3/01/2015

401K (215K after taxes)

Jonathan Trugman of the New York opines government opinions about investment is bad for retirement accounts, and is more a stick in the eye to Wall Street than to the average investor.

I'm not against 401K programs per se, but I think a lot of people are really uneducated and misled about how they work; many people are told fantastical stories about "free money" and "the magic of compounding" and "set it and forget it" and all those other bromides, without noticing the "free money" gets eaten by fees, the magic of compounding is at the whim of the stock market, and if the markets ever tank, that money is gone forever.

That million dollars your 401K administrator is promising you is also an unattainable fantasy unless you can really weather a huge amount of risk.  After all, investment is risking the money you earn on the stock market, and the messages to "save more" are really "put more risk into your investment account."

401K pre-tax contributions have been a boon to investors, as it has long reduced taxable income, and it would be more damaging if the government told employers that the matching contributions they made would be taxed as ordinary income.  That "free money," in the eyes of the government, is still earned income, and thus taxable income.  

Two things would happen if the government taxes matching contributions: employers would severely reduce or eliminate them, as it would affect the employee's taxable income, and employees would reduce or stop 401K contributions, as they would no longer receive that added benefit.

Hence a retirement account loses all meaning; it is now a socialized investment vehicle that the government can raid at will and the contributor has no say in funding.  Couple that with government-approved funds and bonds that satisfy only wonks, activists and control freaks, and you might as well call it a supplemental Social Security fund.

2/12/2015

Shock treatment, MBTA style

A few months from now, in the sweet smells of spring thanks to the tons of once-frozen water on the grass, the commutes from MBTA hell will be a distant memory.  Sitting on Mass Ave waiting for baseball traffic to clear will be nicer than sitting in snow-choked lanes while a rousing five mile game of "mother may I?" plays out.

Forgive me for saying this, but each and every one of us, including myself, is at fault for not demanding that the MBTA get its collective business in order.  That's right: we spent too much time dissecting deflated footballs and not enough time wondering why the hell we have 30-45 year old trains falling apart and why it took three winter storms to direct disinfecting sunshine on this kind of neglect.

Beverly Scott may have been brilliant, but she was overwhelmed.  You need a GM who not only can manage the cash, but know at a moment's notice where the 43 bus is, how long it takes for a train to go from Alewife to Wollaston with a crush load, what the best governing speed is on a Cummins ISL engine coupled with a Allison B400R5 transmission, and how many people are at least 100 days away from retirement and when they should begin to know what their retirement benefits are.

It's not Gov. Charlie Baker's fault either, no matter how much the intelligentsia wants so much to hand off the poo-diapered baby (and curl up into the thumb-sucking  fetal position when they can't).  He will not fill the MBTA with like-minded automatons because he's not in a position to do so.

Yet, when we're asked to absorb a fare hike, we do everything in our power to agitprop our way out of doing it.  That's the very first thing the new GM should do - tell the riders who use our system that we need money, not just brains, to run an efficient MBTA system.  If it means dynamic pricing (peak of the peak fares, pricing by distance, eliminating CharlieCard discounts), no weekend service to allow for needed repairs, eliminating nakedly political bus and train routes to protect narrow interests, then it must happen without hesitation.

We can boycott, protest, march and scream to our heart's content, plead of legislative graft going to bloated pensions and even more bloated debt instead of much-needed repairs, and hold our collective breath until we exhaust every shade of blue, but those days of cheap fares are now over. The illusion of single-payor transit - virtually free or heavily subsidized - is no longer unacceptable.

These past few weeks, we have gotten virtual shock treatment, the ammonia-like stench of the very worst of middle and upper management chicanery unavoidably wafting up our noses.

Now are we willing to pay more for a so-called "world class" transit system, or will we default to more of the same third-world, banana republic dreck?

The choice is inevitably ours.

2/09/2015

Snowbound 2015

Here it is, February 9, 2015, and I had written a blog post regarding the Blizzard of 2013 the day before, predicting it being not as bad.  1996 was far worse.  I was a temp back then, working in Quincy, and we got storms every week, consistently.  At least we got to 107 inches in stages, not 3/4 to that record in 17 days.

Our winter was lagging behind, with nice, warm temperatures in December.  Mother Nature lulled us into believing that this winter would be like 2012, with very little snow.

Mother Nature, seeing our complacency and smug satisfaction tossed us a wicked curve ball.

"You want snow?  I'll give you as much as you want.  Just watch."

We have never seen a phenomenon in New England in our generation.  Nevertheless, snow of this magnitude also melts and can be removed.  It will take awhile, and it requires much more patience than we're used to in our "immediate gratification" world.  We want the thaw we were denied in January to come and turn our mountains of crystalline water to melt, but that takes time.

In Boston, it's been the light, fluffy kind, not the hard, pasty heart attack slop.  If it were more compact, we'd know where to put it.  If the ratio of water to snow is about 15 to 1, at 75 inches we have five inches of water when melted down.

Think about it.  If we had no snow this year and we then had a harsh drought, our lawns would be parched.  Five inches of fresh water will certainly help come spring.

We're all anxious and tired of hearing forecasters say "more snow! more snow!"  This is Mother Nature at her finest, putting her version of the ammonia ampule under our complacent noses and making us sniff its reality.  The streets will be cleaned off; the MBTA will run back to as normal as it can (well, we can all dream, can't we?); we will return to our routines.  It just takes time, patience, and perhaps a little appreciation that our neighbors to the North deal with this every winter with a smile - and perhaps it's time to get a little advice on how they deal with it.

2/05/2015

Operation Blue Dragon

If the city of Boston and the city of Cambridge wanted to get back into the good graces of its snow-fatigued citizens,  it would put into motion an effort to clear snow to reduce congestion and traffic.

I propose what would be called Operation Blue Dragon, which would be coordinated between MassDot, the MBTA, the Boston Traffic Division, and police.  This would allow crews to clear all snow mounds and streets to pavement, and avoid the huge snow mountains that are out there and the delays that come with them.

If a snowstorm of more than 12 inches occurs, the City of Boston would activate Operation Blue Dragon immediately after the storm.  Any public gatherings and activities would be postponed until cleanup is complete - no parades, no marches, and no parties.

Phase I would involve a 48 hour passenger vehicle ban, in concurrency with a 48 hour parking ban, on all major streets. Essential personnel and public transit vehicles would be exempted; all cars in violation of the ban would be subject to a stiff fine and/or vehicle towing.  The MBTA rapid transit system would only run in the tunnels, with connecting bus service to surface stations only.  To encourage the use of public transportation, fares would be waived for 96 hours after the storm.

Phase II would be restriction of major roads to small passenger cars and public transit vehicles only, with a maximum speed of 30 miles per hour.  The MBTA would be allowed to run on a modified winter schedule, with headways of 10 minutes or less and with parallel bus service on the surface.  

Once the roads are deemed clear and safe for driving, Operation Blue Dragon would end.

In both phases, snow would be required to be cleared up to the curb; sidewalks would be required to be fully cleared of snow and salted; major roads would be required to be salted and sanded at regular intervals 24 hours after a storm.  The disposal of snow would require dump trucks, large and small front loaders, and snow augers, but volunteers with snow shovels and snow throwers can also help.

This is one of many ideas.  For a snowstorm of this magnitude, thinking is much better than panicking - which has happened all too often this week.

1/31/2015

Teetotalers unite!

When I tell people I don't drink, they understand it to mean I don't drink alcohol.  I get the usual questions: Why not?  Do you take medications that prevent you from drinking?  Did you get drunk and regret it?  Do you turn mean when you drink?

Once a year or on special occasions, I'll have a rum and coke, but usually that's it.  Beer, vodka, whiskey, even mixed drinks don't interest me.  My brothers at least have good taste in beer and don't overdo it.  My parents never drank save the occasional Golden Dream or champagne.

A social drinker sees a bar as a nirvana, an oasis.  To a non-drinker like myself and many others, a bar is like being lost in a unfamiliar city.  I often find the taste of alcoholic drinks overpowering, and normally I don't finish them.  Personally, I don't find anything redeeming in going to a bar, betting loaded, and then figuring out how to get home without passing out or puking.  In those places, I don't see alcohol is not a social lubricant; it's a way to show how the nicest and sanest of people can become totally obnoxious once they get a few in them.  

We had Friday night Rats in college; I have no regrets missing all of them.  I don't regret not attending keg parties.  I found other things to do other than get written up, arrested, or anything else.

(Many wondered why I liked to spend my time in the library a lot and didn't come home until it closed.)

That doesn't mean because I am a teetotaler, I'm Carrie Nation.  Prohibiting people from consuming and enjoying alcohol responsibly is not a thing I would ever attempt to do.  Far from it - if you want a drink, please have one. Responsible drinkers are best; they'll have their fill, they may get a little happy, and then go home.  Irresponsible ones are the people you find in the news, in increasingly disturbing situations.  

To parahrase a quote from the New York Post, being sober in Boston is like living right across the street from Yankee Stadium, but being a hard-core Red Sox fan.  We're a town where drinking is expected, but some are shunned because they choose not to by free will.

1/23/2015

Super hype, super hearts

If you've come here to escape the 24 hour press cycle about deflated footballs, welcome.  I'm tired of hearing about it too.

Maybe they did, maybe they didn't, their-word-against-ours...you would think that all the other news in the world didn't matter.  Airplane had a rough landing at Logan...but here's even more dreck about under-inflated footballs!

Actually, something did happen that was pretty important, frightening and humbling.

When adult children have sick parents, they do everything in their power to make sure their ill-fallen parents get excellent care.  One man was so distraught, so angry, over the circumstances, ones he could not control, that he shot dead a well-respected cardiologist before turning the weapon on himself.

If the Patriots weren't going to the Superbowl, the Brigham and Women's story would be top news.  We would be hearing from experts about armed assailant safety, how healthcare can be a drain on savings and mental health, and how people remembered this wonderful cardiologist.

All we're hearing now is extraneous, unnecessary, rude, obnoxious noise about under-inflated footballs, whose lives matter more, which bar has the best Super Bowl specials, and what the Kardashians did this time to get into the trash magazines.

One of my friends I went to high school with pours her heart into job as a cardiology nurse.  Her own mother died of heart disease and she volunteers in Rwanda to do free heart surgeries via Team Heart.  This is the perfect antidote to shallow and fleeting hype: to read about those who were about to die receiving new hearts and enjoying life again.

Sometimes it takes a tragedy to deflate the manias of silly things.  When Vladimir Konstantinov was brain injured after a serious limousine crash in 1997, all that celebration sublimed into support for a man who will never play hockey again.  Travis Roy became a spokesperson for spinal injury after his accident in 1995.  They converted tragedy to something much more significant and thoughtful.

That makes the hype about under-inflated footballs much more trivial - almost insignificant.

1/17/2015

Power matters

A few weeks ago, when the protests against the grand jury decisions were tendered, I made a prediction that it would take a stupid, obnoxious stunt to sour awareness and harbor irreparable resentment towards protesters.

White college-age kids chaining themselves on I-93 would certainly do it.  In fact, anyone with nothing to lose are plum candidates: no one with a job need apply; just a lot of bravado and bail money.  White dupes is a better term, because it's hard to ignore a homogeneous white person from the 'burbs, pretending to be a champion for social justice.

There's a special kind of delicious irony when the sad-sacks who thought they were making a difference and fighting a war as a soldier of a bitter, rigid ideology are themselves handcuffed and tossed into a State Police cruiser.  The bullies and narcissists who think that disrupting everything now is a wonderful thing find "in your face" in prison is grounds for being seriously injured, because the pecking order there nips that kind of arrogance in the bud.

Someone else has hijacked the circus of the "lives matter" movement. Inside the vacuum of the grand jury decisions, a slick, moneyed group of radical agitators (with a list of grievances and agendas that would make War and Peace look like an Archie comic book and Das Kapital a beach read) pounced in.  Following behind were the warped intelligentsia,  career agitators, celebrities with little else going for them save their past, and anyone else dumb enough to follow them.

If you want the real hash tag that is cleverly hidden among others, it's that power matters. That's all it is, after all: a bunch of suave radicals wanting to grab power while everyone is busy dying-in, slinging around slogans, or tying up traffic.  They don't care about race, money, brutality, or anything else.  They want to take over, and by all means not peacefully.   It is militancy,  control, and seizure of all goods they want - justice is how they bait guilty, upper-class whites with nothing to lose except their dignity into doing their bidding.

It's certainly not what Martin Luther King, Jr. and those championing civil rights did.  They carried themselves with respect and dignity for others, and understood not everyone would warm to their cause immediately.  Gradually, people began to agree that the status quo was not the best way to conduct daily life, and as such, the government realized it also, and the laws changed.

Anyone who believes the "lives matter" movement or equivalent will do the same should seriously rethink what rights, justice and freedom mean when all three are taken away, especially when the protest is a death sentence and the only slogans approved are ones that reflect a warped, dangerous reality.

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