Saturday, September 23, 2017

Follow the money

The Senate is currently on their third....or is it their fourth or fifth....iteration of a "Repeal and Replace ObamaCare" attempt, and this one is no better than the ones that came before it.  As bad as ObamaCare supposedly is, all their attempts to date have been giant steps BACKWARD.  The highlight of the current Republican bill is to give each state a "block grant", essentially a pot of cash, and then tell them to figure out what to do with health care.  "Not my circus, not my monkey" the Feds can then say.

Polls show less than 20% of Americans like this giant step backwards.  Neither does AARP, or the American Medical Association, or the various hospital associations, or the insurers, or the drug makers, or the American Cancer Society, The American Heart Association, the Diabetes Foundation, or any other group advocating on behalf of people with health issues.  So why are Republicans so hellbent on ramming this "reform" down our throats?  Who wins in this deal?


The only logical explanation I can come up with is that, to Republicans, "Repeal and Replace ObamaCare" is simply a means to a greater goal.  They have told their ultra-wealthy mega-donors that they will deliver to them a giant tax cut, but before they can do that, they first have to come up with a pile of cash from somewhere.  That "somewhere", they have decreed, will be from the Federal healthcare kitty....cut a few hundred billion here, transfer it on to there.  But if they can't realize big savings via a repeal/replace bill, their promised wealth transfer, their REAL goal, is dead in the water.  

If you can think of another reason why congressional Republicans are pushing so hard to pass such a supremely unpopular bill, please let me know.

If they should ever succeed in achieving this goal, hold on!  Their next target will be Medicare and Social Security.  Speaker of the House Paul Ryan has already (correctly) labeled them as the two most expensive Federal programs that can be"reformed" in order to realize great savings.  He just never tells us where those savings will go.

So, as is always the case, FOLLOW THE MONEY.  That will show you who is pulling the strings, and who the big winner will always be.


Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Is "socialist" the most feared word in America?

  Damn socialists!

I recently clicked on one of those silly quizzes that asked, "Are you more American or European?"  One of my Facebook friends, who is German by birth, felt the gist of it was that Americans are freedom loving, hard working, go-it-alone individualists, and Europeans aren't.  That Europeans are all just a bunch of *gag...puke...choke* SOCIALISTSEwwwwww!

Truth is, Americans have benefited from many programs some would call "socialist", like SOCIAL Security and Medicare.  I'll concede, some Americans probably don't like Social Security or Medicare, as they will never in a million years ever need to rely on either.  They can just cut a check for whatever they want.

But what about public schools?  Isn't that a social program, paid for by all, for the benefit of all?  How about interstate highways, paid for by all, for the benefit of all?  

How about fire departments?  Modern professional fire departments are a fairly recent development.  Battling fires used to be something neighbors did for each other on a volunteer basis, with abysmal results.  Now we have highly professional, highly effective municipal fire departments, paid for by all, for the benefit of all.  Ditto for law enforcement....paid for by all, for the benefit of all.

When I was in school, way back in the last century, we were taught in civics class that government existed to do for people what they couldn't do for themselves.  At the time of the writing of our Constitution that meant things like maintaining a postal system and maintaining a strong military, paid for by all, for the benefit of all.  It was a pretty simple time.

Now, in this century, it seems reasonable to empower a Securities and Exchange Commission to look out for us, as "financial services" are much too sophisticated for the average person to comprehend, which leads to many of us getting ripped off.  We need an SEC to protect us, paid for by all, for the benefit of all.

How about a Food and Drug Administration, paid for by all, for the benefit of all?  Would you know how to tell if a drug is effective and safe, or just worthless snake oil, or worse? 

We're now on the cusp of comprehensive health care falling into the category of things we probably can't do on our own.  If a national health plan similar to that practiced in the UK is too radical for us, maybe we could look elsewhere, such as in my friend's native Germany, for a health care system that works, that is insurance based, and is universal.  But to just whack what we have now, without a better replacement, just to please those who will never have to worry about paying for anything, is just wrong! 

My point is, benefiting from some social programs does not make us socialists, and is something to be embraced, not feared.  We've had them for years, whether we've realized it or not, and they've served us well.


Monday, September 18, 2017

Is this what they mean by "going to the dark side"?

I like to think of myself as "unique".  My daughters very kindly refer to me as "quirky".  Some others just think I'm weird. 

Why do I bring this up now?  Because this morning as I was giving Jax, our SuperDog, his first walk of the day, I realized that dawn is now coming noticeably later, and I like it

Autumn is my favorite season for a variety of reasons, one of which being the days are becoming shorter by about a minute a day.  Yea!  I also like a few rainy days now and then, which are more likely in autumn than in summer.  And of course, autumn also = the start of football season.  Ha!  Take that hot, sweaty, sticky summer!

I've become a fairly successful minimalist....except for my collection of coats and jackets.  I LOVE coats and jackets.  I have light windbreakers, a GoreTex rain jacket, a heeeeeavy LL Bean arctic parka, and a jacket for pretty much everything else in between.  This time of year I'm always optimistic it will be a cold enough winter to wear some of them.

Unique, quirky, or weird....I'll answer to any of them.  Just don't call me Shirley.  :)


You've heard the old saying, "Make hay while the sun shines"?  That's pretty much my work ethic.  I feel like if it's still daylight, I should be working or doing one chore or another.  When evening comes, it's time to put my tools down, metaphorically, and relax.  These days I don't have the energy I once did, so relaxing while the sun is still high sorta bothers me.  The earlier it gets dark, the less guilty I feel.

Can you imagine how rested people must have been 150 years ago?  When the sun went down there was little else to do but go to bed and sleep, or maybe make more little farm workers.  Candlelight barely illuminated the space you were sitting in.  Later, coal oil or whale oil lanterns offered a chance to see better later into the night, but those fuels were expensive.  

The big breakthrough came with successful oil drilling and refining in the late 1850's.  Back then the refined petroleum product of choice was not gasoline or diesel (there were virtually no internal combustion engines back then), but kerosene.  Kerosene was a much more affordable fuel, and burned much brighter, too.  That gave John D. Rockefeller the light he needed to count his money late into the night.  Thomas Edison's electric lighting was just the icing on the cake of illumination progress.

I think today we have it just about right:  It gets dark early enough to allow for some rest time before bed, yet a flip of a switch gives us enough light to write unique / quirky / weird blog posts. :)


Sunday, September 10, 2017

A homebuilder's observation of the US hurricane season to date

Being a "weatherholic" I've watched hurricane Harvey and Irma coverage wall-to-wall.  The builder in me quickly picked up on the fact that the buildings on the Texas coast fared much worse than the buildings in Florida, at least those built after the building code changes prompted by hurricane Andrew in 1992.  It just goes to show that we CAN build homes that will stand up well to storms, short of storms of absolutely Biblical proportions, if we'll just embrace building codes as friends and not foes to be stonewalled.

The fact is, the prevalent mindset of most builders (in Texas at least) is to lobby against stricter codes as they cost money, and builders would rather spend money on shiny amenities like granite and stainless steel to entice buyers than on structural integrity.  "Sell the sizzle, not the steak" they say.  They do this because homebuyers are influenced by Pinterest and Houzz and other online sites, and "pretties" are all they care about.

It's increasingly rare to find an informed buyer who understands that if his/her house has a foundation broken in half, or is spread out in pieces over half the county after a storm, having pretty granite and stainless steel are meaningless.  This is how shallow we've become.

And were places like Marco Island, FL, with a population of 18,000 and an elevation of 0, that's ZERO, ever allowed to be developed?  Politics!  With the availability of Federal Flood Insurance there's really little downside to the flooding they're now seeing there with hurricane Irma.  The city/county expanded their tax base dramatically, and developers and builders made bank.  Sure, homeowners will have to deal with the hassle of making claims and doing clean up, but they will eventually be made whole.

You do realize Federal Flood Insurance means the taxpayers are potentially on the hook for this, right?  Older developments already there, and in other coastal cities, sure, they should be extended Federal Flood Insurance, but why should we knowingly approve zoning for new developments, especially high-end luxury developments catering to the wealthy, that we KNOW will flood? It's really pretty easy to foresee using modern hydrological mapping.

My point is, much of the damage we're seeing now is caused by poor planning as much as by Mother Nature.  We should have known better.


Saturday, September 2, 2017

A homebuilder's advice to hurricane Harvey victims

It was a heartbreaking event.  Hurricane Harvey has blown many homes away, and put many hundreds of thousands more underwater.  Property owners now have to decide what to do next.  Hopefully they have flood insurance, or if not, the financial ability to rebuild / repair out of pocket or with new loans.

Soon will come the next heartbreak.  Unscrupulous builders will be descending on hurricane victims like vultures on roadkill....they're easy pickings.  Already in a fragile state of mind, property owners will sign paperwork they don't understand and fork over what little money they have left, hoping to get their homes and lives put back together.  Here are some things property owners should know:

In Texas there is NO registration or licensing of builders.  Anyone can have some business cards printed that identifies them as a builder, and they're builders.  That's it.  Many people who might be plumbers or carpenters or painters (or insurance salesmen) might decide now is the time to try their hand at being a contractor, and these hurricane victims are their guinea pigs.  In addition there will be thousands of scoundrels from out of state who will show up, holding themselves out to be experienced builders.  They'll get as much money as they can up front, then skip town doing little if any of the promised work.

How do you know who you're dealing with?  For a start, check online here, enter the name of the contractor, and see if they are registered to do business in Texas.  On that page click "details" and see when they began doing business in Texas, their actual physical address, and the name of their principal / agent.  If they aren't listed, or if they were listed just recently....RED FLAG!

Beware of references.  Anyone can find 3 people who know them and will vouch for them. Even convicted felons have friends.  Instead ask for the names, addresses, and phone numbers of the last 10 or 15 clients they built or remodeled for, then call at least a sampling and confirm those clients are happy.  A reputable contractor should have no trouble providing that information.

Builders should provide you a current liability insurance certificate, and either a Workman's Compensation insurance certificate or have WC waivers signed by each vendor and subcontractor.

Ask where they do their business banking, and how many accounts they have.  They should have at least two, as it is illegal for a builder to co-mingle "construction funds" and "operating funds".  (Money paid to a contractor for work completed in stages MUST FIRST be used to pay for labor and materials.  Funds left over can then be transferred to an operating account and used to pay overhead and salaries.)

Property owners should understand that in Texas, even if they pay their contractor for work competed, if the contractor fails to pay for the labor or materials used, those unpaid vendors can turn to the owners directly to get paid.  If the vendors don't get paid, they can file liens on the property.  To prevent this, owners should insist the contractors provide them notarized "lien waivers", which are signed by the vendors acknowledging they have been paid.  And finally, when all work is completed and the final payment to the builder is made, insist the builder simultaneously provide a signed and notarized "all bills paid" affidavit.  If the builder signs and all bills have not been paid, he has committed a criminal offense.

New construction and remodeling contracts must contain certain specific verbiage mandated by the Texas Legislature.  A check with an attorney or perhaps a title insurance company can confirm if the contract meets the state requirements.  If it doesn't comply, that might be a tip-off the builder is less than professional.

Beware of builders from out of the area who come in to do repairs as they will likely not know reputable local building tradespeople.  Understand that builders generally don't "build" anything themselves.  Builders just schedule and arrange for the right materials to be at the right place at the right time for the right trades.  They hire local plumbers, electricians, carpenters, painters, etc to actually do the work.  

When an out-of-town builder arrives, how does he know which are the quality local carpenters and which are the "wood butchers"?  Unless he brings his own vetted, trusted subcontractors with him, it's likely that you'll get at least some shoddy workmanship along the way.  And once the job is completed, who will be there to honor the warranty when the builder is back home in Dallas or Little Rock or Atlanta?

Understand that building tradespeople will be in very short supply, and that the building process will likely take much longer than it would have during normal times.  Be especially aware of work done by unlicensed or unsupervised plumbers and electricians.  These critical trades require a state license.  On-site work must be done or at least directly supervised by someone with a Master's or Journeyman's license.  If stretched too thin, unlicensed rookies will be dropped off to do the work, and then a license-holder will drop by every few days for a cursory look.  Not good.

Don't put too much stock in municipal building inspections.  Larger cities generally have specialized, experienced inspectors who actually know the International Building Code(s), but the smaller jurisdictions might just have jack-of-all-trades inspectors.  And even in the large cities, they will likely be overwhelmed with the volume of work needing inspecting.  They'll pull up, run in, do a 360-look-around, leave a green / red tag, and then go on to the next one.  They'll see the critical things, but might miss some of the deficiencies they would have ordinarily caught in calmer times.  This is just going to be a by-product of the crisis.

I hope this gives the victims of Harvey at least some idea of what to look out for and what to expect.  I have nothing to gain or lose by passing this on as I myself am (semi) retired and have no intention of going to the storm area to work.  Feel free to pass this on to anyone you might know in those affected areas, and give them my best wishes for a happy ending to this horrible disaster.


Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Hurricane Harvey strikes again...and again...and

It's hard to believe we've been watching and talking about Hurricane Harvey for a full week now.  First we watched it churn its way across the very warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico towards Corpus Christi, TX.  Firefighters with fast-water rescue boats, EMT's, and utility crews were sent south from all over Texas well before landfall.  Entire neonatal units were airlifted out well in advance to hospitals in Ft Worth and Dallas.  Harvey, which blew up into a very dangerous Category 4 storm right before it came ashore, missed the mid-sized city of Corpus and instead blasted nearby Rockport with 140 mph winds. 

If at that point it had acted like a normal hurricane and just gone inland and fallen apart in a day or two, the local / state authorities could likely have handled it.  But instead it went inland, dropped anchor, and just sat there, slinging rain bands further up the coast toward Houston.  

50-60 inches of rain later, 6 million souls in the Houston area were abandoning ship.  There was no way this could have been dealt with by local authorities, even with state backup.  To my fellow Texan's great credit, the good 'ol boys got out their fishing boats and monster trucks capable of wading through high water and proceeded to save lives.  Black lives, White lives, Asian lives, Democrats, Republicans, Christians, atheists, Muslims, young, didn't matter.  

And it wasn't just Texans.  A similar bunch of "le good 'ol boyz" from Louisiana brought their boats down (christening themselves the Cajun Navy) and began helping, too.  It was the absolute best of humanity working side-by-side....soooo impressive!

Then $%#^* Harvey moved up the coast even further and has now completely inundated Beaumont, Port Arthur, and Orange, TX, and Lake Charles, LA.  Never heard of them?  You will, as that's where a HUGE number of America's oil refineries are located.  (Gas in my area has already gone up $.30 a gallon in two days.)  Those areas are now at least as bad off as Houston.  HELP!

Reinforcements are now arriving by the hour.  There are over 100 military and civilian helicopters rescuing people, with more on the way.  The Feds are sending another 100 shallow bottom boats and 100 trucks capable of wading through high water.  Shelters are opening up all across the state, and the ANG is airlifting victims in to fill them.  All 14,000 Texas National Guardsmen, and another 10,000 from other states, are coming to the rescue, too.  Thanks to ALL!

What eats at me is, here I sit high and dry 300-400 miles away, and I can contribute very little.  They say to NOT send diapers, blankets, canned goods, etc, as all roads into the area are closed.  We could easily send 500 tractor / trailer loads, but they just can't get there.  They say just send money instead, which of course we did, and they'll buy stuff in bulk.  (Could you spare a few $$$ also?  PLEEEESE?)

The recriminations are yet to come....should they have had a mandatory evacuation?  (Six million people?  There would have been a 200 mile long / 48 hour traffic jam, with people starving and dying en route.)  Were the authorities caught flat footed? (No, not flatfooted, just overwhelmed.) 

But there ARE  lessons to be learned, namely that YOU are responsible for YOU.  Some how, some way, find a way to keep at least a weeks worth of food and water on hand, for both humans and pets.  Have plenty of any maintenance meds on hand, and some CASH, too.  And of course the typical batteries, flashlights, emergency radios, etc.  Go online and look up "prepping" for instructions and ideas.  (It isn't just for wacko's anymore.)

Whether you live in hurricane country, tornado alley, earthquake territory, or a giant metropolis that could all just explode some day for reasons beyond your control, be prepared.  Don't count on someone else to come save you.  

And tell me again how there's no such thing as "climate change"?  Weren't we warned years ago to expect more serious and more frequent violent weather patterns?  Well...TA DA!


Sunday, August 20, 2017

History is messy

 Ours has been a messy history.

Americans like to think history is all about the good guys vs the bad guys, and of course we're always the good guys.  Always.  We believe we are clean and pure and virtuous, when in fact, we've stumbled often.  Ours has not been a linear march to greatness.  "Yes it has been" you might say, "except for that slavery thing 150 years ago."  Oh dear, you'd better sit down.

We got off to a fine start when colonists arrived from Europe seeking a new, better life.  They built living quarters, planted crops....and eventually had to resort to sending raiding parties to demand food from the Native Americans, and in the process burn down their homes.  The Native Americans returned the favor by laying siege to Jamestown where many colonists died during the "starving times".  

The original colonists went on to established a democracy that has stood the test of time and been a beacon of hope for the oppressed of the world.  Yea us!  We also spent several Centuries systematically uprooting the Native Americans off "their" land and pushing them west so we could make it "our" land.  It was messy.

Fast forward 150 years to the Revolutionary War period when the locals objected to paying taxes on various commodities to help pay for Britain's war debts and for keeping a force of 10,000 troops in America.  Sam Adam's Sons of Liberty, disguised as Indians, boarded three British ships carrying tea and chunked it into Boston Harbor in protest.  Patriots or delinquents?  Lets just say the King wasn't impressed.  Relations between the colonies and Britain went steadily downhill until the time of the Declaration of Independence....George Washington's Continental Army....we won....big parade. 

Sam Adams, George Washington, and the boys were revered heroes that we still celebrate today.  But had the British won, Sam, George, and all our Founding Father's would have been hunted down and likely executed as traitors.  It could have been very messy.

For the next 75 or so years, the North developed considerable industry while the South remained overwhelmingly agricultural.  The South needed lots of cheap (slave) labor, the North didn't.  The South sent much of their crops to Europe in exchange for finished goods, which upset the Northerners who wanted the South to buy more of their finished goods from them.  The north wanted import tariffs to help their industry, the South didn't.  Great animosity arose. 

Leading up to the Civil War there was certainly tremendous and proper condemnation of the institution of slavery in the North, but an often soft-peddled fact was that the Northern money interests felt they were leaving money on the table, which chapped them greatly.  It was an incredibly sad, messy bit of our history, but thankfully we got it right.

The North of course won, making Grant and Sherman great war heroes, never mind that Sherman slashed and burned his way across the South to the Atlantic.  Hero or villain?  Depends on who you ask.  It was messy.  Then came Reconstruction, a period of great hardship for the average Southerner, and a period of great prosperity for Northern-backed carpetbaggers.  Oh, and how about that little Ku Klux Klan thing?  Nasty messy! 

How about America's industrial coming of age post Civil War?  Andrew Carnegie built an impressive steel empire worth over $300B in current dollars, and gave away much of it to charity, building thousands of libraries that still bear his name to this day.  What a guy, huh?  Oh, and he was a staunch anti-unionist who hired Pinkerton thugs to keep his workers in line, killing more than a few in the process.  His story was a messy one.

John D. Rockefeller cobbled together the modern oil industry, giving us cheap kerosene for lighting and later, gasoline.  His influence was immeasurable, right?  Yes, but he got where he was by "buying out" (under extreme duress) any small refiner who dared to stand in his way.  OK, honestly, he squashed competitors like bugs.  He got what he wanted, by whatever means were necessary.  His story was messy, too.

And don't forget Henry Ford.  He's the guy who established the original "living wage" and created America's middle class, put us all on wheels, which necessitated a large road network, making suburbs possible, and more.  He was a true visionary.  And BTW, he was also a staunch anti-Semite, anti-unionist, and like Carnegie, employed toughs to keep his employees in line, killing many.  Oooo....messy indeed.

FDR's Alphabet Agencies eventually got Americans back working during the Great Depression....the WPA, TVA, CCC....and the FDIC, FHA, and Social Security, as well.  He was admired by millions, and at the same time widely criticized by many (to this day) for leading America down the road to "Socialism".  Hero or villain?  Messy.  There are still fist fights over this one.

We defeated the Nazi's and the cruel Japanese Empire in WWII.  Surely we get a World Class pat on the back for that one, right?  Umm....ask the decedents of the120,000 Japanese Americans who were interred for the war's duration because we were scared of their names.  DOH!  Otherwise, *fist bump*

But we started the Marshall Plan to keep war ravaged Europe from starving and to help them get back on their feet.  Aren't we nice guys?  Absolutely.  Although our ulterior motive was to keep the Soviets out of our post-war sector of influence, and to create markets for US exports as Europe recovered.  Nothing is as cut and dried as it seems.  Messy.

Late 60's and early 70's....tens of thousands of Americans died in Southeast Asia fighting to stop the spread of communism.  We lost.  Yet we still came back home and built a well deserved tribute on The Mall to our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsman who died there.  We celebrated defeat?  No, we honored sacrifice.  Win....lose....history is messy.

The world is seldom a simple good vs evil proposition.  Its evolution is essentially two steps forward and one step back.  Don't jump to conclusions, regardless of your views on history.  The truth is messy.  Look at all sides, and be benevolent winners and forgiving losers.  Life is too short to do otherwise.