Monday, June 26, 2006
Up until recently things did go along pretty well except for a number of unexpected medical problems and more than a few surgeries. My wife and I traveled some - the big trip was an Alaskan cruise - see http://travel.awiggins.com/Alaska/ - plus a number of other driving trips to see friends and relatives in the lower 48. We had enough income and savings to live comfortably if not high, our house is paid for (so is our car) but something does not seem right. I did have to give up one of my loves in life for health reasons - flying lightplanes - but I compensated until recently (I am 78) by flying ultralights and powered parachutes.
And perhaps the peak of my flying career was being able to travel on four separate summers with a barnstorming pilot, Capt. Al Chaney, in his 1928 Ford Tri-Motor Tin Goose. I acted as copilot, ticket salesman, loadmaster, mechanic, and general go-fer. This was late 80s/early 90s, culminating in a 13-day flight from Cleveland to Santa Monica.
Now, here in 2006, my wife and I are contemplating on what to do next. We thought it would be easy. It won't. I would not describe us as in failing health; however, neither of us can do the work needed in keeping up a home. We've been looking around to see what is available in the way of retirement communities which still allow independent living without having to do all the maintenance work. Well, surprise, surprise.
We had thought that we were well-off having sold a business, a KOA campground, at a very good time allowing us to start building net worth. We thought we had enough barring some disaster. That disaster is very subtle but it is here.
The two places we had considered most were Springdale at Lucy Corr in Virginia and Brandermill Woods, both near our children and near Richmond. At Springdale you have to put up about $350,000 as an entrance fee (plus a high monthly fee) and at Brandermill where there is no entrance fee the tariff would be a very high monthly fee, around $4500.
We could perhaps swing either deal but are now having second thoughts, largely because to do so would deplete our net worth and, after living there for a few years, would leave us with little to pass on to heirs. Is that important? Who can say, but we would like to. Also, the high monthly payments would be difficult as our cash flow is pretty low.
For now we have decided to remain here in our little house which we both like, which has a great view of a golf course and lake, and which is paid for. But, now comes the rub. Who will dig my garden next year? Who will mow the grass, trim the shrubs, pull the weeds, vacuum the rugs, cook the meals, etc., etc.? Well, for right now we can just do it. What about next year and the next?
I know, just hire somebody! That will surely be less than those high monthly payments. But who can we hire? Virginia at the moment has the lowest unemployment rate it has had. No only are their rates high when you do find someone but no one even wants to do this kind of work, to say nothing of the little odd jobs that come up every day. I will leave immigration for another post but even I think it would be nice to hire an illegal for some of this work. We did have a Mexican family living next to us for several years and they were all very nice people so I am sure we could find a few to work for us. When I needed help for anything the man of the house could supply workers at any time, mostly non-English-speaking illegals. They did good work for low pay.
Of course our government does not allow that or, even, if they look the other way or are too swamped to prosecute us, we are still violating the law by not setting up records, collecting taxes, meeting work requirements, etc. And, Heaven help us if we should have a criminal element working for us, he would have or fake an injury, and then sue us for what we do have, even allowing for help from our insurance.
At our point in life we are just not about to comply with those government mandates. So we don't hire any helpful illegals and are left with only others who contract out their services (but at a much higher rate and often with poor service and often with those same illegals).
Alternatively we are left with few choices if we stay here. Relatives are a possibilty but not really a good idea when you are still ambulatory. My daughters are too busy (modern lifestyles, you know) and my grandson does not yet have transportation which itself is a problem. When he gets here I pay him to work as he is not exactly a volunteer and could earn money elsewhere. Also, while he is a great kid he has limited skills as he spends much of his time gaming.
So here we sit. No real plan for the future but better off than many. We have a financial advisor but he can't do much but suggest. Our daughters want us to stay here (and I think with no ulterior motives regarding inheritance); however, they both work and have lots of other interests.
Perhaps I will post again on this subject if any decisions come along. Stay tuned.
Sunday, April 30, 2006
What follows is based loosely on reading, watching TV, observing folks in malls and stores, on the highway, at sports events, at church, etc.
There was a time (here goes that "back in my day" story) when things had an intrinsic value and were carefully treated, watched over, replaced only when necessary, stored away when not in use, kept out of the weather, etc. (I use etc. a lot - saves space).
What do we see about us today in our everyday passage through life? First and most obvious are our automobiles and the way we use them. For example many people with garages do not put their cars, whether new or a few years old, into those garages at night. Sometimes because the garage has become a repository for the excess of things which have been accumulated or, more likely, because of inertia or outright laziness.
When we drive we make jackrabbit starts, then race furiously to the next redlight, burning a lot more gas than necessary. We speed on the highways, often driving 10 mph or more over the limit, just to reach our destination only minutes ahead of a more conservative driver. We know we would save gas and be safer if we drove a little slower and we know our car would last longer if we treated it better but we just don't care. And since we can afford it why not? Even the occasional speeding ticket, as expensive as it may be, is no deterrent because, what the heck, we can afford it. We do dislike getting those points but it is not likely that we can accumulate them fast enough to affect our license. There are not enough cops and they are spread too thin. We even know that speed governors on our cars would go a long way towards solving the gas crisis but, what the heck, we can afford it and besides it is probably somewhere in the Bill of Rights that we have the right to drive speedily.
Car repairs? Sure are getting up there, aren't they? I sat next to a young woman in a car dealer's waiting room when the service tech came out to give her the repair estimate. For what sounded to me like a large amount for the minimal work mentioned sounded like a logical number to her (turns out daddy was paying). She had no concern for what it cost.
And the cars themselves? Once thought of as a means of transportation only, they are now primarily status symbols, indications of machissimo, outdoor living (how many four-wheel drive cars ever leave pavement?). What they cost is of small concern, at least in the urban/suburban areas where most of us live. In those areas you see very few old cars. You have to go to farm country, coal country, or other semi-depressed areas to find out where all those old cars go.
If you can't really afford a Lexus why, what the hey, just lease one. The payoff time will be way down the road somewhere and your friends and neighbors will say to themselves "Looks like he got that raise". Leasing, of course, is the most expensive way to possess a car but really no one cares. Image is all.
And kids? Allowances are way over the top as kids never seem to lack for anything they want. At my home there are presently three basketballs sitting on a backyard swing. All of these plus one I gave away just floated down the drainage ditch during a rain and I see one more on its way. No one ever shows up to ask if I had seen a ball because really no one cares. Mom or dad will just pay for a new one.
In the malls folks oftentimes seem almost in a frenzy to get to that cash register and hand over wads of dough for items that the just "want" but have no need for. As I write this we are in a gasoline crisis with ever rising prices. People do complain but mostly about the "profiteering oil companies" and station owners. Only a bare few even think to drive less, more conservatively, or to take less trips. They dislike the high prices but pay them anyway. Plenty of money where that came from.
Retail prices continue to soar but so does retail business. Just mosey through Saks or any of the high-end stores. Sales there have never been better. Even in lesser stores like Penney's or Sears prices climb but it really slows down very few buyers. Grills, riding mowers, gas-powered trimmers would be items you would think one could go without but not so. Selling like hot cakes which brings us to another item.
Eating out. My wife and I are pretty conservative restaurant folks but when we do eat out at a non-fast-food place we seldom get out of there (tip included) for much under $50. And we don't drink. At tables next to us are large families whose older members are frequently downing mixed drinks for which $5 is not an uncommon price. They smile and laugh while they do this and show little sign of being in financial distress. And they do this often.
Clothing the body is another area where folks seem to indulge themselves too much. Even poorer kids may be wearing $100 sneakers. Even though I personally could afford them I would never consider throwing around that kind of change. And we all know how much women's clothes cost, primarily because of the fashion factor. Their shoes, blouses, skirts, etc., are priced way beyond any intrinsic value but buy they do. Too much money.
Theatre tickets are through the roof and the prices kids will pay for popular entertainers defy belief. Yet seats frequently sell out way in advance. A few whines to mom or dad usually brings out the ticket money.
Well, all of this is not by way of indicting everybody. Some follow careful budgets and even some who don't have to are conservative with their spending. You know who you are. And to stop this spending spree cold-turkey would have disastrous effects on our retail sales as well as on our remaining factories and those we support overseas.
I am just trying to point out that among my friends and acquaintenances, many of whom are in my church, most seem to have much more money than they really need. (Of course many of my relatives would disagree with me!) We are always hearing of those who come back from cruises or other opulent vacations. I go to a small conservative church but the parking lot is full of shiny new SUVs, Cadillacs, Corvettes, Altimas, etc. Most who work have good paying jobs and the money just seems to roll in.
Too much money! How else explain the world we live in and the way we live. And I completly left out the subject of homes and furnishings. A million-dollar home is no longer a rarity as we see dozens of them in the papers every week.
I hope that the many who are really struggling to keep body and soul together and to get just the basics will forgive me for the above diatribe. I know you are out there and I commend you for your efforts. I don't actually know many of you which is why I say that my acquaintenances have way too much money.
Woops, I also left out home entertainment and other forms of electronics.
Saturday, March 11, 2006
The Robber Barons Live! (In our hospitals)
Recently I went to a local Richmond hospital, Johnston-Willis, for what must have been just about the simplest surgery that could qualify as a surgery - a laparoscopic gall bladder removal in conjunction with repair of a belly-button hernia. I had skilled doctors, the surgery went well, pain was minimal, there were no complications, and, had I been a bit younger (I am 77), I would have probably come home the same day. Most patients with this surgery do. In addition this treatment and hospital stay did not cost me a cent. Medicare (read taxpayers) and Anthem (read insurance subscribers) picked up all of the tab, including the several doctors who participated on one level or another.
(So, it is past that Monday and I have cooled off a bit; however, that will serve to just make me write more clearly. I hope).
What I do want to emphasize is that this little adventure cost someone (you, your aunt, your child, your friend?) $30,000, and that is just for the direct hospital costs. Doctors, anaesthelogists, and others added to this total considerably.
It is no news to anyone that health costs are just zooming out of all reasonableness. We all seek to blame someone but who shall that be? I pretty much don't put any blame on the surgeons, even while admitting that they all like to live pretty well. Their skills and hard work are, in many cases, priceless.
In fact as I pursue this subject I find it very hard to pin down why such a minimal surgery should cost so much. My inclination is to put the blame on all the peripheral people and institutions who collect money but do not personally do anything. This would include the manufacturers of hospital equipment, the salesmen of all the new and often life-saving technology, the makers of medicines and drugs, the stockholders who are doing better than average as investors, the drug salesmen (I call them drug pushers), the distributors of the necessary supplies, and last and most responsible, the drug and hospital advertisers.
Most of you are too young to remember when one had to seek out a doctor who would diagnose the case and then direct the taking of a specific drug. Doctors, hospitals, and drug makers have now joined the commercial rat race after the almighty dollar. Doctoring used to be a prestigious occupation whose practitioners were often the most highly thought of individuals in the community.
Now a doctor's time is spent largely dealing with drug salesmen, administering his practice, interviewing new employees, dealing with myriads of government regulations, and trying to comply with ever more complex insurance rules. Oh, yes, he has to give some time to patients, too. All of this, of course, costs money.
And the cost is driven by the fact that there is a captive source of ailing patients who have no choice but to see a doctor or seek admission into a hospital.
Whether you are a bleeding heart liberal or a compassionate conservative you must certainly see that this country's steady march towards socialism counts for a big portion of increasing costs. Hospitals have to include the cost of government mandated medical care to many welfare patients when they are preparing the bills for those who can pay or are insured.
I am sick and tired of all the media attention to those "forty million uninsured" or whatever the number has risen to today. This paints a picture of all those poor people lying in the streets holding up a shaking hand and crying "Alms, alms for the needy!" Less you think I am totally hardened to this plea, please consider this. These forty million do not need or want insurance. What they want is medical care and this they get, the cost being borne by those who can pay or have insurance (or who pay federal taxes).
I have seen very little in the media about a poor person being refused medical care because he has no insurance. Admittedly, the quality of that care may suffer, the lines may be long, the care-givers often overworked and unsympathetic, but medical care is provided, even if not as desirable as it might be. This provided care is perhaps the biggest single factor pushing health care ever upward. It does cost to run an ER which is where many of the uninsured get their routine doctor and hospital care and this cost the pertinent actuaries have simply put into the billing of individuals and insurance companies.
Doctors and hospitals automatically inflate costs knowing full well that either Medicare or private insurers will give them less than they ask for. As a for-instance if a doctor thought $200 was a fair charge for the service provided he will price the service to Medicare at $300. Medicare recognizing overcharging for what it is will only give the doctor $190. Negotiation will take place, the doctor (actually his business office person), will convince Medicare that the charge truly should be at least $250, and Medicare working with government money (usually under a contract) will fold and authorize payment of $210.
Everyone is happy, including the doctor who gets the extra $10. A similar round of negotiation takes place with insurers. All this activity is mostly conducted by low level staff members or clerks, as we used to call them.
Can anything be done about all this? Probably not much, as price fixing and such have never worked in this country. If we could pin this all down to just one element perhaps congress could do something; however, it is the sum total of all these elements that make a little ol' minor surgery cost more than a decent new car.
And you know something? As I said in a previous post all doctors, and hospitals too, fail us in the long run so we can just hope that we depart this life while still solvent and not in too much debt. After all, some money must be held back to enrich "Digby O'Dell, the friendly undertaker".
Cremation anyone? Green burial anyone?
Saturday, October 08, 2005
"Hauling the Meat"
"Hauling the Meat" is a part of an unpublicized lexicon used by airline pilots to somewhat jokingly refer to what they do for a living. People on the ground fill this large, long aluminum tube with passengers (the "Meat") and then the pilots haul it to some far-off destination. Of course bus drivers and train engineers do about the same thing; I think the thought perhaps never occured to them.
When I was young going somewhere on an airliner was nearly always an enjoyable adventure. Visibility from the slower, lower flying airplanes was great and if you had any map-reading talent you could figure out where you were, not needing the current p.a. announcements to tell you. Windows were large and easy to see from. Seats seemed roomy enough, the meals ranged from mediocre to excellent, cabin attendants (nearly all women, and in the early days nurses), were attentive, attractive, and did not appear overworked.
Of course a lot of my posts will have a bit of nostalgia in them and for that I consider myself quite lucky. Will there be any happy nostalgic thoughts about airline travel as present-day travelers grow older?
I think not. It is hard to imagine a present-day air traveler having fond memories of today, even including first class passengers who do have it a bit better. Airplanes have become too large making loading and unloading a challenge. Even though carry-on luggage is controlled as to size it is always a hassle to load things into the overhead bins. Winter time only makes things worse. Aisles are narrow and, when occupied by a serving cart, make passage to a usually in use restroom impossible. The cabin attendants, now often men or older women, strive hard to keep their cool but are so busy that they have little time for idle chit-chat.
I remember one DC3 trip when the stewardess had time to sit in an empty seat next to mine and even rest her head on my shoulder while she caught a catnap. (I was a GI in uniform at the time). If that happened today the attendant would be fired and you would be lucky if she did not, in turn, start some sort of lawsuit against you for getting her fired.
The less said about the waiting rooms and the loading procedure the better. And security? Chalk one up for Bin Laden. The absolute refusal of this country to use any form of profiling and the consequent harrasment of ordinary citizens as they move about the country reflects how rapidly our freedoms are deteriorating. You've heard all the stories so I won't go into them here. But do you really think that the level of security in place today will significantly improve safety for the traveller?
Unfortunately when the evil ones work out a plan to cause more mayhem we will be almost powerless to prevent it. It is somewhat like the more mundane regular police work. The police are really not very good at preventing crime. They are, however, very good at solving crimes after the fact. I'm afraid that may also be true of international crime.
But, I digress. What this post is trying to convey is the fact that airtravel still remains the best way to get from place to place in a hurry when necessary; it is just no longer very much fun.
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
Big House, Little House
I have lived in various sizes and qualities of houses. Mostly I just hope that the roof doesn't leak and that the taxes and utilities are reasonable. Early life found me in a large brick farmhouse but without even the basic amenities indoors. The house itself was great - big rooms, high ceilings, large kitchen, a large parlor, and even a large walk-in pantry. And the bathrooms? There weren't any! I could do a whole post about that.
From that house I moved into Army barracks and the less said about that the better. Still had the basics, though, although at a number of posts that indoor bathroom was still elusive. After military life college life improved a bit- no more living space but at least a bathroom just down the hall.
A very good marriage (now in year 52) brought my wife and I to a small apartment behind a garden store. There the roof did leak and the space was very tight. Opening the fold-out bed at night meant a crawl over the bed to reach the closet. Later found us in a small apartment over a garage, then in a small rented cottage, and later into what was to become a successions of houses, the first being quite small. Are you beginning to see a pattern here?
Our best house was custom built brick and qualifies as large although not really impressive. I do remember insisting on three bedrooms, the smallest of which was 12 x 12 feet. Quite enough room for any couple with two daughters.
The house we live in now would qualify as small be anyone's standards but it is paid for, has low taxes, and extremely low utilities. The roof does not leak. The view is superb and the neighborhood is quiet and quite tolerable.
During all of this time I have done ample reflection on just what is needed in a house. It should be larger than the one we live in now but only enough larger to make storage of "things" easy. A house should, if it can be afforded, have a bedroom in excess of what is needed for the family in order to accomodate overnight guests. If siblings are of like sex they do not really need separate bedrooms.
Beyond that (if the house is occupied by persons of religious faith) a large house has one and only one purpose - that is to provide comfortable and adequate living space without too much regard for the opinion of our peers.
Whether intentionally or subconsciously a large house has only one purpose - to impress others, whether friends, enemies, employers, professional contacts, or business associates with one's success and/or level of achievement in life.
The neighborhood, too, must meet certain standards if it is to impress. Where I live now we have the occasional work vehicle parked for the night, occasional work done on cars, a loud party now and then. In a better neighborhood this would not be tolerated otherwise property (prestige) values would suffer.
If all this sounds like sour grapes, well it is not. My home is doing exactly what is necessary in a home - providing shelter. My neighbors mostly live and let live and seldom try to impress anyone with whom or what they are.
Fortunately, my wife and I are pretty much on the same page. Unfortunately, that is just not true in many marriages. One or both want "more" and more is what they get because it will simply not do to get by with less.
In conclusion that elusive thing happiness has very little, if any, to do with the size or quality of the house you live in.
To quote "It takes a heap of living to make a house a home". That does not say it takes "a heap of house."
Tuesday, September 27, 2005
It is not my plan to berate doctors as there are certainly many who work hard and conscientiously to make people's lives better. I would even say most of them do. I do not even mean to beat up on the lower quality doctors; first because they are hard to identify and it wouldn't do any good anyhow. It is something to keep in mind, though, that in each graduating class of doctors there is one who graduated at the very bottom of his class and, what do you know, tomorrow morning he will have patients in the waiting room eager to see him.
Most of us treat our doctors as superior all-knowing individuals and tend to take their word as medical law. Even when they don't have the answer I supose that it is good for us to regard them in that way as that, in itself, is a form of treatment. As we age it eventually sinks in with most doctors that whatever they do will never be enough to keep that black-robed figure with the scythe away from our door. In that respect every doctor must eventually come to terms with the fact that he is a failure - that is in comparison with the engineer, the scientist, or the technician who sometimes really do solve a problem.
There are, of course, many times when a good doctor does completely solve a problem. I'm sure you can think of many examples, e.g., surgically removing an appenix. As patients (and doctors) age the realization finally sinks in; we are all mortal and will be gone at least by the next century. Where we will go may be the topic for another blog.
But, I am finally working my way around to the point, which is (with the exceptions that you will no doubt come up with) that there are no poor doctors. This leaves out the large number of docs who work almost pro bono in developing nations and even among our own poor. In the United States they are small enough in number of not be part of this blog. I am thinking of the "average" doctor (if such a thing exists) who lives just down the street or in the next subdivision. The giveaway to their life styles includes among other things, the places they go for seminars, the vacation trips they make, the investments they make, the cars they drive, the travel and investment mags lying around the waiting room, etc.
If we get a bit personal with our doctors we hear almost the same thing from each of them - the paperwork is horrendous, Medicare/Medicaid pay no way near the doctor-charged amount, insurance is very high, taxes are too high, etc., etc. Never, and I say never, will you ever hear a doctor complain that he is poor. None of them are. Nor do we begrudge most of it. Doctors, as a group should receive high pay for their efforts. We just want to avoid going into "sorry" mode when legislation is at stake.
Doctors, by almost any measurement, are never poor. At least most of those with whom we come into contact. So just smile and nod when they show signs of poverty. Most doctors are rich and raking it in, all at the expense of government (the people) and the regulated insurers.
Ah, but lawyers! Their big payoffs, their fancy homes, their lifestyles, nearly all come from their legal form of extortion. I like the law. I studied law in college - took courses in business law and aviation law. I would have liked to be a lawyer as I love to deal with the intricacies and details of cases. Lawyers would have you believe that they too, like doctors, exist to serve the common man (which is most of us). They do not. High fees, greed, unnecessary complications, taking advantage of adversity, all combine to make lawyers among the lowest rated of professions. Yes, I know law school is lengthy, the courses are hard, case history is boring and tedious to study, and bar exams provide a high hurdles for any without a lot of smarts.
However, there is still too much of the "who you know" factor involved in becoming a successful lawyer. And by successful I do mean making a lot of money. There is, of course, a big surplus of just-graduated lawyers who are struggling until they find their niche. Which, for the enterprising among them, they always do. As in any other field some lawyers never get there and often turn to easier professions or to less sought after lawyering positions.
Also, lawyers make up the bulk of our legislators and take care to fashion laws that will benefit them. I am the last person to advocate price controls; however, when I see lawyers accepting these big cash awards I can't help but feeling that the system is out of whack. Again, I don't know how to fix it but would if I could.
And again, in spite of all the lobbying, complaining, control of things within their profession, I submit to you as with doctors, there are no poor lawyers (with the exceptions being those who have been a little slow to adapt to the extortionate practices used by most). They'll get there.
Ah, yes plumbers. Pretty far removed from the field of medicine and law. But do you really think there are any poor ones? And, of course, I do not incude any who say they are plumbers but are really just learning the trade. Plumbing, unlike law and medicine, requires lots of really hard physical work along with a big personal knowledge base and a willingness to go home tired and dirty. I watched a plumber work today just installing a simple dishwasher. In the process he skinned his fingers, had to move a heavy dishwasher into a house by himself, had to compensate for problems of fit, had to crawl on the floor, and work in poor lighting.
Was this worth a lot of money? Well, of course it was, and he should be highly compensated. But should he become rich at a job which requires a maximum of knowledge and skill but a minimum of schooling? I once knew a plumber (fancy title - steamfitter) who easily cleared $100,000 per year. He, too, worked hard but had advanced beyond the stage of crawling on the floor and under sinks.
So, what am I trying to say here? Just that supply and demand should come into play more than it does. Government should mess out. Plumbers should be free to charge whatever they want; customers should be free to shop for best prices. Same should apply to doctors and lawyers and would have the effect of getting rid of incompetent people and getting these sky-high legal and medical expenses into the real world. It is so easy for these professionals to demand high prices and happily take less when the net result is that they all, doctors, lawyers, and plumbers really are getting rich.
Blogs Yet Unborn
Do you know any poor doctors? Lawyers? Plumbers?
I want it all and I want it right now.
Big house, little house.
Status car or transportation.
Rebuild New Orleans? Rebuild beach houses?
Hauling the meat. Airline status today.
More on getting out of Iraq.
Why do we bother to save?
Are builders of retirement communities making expenses or getting greedy?
Who owns (and profits) from our nursing homes?
All the people I know have too much money.
Sunday, September 18, 2005
I have a guru daughter who seems to soak all this stuff up just like a sponge from Tarpon Springs; however, she is seldom here when I start scratching my head about something.
I am now going to click on "publish" and see where this ends up. Although I know how to post a picture in the "compose" window I don't believe you can do that here.