It’s Self-Evident, All Flyers are Created Unequal

Yesterday, while traveling from San Jose to Seattle, it suddenly dawned on me that I’m an air travel “Have Not”. Which is probably a good thing since everywhere else I’m a “Have”.

Air travel “Haves” zip through special “pre-TSA screening” security checks; wait with other “Haves” in special “members only” lounges that are probably decked out with soft frozen yogurt machines; and board way before you and me.

Alaska Airlines employs an especially detailed caste system for boarding passengers.

1st—Russell Wilson.

2nd—Families with babies.

3rd—First class.

4th—Gold platinum members.

5th—MVP Elite members.

6th—Those people who can pronounce Ta-Nehisi Coates correctly.

7th—Ron Byrnes.

Sentence to Ponder

From an article on Jeb Bush’s taxes in today’s WSJ.

“The average rate for middle-income households was projected to be 12% in 2013, the latest available data.”

The top 1% of earners, who do 99% of the complaining about tax rates, pays an average of 33%.

What percentage of people in developed countries would sign on to pay 12%? Trick question. Somewhat less than all because some (many?) would not want to accept the trade-offs of minimal taxes including worsening infrastructure, expensive health care, and tens of million in poverty.

What the Affordable Care Act Gets Wrong

Poor form to be contrarian following a week liberals can’t stop celebrating, but count your blessings I’m done writing about golf. For now at least. I always reserve my right to tap my inner Alan Shipnuck.

Thursday night near the end of another spirited training ride. Soft spinning on North Street, two friends and I head for home. One is a well-to-do 59 year old who just retired. His very nice lake home is paid for and he and his wife just returned from another trip to Europe. Euro vacations aside, as his threadbare cycling gloves illustrate, he’s actually on the frugal side. He says he can afford the vacations because of the gloves. Decades of having made very good money no doubt help too.

“You’ll never guess what medical plan I’ve signed up for,” he says. “No clue,” I replied. “Medicaid!” “Wait, you’re 65?!” “No, I’m 59, that’s Medicare. I was surprised to learn I qualify for Medicaid because I have no income now.”

Quick google search. Medicaid is “a U.S. government program, financed by federal, state, and local funds, of hospitalization and medical insurance for persons of all ages within certain income limits.”

I was stunned. He told me a person can make about $20k/year and still qualify for Medicaid. He hardly has any capital gains because he hasn’t sold any assets for a long time. Apart from his international vacations, I’m guessing his expenses are minimal and he’s living off of savings that he previously set aside. I’m not sure how he’s sheltered his wife’s income.

Then he tells me the adult son of a mutual cycling friend is also getting “free” Medicaid despite the fact that he has a very large trust fund that must consist of tax-free municipal bonds.

Undoubtedly, if my friends are doing this, so are other high wealth/low income people. Especially those whose income stems largely from tax-free municipal bonds. Why isn’t anyone writing about this gigantic loophole and what we should do to close it?

More generally, why does the Affordable Care Act (ACA) use income as it’s sole reference point instead of some combination of income and wealth? The same can be asked about the IRS and college financial aid offices. When it comes to health care premiums, college financial aid, and taxes more generally, it’s far better to be wealthy than to have lots of income. Just ask Mitt Romney. My guess is, and I’d love a more tax savvy reader to enlighten us on this, IRS agents, ACA bureaucrats, and college financial aid officials are unable to determine people’s total wealth with any certainty.

Why not ballpark it though I wonder. If the government knew my friend owned his home outright, would it compromise his Second Amendment rights to privacy? How do we balance well-to-do people’s right to privacy with public policies that, through subsidies, take from those of modest wealth and give to those with considerably more?

What We Get Wrong About Work and Retirement

A fair number of my friends are in their late 50’s to mid-60’s meaning they’re heading towards the exits at work. Some who’ve recently retired are struggling to adapt to life without work routines. They werent enamored with their work all the time, but it provided a predictable structure for their lives.

Meanwhile, we continually read about how wonderfull everyone’s “Third Act” is, whether traveling the world, volunteering, consulting, or starting new careers which shouldn’t count as retiring at all. Retiring is like investing, we only talk about the most positive examples, thus painting a misleading picture. The truth of the post-work matter is, many people don’t know what to do when they don’t have to do anything.

Yes, you’re right, this is a nice “first world” problem to have. Too many people can never afford to retire, but solving that problem is well beyond the reach of my pea-brain, so here I focus on those fortunate enough to soon pull the work plug.

Maybe the best way to think about the challenge is to consider the experience of a friend of mine in his late 40’s because I think his experience is fairly typical.

“Tom” works 60 hours a week, 49-50 weeks a year. In the limited non-work time he has, he watches reality t.v. and his kids play sports. Despite being friendly, he has few friends because he spends almost all of his time working. He assauges his guilt for working so much by spending all of his non-work time with his family. Consequently, he doesn’t have any independent interests or hobbies. In a few years his kids will be gone and he’ll wonder what to do with that little bit of non-work time. I hope I’m wrong, but I predict that In fifteen years, when he stops working, he’ll be completely lost.

Our typical way of thinking about work and retirement, work too much for several decades and then throw a switch and completely stop working, is seriously flawed. It’s unrealistic to expect anyone to succeed at reshaping their personal identity overnight.

My working friends who make time for their friends right now and love things like cycling, gardening, and traveling, will fair better than my friend who has decided to sacrifice personal interests on the alter of exceedingly long work weeks.

Of course, the closely related challenge is creating a lifestyle that doesn’t require decades of overwork. If Tom’s children decide to live more simply, like many Millenials seem to be, maybe they’ll strike a better work-life balance. One other important “dot” to connect is one’s wages. Obviously, the more specialized and sought after one’s skills are, they better they are compensated, meaning the fewer hours they HAVE to work.

Instead of throwing a retirement switch, more Baby Boomers are gently turning a dimmer switch, choosing to work half time for example. Gradually transitioning from the world of work to the world of non-obligatory work makes real sense. If you can afford it.

But How Will It Look On My Resume?

Statistics show people don’t tend to read any particular blog for very long. I’m not jumping from blog to blog, I’m reading fewer, which begs the question, why read this or any other blog? One common thread in the few blogs I read regularly is the authors link to interesting and insightful writing that I wouldn’t otherwise come across.

The best bloggers are connoisseurs of some specialized content and curators who provide an invaluable service in the Age of Information Overload—they help focus people’s attention.I try to do that, but my statistics reveal that few readers follow my links meaning posts like this probably don’t work that well. If I knew how to change that I would.

Starting for real now. An email arrives from an ace college roommate, a successful psychotherapist specializing in adolescent development. His 12th grade daughter has been admitted to two highly selective colleges and is conflicted about which will look better on her resume. Dad’s equally torn about where she should go. What does the college professor think?

The college professor can’t get past the fact that the daughter is worried about her resume. I wrote back that the schools’ respective prestige was within the margin of error and that the only thing that matters is whether she builds lasting relationships and develops interpersonal and intellectual skills that cannot be easily automated.

Her family enjoys far greater economic security than 90-95% of people. I don’t understand her thinking, but I know that if she is pre-occupied with her economic future, it’s no surprise that anxiety disorders among adolescents are at an all-time high.

I suspect something deeper is at work in this college decision-making case study. Something spiritual. Cue David Brooks, who wrote this essay in Sunday’s New York Times. It’s Brooks at his best. Lots of self-righteous readers savage him, for in essence, not being a Democrat. How dare a Republican reflect on what’s most meaningful in life. I wonder what it’s like to have one’s politics and daily life in permanent, perfect alignment.

Brooks is scheduled to discuss his new book, The Road to Character, on the Diane Rehm show Thursday, April 16th at 11et.

Why You’ll Buy an iWatch

Because lots of other people will. Might be in two months, years, or decades, but you’ll succumb to the spell Jonathan Ive’s team has cast on our culture.

The early reviewers say what’s most remarkable about the iWatch is they hardly ever take their iPhones out of their pockets anymore. So if having to regularly remove your phone from your pocket is wreaking havoc on your life, you’re in luck. Nevermind that you’ll have to charge it overnight and shouldn’t swim with it. There are less expensive ways to improve your social standing, but not many faster ones.

I recently read a long New Yorker story on Apple’s design guru, Jonathan Ive. I was amazed to learn that Apple employs three people whose only job is to find and hire the best designers in the world. They typically hire one person a year. Also mind boggling, one part of the soon-to-be-opened new Apple headquarters in Mountain View, CA is a $5b “walled garden”. If it wasn’t the New Yorker, I would assume that’s a typo. Five thousand million dollars on plants?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about two things—a different form of design, residential architecture, and Marie Kondo’s fame. Kondo is the best selling author of “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.” Kondo says you should only have things in your home that “spark joy”.

What about whole houses, a residential architecture, that sparks joy?! Very, very few homes in my corner of the country spark joy, probably because architects are focused much more narrowly on profit margins. Instead of asking, does this spark joy, they ask, how much will it cost to build per square foot and what can we reasonably expect to sell it for.

The end result of this calculus is terribly uninteresting neighborhood after terribly uninteresting neighborhood. It’s not the designers’ and builders’ fault, it’s ours for settling for uninspiring designs.

What will it take for us to challenge residential architects to design and build homes that spark joy, and dare I dream, neighborhoods that enrich people’s spirits for centuries to come? Neighborhoods filled with small to medium-sized, eclectic, energy efficient homes? Neighborhoods where art and sound economics co-exist? It will take a new resolve to stop settling for mindless designs.

There are small design and build firms out there doing beautiful work, like this one, but until buyers insist on joy, don’t expect them to scale-up their impressive work anytime soon.

Are You Crazy?

I am. Came to that conclusion the other day while mowing my lawn for the first time since late last fall when it was largely leaves.

As I criss-crossed the lawn, I wondered, what on earth am I doing? Why do we even have a lawn? Best I can tell, there’s three reasons to have a lawn. First, we have lawns to occasionally play croquet or badminton on or in Tiger’s case, to learn to chip. Second, many of us have lawns because we grew up in suburbia meaning we are captives of our childhoods. An extremely difficult to shake lawn aesthetic is deeply ingrained in our subconscious. So deeply ingrained we hardly ever question it. Third, we have lawns because the alternative, more public parks near where we live smacks of socialism.

Lawn lunacy is largely explained by nostalgia for our past coupled with an insidious individualism.

Maybe ten percent of lawns make sense. Meaning children play on them semi-regularly or people get great satisfaction from tending them. For people like us whose children are Gone Girl, lawns make zero sense. Especially when I’m thinking what I could be doing instead of pacing back and forth contributing to global warming, thus making it so I have to mow earlier and more often seemingly every year.

It’s completely whacked, by which I mean I’m whacked. As irrational as Paul McCartney’s hair as seen on SNL’s 40th ann. I felt sorry for “Sir” Paul. Not a gray hair on his 72 year old head. How sad to feel you have to maintain a youthful image that late in life. If I make it to 72, not giving a shit about my (probably amazing) appearance will be the most silver of linings. That and living somewhere without a lawn.