultures, aging populations tend to keep people tethered.  The hard reality is that people need to take care of others outside of their own scope of choice sometimes, and find meaning in doing so.  We find this a hard thing to say.

Families do indeed have a problem letting go.  “Family” is supposed to be the place people learn to belong to a community, but some families never allow their members to move on beyond “taking care of their own”.  (See the David Brooks piece, July 15;  Murray had explained this in terms of social capital types, like “bridge capital” which grows out of “bonding capital”, but not always reliably.)

Many churches actually do reach out abroad, sending youth or college-age groups overseas, to Central America or sometimes even Africa, for missions or service — setting up a process where young adults learn to bond with others from cultures very different (and much less individualistic) than theirs.  The church mentioned above has a summer mission trip to Belize, and has even made a short film showing the bonding,  worthy of festival submission (like DC Shorts), in my view, at least.

As for me, I find it hard to stomach the idea of wearing somebody else’s uniform in public, or someone else’s protest flag.  Yes, earlier in my life, some of “identity politics” made sense (I marched in my first “Christopher Street Liberation Say” in New York City in 1973).  Individualism, and the narrow idea of personal responsibility (focused most of visible consequences for deliberate personal choices) has actually served me well in most of my adult life (for example, avoiding HIV). I’ve gotten away with viewing most people through the lens of “upward affiliation”, not from the meaning that would come from actually being needed in more down-to-earth ways by them.  But I’ve been lucky.  Yet, I do hold to the belief that no matter what happens to someone or what someone is born into, some of the responsibility for that person’s karma stays with that person, isn’t the automatic obligation of social policy.

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As for baseball:  Yes, Richard Harmon wants to pitch one game for his favorite San Francisco Giants, and thanks to Max Scherzer’s wife for helping set up Pride Night at Nationals Park.  One day, MLB will have a transgender pitcher; it’s sure to happen.

(Posted: Wednesday, August 10, 2016 at 2 PM EDT)

Yes, society, starting with the family, expects those of us who are “different” to fit in; talk about “social capital” and “rightsizing”

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It’s a given that gender itself is biologically immutable.  I’ve never been a fan of depending on classifying people by “born this way” groups.  But it’s pretty clear that a lot of other characteristics associated with gender are at least largely biological, maybe epigenetic.  That would include sexual orientation and gender identity, which gives you “2**3”  or 8 combinations.  If you add the personality specifications developed by Paul Rosenfels (the Ninth Street Center in the 1970s), that is polarity (psychologically feminine or masculine – again different from all the others) and action bias (subjective or objective), you get “2**5” or 32 combinations.  No language could come close to having 32 pronouns or case endings for all possible gender-related personality combinations. Maybe an alien civilization 1400 light years away (Tabby’s Star, which might have a Dyson’s Sphere around it) could have done this with digital languages and reproductive robotics. “I will accept nothing less.”

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Most societies develop expectations about how people with various kinds of dispositions fit in.

A critical question will be, does the society value all “human” or “personhood” life within the group?  If so, it will develop expectations for the way everyone is socialized.  Now some societies (like Nazi Germany in the past) did not value even all of “their own”.  (Sparta in ancient Greece sounds like a good comparison.)  Others, like hyper-communist societies (Maoism during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, and later groups like the Khmer Rouge (of Pol Pot) or today’s North Korea) pretend to achieve “equality” by bringing almost everybody equally low and poor, and then often eliminate the weakest members in Nazi style anyway.  (We could get into a discussion of whether Stalin was worse than Hitler.)

Societies may actually be fairly egalitarian with their own people, but very brutal with any other groups that they perceive as “enemies”.  That could be said of ISIL, where cult-like religion identifies the group.  (ISIL actually has programs for the disabled among their own “believers”.)

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For an individual living in any of many cultures in the world today, he or she (up to 32 pronouns, again) is faced with carrying his/her own weight as a member of the group – which can extend concentrically, from nuclear family to extended family, to community, to country, maybe to religious affiliation, maybe to some adult-chosen activist identification.  Ultimately, the ability of the individual to relate well to people in the rest of the world depends both on the politics of the group he/she grew up in – the enemies issue – but also this his/her own personal outreach (becoming a “doctor without borders” being one of the best possible outcomes personally).

But it’s important to understand that most cultures need to expect people to grow up learning to take care of their own first.   That expectation goes along with the historical fact that personal privacy is relatively new (coming with wealth and increasing standard of living) and most families have had to deal with shared family beds and restricted living space, that is, forced intimacy.  In western cultures, some people (like me) will place more emphasis on personally defined accomplishment (and having it recognized) and less on meeting the immediate adaptive needs of others in the family group.  (This gets in to Rosenfels’s ideas about “adaptiveness” v. “creativity” which becomes a digression in itself.)  I behave this way partly because of my own biologically mediate temperament (male, gay, male, feminine, subjective).  But there is a risk that I will take undue advantage of the sacrifices of others in the group who participate more conventionally in building the group’s social capital, and my doing so, while publicly visible with my own agenda (as an “unbalanced” personality) could undermine the social development and relationship building and reslience of others around me.. This brings up the whole idea of “right-sizing“, sometimes mentioned in Christian service settings, but itself almost a moral oxymoron.

The last years of my mother’s life, along with other incidents (documented in my books) showed that intimate engagement with others and providing for them is often expected even without having one’s own children.  The idea that this capacity doesn’t happen until one “chooses” to have children is an over simplification of moral responsibility, and means that “family values” (and the place of marriage) is a lot more nuanced than a lot of us would like it to be.  But, when a sequence like this happens late in adult life, it is much “easier” to deal with for someone who has had and raised his/her own children.

When I was growing up, there was a definite expectation that young men and women needed to learn to develop practical skills in providing for one another at least in part related to gender.  These “skills” would make the eventual appropriation of sexuality to marriage and raising children

Ironically, these skills seem more relevant today was the aged live longer and are more likely to have severe disabilities late in life.  At the same time, there is more emphasis in providing a sense of “value” to those with individual disadvantages through public measures (social media and “gofundme” campaigns) than there was when I was growing up, when disability and inequality were obviously visible publicly, and the prevailing sentiment was that “the natural family” should provide a sense of value through the family’s own internals social capital.

In western societies, most of all the U.S., we value individual initiative and independence, and personalized critical thinking, sometimes to the point that marriage and family, so privatized (the “License expired” idea), gets viewed, especially by political libertarians, as a cultural afterthought.  But the idea that, within a family and concentric groups surrounding it or to which a person belongs, one doesn’t “need” anyone else (because his knowledge makes him/her “better” than those whose lives are more interdependent) can become destructive, and lead the disadvantaged to believe that modern civilization has no moral point (and incite “mass movements” as by Hoffer’s 1951 book “The True Believer“).  I saw this angry point from the radical Left way back in the early 1970s, well before the discontent expressed in today’s religious mass movements. On the other hand, the intellectual singleton (or even “schizoid”) is less likely to be seduced by radical ideology or belief for its own sake, just to “belong”.

A supplementary piece from one of my legacy blogs is “What Other People Want” from January 2016.  David Brooks covered similar territory in the New York Times with a “process piece” that I discussed April 30 while heading for the PA turnpike tunnels.  I guess I have to make sure I don’t go “less bad” myself.

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I have an old article from 2005 “Hyperindividualism v. Solidarity” which refers to a Mother Jones article “Are We Better Off? In Search of Common Ground”, current location here.  The magazine cover had read “A Nation of Ones.”

Peter Wehner, in a NYT op-ed “The Theology of Donald Trump” does talk about ideas of personal worth (comparing Christ to Nietzche or maybe Ayn Rand), with a reluctance to elevate the “weak”.

Wikipedia attribution link for drawing of hypothetical Dyson Swarm, under CCSA 3.0.

(Published: July 3, 2016 at 11:50 PM EDT)

Social Security is not as hard to fix as the right wing claims, but the ideological and legal questions remain

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Sometime in June 2011, as the first great debt ceiling crisis approached, the House Speaker at the time, John Boehner (R-Ohio, and very much “the cigarette smoking man” from “The X-Files”) suggested that we stop paying wealthier social security beneficiaries, that is, start means-testing, because “we don’t have the money”.

Tea Party conservatives like Michelle Bachman tried to play down the meaning of the debt-ceiling, when in fact failing to extend it means that the federal government really might default on payments for money it already owes for money already authorized by Congress. Discussions of prioritizing payments ensued.  There were historic, abortive meetings between Obama and Boehner, talk of grand bargains, and the like.

Throughout most of 2013, which start with what CNN’s Wolf Blitzer is always called “The Fiscal Cliff”, played out the debt ceiling problem in at least two sequences.  On Blogger, on my “Major Issues Blog”, (debt ceiling category link), I wrote many postings on the nitty gritty of the debate, but wondered if more privileged retirees like me would have to “man up”.

The Social Security debate, like so many other issues, has many compartments, and some of them inspire some emotion.

The most striking problem seems to come from a 1960 Supreme Court Opinion, Flemming v. Nestor, which, in a bizarre sequence related to an immigrant with Communist activities, the Court wound up ruling that the U.S. government is not contractually obliged to pay Social Security benefits to (less needy) recipients even though it has collected FICA taxes (often matched by employers) from them over the years.  Social Security gives its own link here.  The Wall Street Journal published a stinging article by David Rivkin and Lee Casey that mentions the Flemming v. Nestor case (opinion ) and also ratifies some Tea Party ideas on the debt ceiling.

So, theoretically, Congress could cut start means testing recipients today to balance the budget.  Donald Trump, for all his bombast, has actually said we should support Social Security and hasn’t gotten into this area yet (he might strengthen his position in the campaign if he did reassure the public again). The disincentive for Congress to do this is political, not constitutional.

But there is a totally separate issue that got conflated.  In a debt ceiling scenario, the Treasury would have to prioritize payments, and the Social Security Trust Fund is one of the largest claimants.  Maybe bond holders would come first.  But in any legal battle over prioritization, the Trust Fund would probably prevail.  I won’t get into the arcane accounting of the Trust Fund and the OMB.  There are a lot of conflicting accounts online of how it actually works by well-meaning professionals.  But the “upshot” (a favorite “New York Times” word) is that even in a debt ceiling crisis, Social Security recipients would probably continue getting their benefits. Means testing is a totally separate thing.

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The best evidence of this assertion comes from answers to my own comment on a New York Times piece Jan. 13, 2013 (one of a series of five interrelated papers by law professors), especially the second answer.  The article was about “prioritizing debt obligations”, by Lawrence Tribe.

The actual comment is not addressable by URL, but it is the 17th for the article.

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The actual condition of Social Security and the “meaning” of the program are somewhat separate issues.  Social Security can pay benefits as promised until 2034 as of now (own statement), but that deadline year might slip down continually with demographics (fewer children, longer lives).  Reputable conservative writing suggests that the Trust Fund can be kept solvent much longer by changing wage indexing to price indexing (a variation of the COLA increase debate), meaning slightly lower benefits over time.  For example, look at the paper by Stephen Entin at Tax Foundation. This would even obviate the need for major FICA tax increases on workers and wage base escalation.  All of this would accompany gradual raising of full retirement age and even allowable early retirement.

But none of this answers the cultural debate over Social Security. When it started in 1937, the first beneficiaries had not paid into the system.  But over time, most working beneficiaries have benefits (including spousal, which can now include gay partners) correlated to their lifetime FICA contributions, more or less like an annuity.  Benefits have been “promised”.  There are various requirements, like ten covered quarters, and an earnings limit during early retirement, which makes little real sense.

Let’s pause on the early retirement issue. When I was “working” in my long track I.T. career, the “culture” was that you retired early (even at 55).  My pension had a “social security bridge” until I reached 62.  Many private pensions have social security offsets that kick in at 62.  This does not make demographic sense today.  In 2000, my own pension was frozen, and replaced with a more generous 401(k) match.

My own benefit is less than if I had waited to “full retirement” (66-1/2) or even 70-1/2.  But in my circumstances back in 2005, I needed to start it.  My actuarial break-even age is about 77-1/2 (in 2012) and I am nearing 73 now.

I definitely counted on Social Security “keeping its promise” as part of my strategy.  I have viewed it as a quasi-annuity.  Of course that brings up privatization, the biggest advantage of which is that politicians like Boehner couldn’t take it away.  Obviously a private program would need to be tightly regulated.  As a whole, open-ended non-liquid investments are not a very wise way to save for retirement.  Another issue is that lower-income people, or those who have kids early, could not afford to set aside “savings” unless more or less compelled to (which FICA does).

Many critics still say that Social Security is really still “welfare” ( Noam Chomsky says that, in a recent film .  Legally, this seems to be the case.  Liberal critics note that social security disadvantages poor people for not living as long, and for not accumulating as many benefits.  Libertarian Harry Browne has even said that better-off current beneficiaries might have to accept a short-term stiff to go to a privatized system. My own reaction is that, to the extent that it is expected to provide only a bare social safety net, then it should be covered by progressive taxation, but  that sounds like something Bernie Sanders would say.  (What’s wrong with that?)

Nevertheless, the “welfare” mentality often motivates rather careless commentary from some quarters.  For example, in 2013, a few people wrote that social security recipients should brace to ask for handouts from “family and friends”, a rather gratuitous and offensive interpretation.

There is no question that my own formal retirement (at 58, from my last major IT job, during the post 9/11 shock at the end of 2001) was too early.  Indeed, people have tried to “bargain” with me, saying that I ought to be able to sell and pimp things like everyone else, to help support OPC (other people’s children).  That’s a moral topic I’ll come back to again.

This may a good place to mention that some conservative groups consider the interest in Congress in offering a “Chapter 9” pseudo-bankruptcy to Puerto Rico could set a dangerous precedents tempting other states to default, on the backs of bondholders who after often seniors with employer-set-up 401(k)’s.  The Center for Individual Freedom (CFIF) has such a warning here. It uses the adjective, “crushed”.

(Published: Monday, May 23, 2016, at 1 :15 PM EDT)

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Update: June 30, 2016

Here’s a useful perspective by Allan Sloan of the Washington Post: “2030: Social Security’s troubles here and now“.