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GRAY MATTERS: Obama and Elders

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the weekly Gray Matters column which appears here each Saturday. Links to past Gray Matters columns can be found here. Saul's Reflections column, in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation, also appears at Time Goes By twice each month.


It may be said that Barack Obama, among his other firsts, has become the first president of the Internet age. The Internet, specifically the World Wide Web, did as much as anything in his campaign to help him win the presidency. And with some unprecedented techniques, he has governed through the internet - explaining his positions, publicizing his major proposals, making promises on issues such as Medicare and Social Security, and assuring prospective voters that his is one of the most open and tech-savvy administrations.

From the beginning of his campaign through his first year in office, he has had great help from a booming, left-leaning blogosphere including Move-On, the Center for American Progress, Buzzflash, Common Dreams, The Daily Kos, Crooks and Liars, Firedoglake and the very profitable Huffington Post.

George Bush could have used the net but as in most things worldly, he seemed ignorant about the internet and oblivious about its uses; and there seemed to no one able to teach him, if he was teachable.

Towards the end of his presidency some corporations helped found a couple of phony grass roots groups and sites such as Freedomworks.org, which was run by lobbyist and former House Majority Leader (under Newt Gingrich) Richard Armey, who helped create the Tea Party movement and now seeks the privatization of Social Security and Medicare, among other right-wing causes.

During Bush's tenure, Armey got money from corporations, to bring in audiences to the White House to support some of Bush’s initiatives; I doubt that Bush knew. But Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney did not use or need the internet as long as they had the cheerleaders of Fox (faux) News.

Now with no Bush to love, Fox has continued to have more influence that the pro-Obama blogs in its scurrilous campaigns, with Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly to cripple the Obama presidency. Think of what Fox did to Georgia Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod; it was a television lynching and Fox has still not owned up to its crime.

Obama has had relatively friendly relations with networks like MSNBC, and its commentators, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann. But they have not been Obama toadies, for they have been critical of the president and his policies, especially his compromises, when warranted. But they have not resorted to the kind of loony, hateful vindictiveness seen on Fox.

In an effort to bypass the mostly wrongheaded and irrelevant mainstream media, Obama has depended on several well done, professional web sites to get his messages of accomplishments across. The site www.change.org, ended with the beginning of Obama’s presidency.

It became the president’s perennial campaign site, Organizing for America, where people can link with the Democratic Party, sign up for the latest news from the administration, volunteer to help Democratic campaigns, read the White House analyses of new legislation such as the Wall Street reforms and the latest battles in the Congress. If you sign up, you’ll get periodic updates and you may be asked to contribute to Democratic organizations.

When last I looked at the site, it was linked to just about every social networking service, under the heading, Obama Everywhere. And I watched a fair but simplistic YouTube presentation on what the Wall Street reforms mean to homeowners. It does not include the giveaways to banks as a result of Republican opposition and Obama’s compromises.

If you want to know more than that, try financialstability.com which is a private search engine for financial planning and advisors. I don’t know if they have financial ties to Democrats.

As the administration perfects its internet strategy, it has created sites specific to the messages it wishes to deliver. The newest and most useful is HealthCare.gov which was launched earlier this month by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The site was designed for relatively simple searching to learn what the new health care reforms are offering and how to find private insurance. You may choose your state and find coverage options for yourself and your family and you can familiarize yourself with the new regulations that prohibit cancellation of your insurance if you get sick or refusal of coverage for a pre-existing condition.

Also, there is some handy information on what is now the law: Adult children can stay on their parents’ insurance until age 26. If you enroll in Medicare on a private plan, after September 23, most preventive tests, mammograms, prostate tests, colonoscopies and immunizations, will be free – no deductibles, or co-insurance.

And I guess you know by now that if your Part D drug coverage finds you in the dreaded doughnut hole, let HHS know and the government will ease your pain with a $250 check. Beginning next year the law calls for the gradual closing of the hole. The site has a link to one of the better nonprofit advocacy sites, The Center for Medicare Advocacy.

All this internet stuff is good, but the White House internet machine and its blogger allies are missing an important audience that Obama has overlooked to his political peril. Older people, who should be his natural constituency are not as enamored with Obama as many younger voters. One reason they are ignored; most of elders don’t use the internet. And the Obomans have, from the start, gone after the votes and enthusiasm of younger people.

But older people are the most consistent voters and their number is growing. The latest Pew Research poll reports that older voters are inclined this year to vote Republican by a 52-41 margin, Even voters over the age of 49 say they’ll vote Republican by a 45-43 margin.

Only young voters say, by a 57-32 margin, they’ll vote Democratic. Pew says Obama’s approval rating has dropped this summer by nine points among white independents and 12 points among women over 50.

Those figures for older voters, which reflect how they voted in 2008, suggest they will be voting against their interests for the Republicans promise to privatize Medicare and dismantle Social Security. But the older generation, may not believe those threats and may be more concerned about and afraid of the huge federal debt. They are, after all, still recalling the Great Depression.

Beyond that, Barack Obama’s youth and his cool and cerebral style, according to many commentators, are not connecting with the older generations. Their members of Congress hold meetings about the health care reforms, but they reach only a few people.. And the Medicare manuals they will get can be confusing.

Older people don’t care much about the reforms in private insurance, which they don’t use.

While more and more older Americans are taking to the internet, large numbers depend on the mails, television, their neighbors and doctors to figure out how the health reforms will or won’t affect them.

I’m not aware that HHS is reaching out to older people with mailings. And all they know is that they don’t want the government messing wit their Medicare.

Write to saulfriedman@comcast.net


Reverse Mortgages - Part 5: The Mandatory Counseling Session

category_bug_journal2.gif On Wednesday, I participated in the counseling session required by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) of all HECM (FHA insured) reverse mortgage applicants. A lender may not begin the mortgage process until it receives the certificate, signed by the counselor and applicant, that counseling has been completed.

The counseling is invaluable. My only complaint is that it should be done BEFORE you look for a lender. I did a lot of research and study, then used the HUD website to retrieve a list of local HUD-approved lenders, but my work would have been much more efficient if I'd had the counseling first – including some direction in how to choose a lender which the counseling includes.

If you get as far as choosing a lender before the counseling, the lender is required to give you a list of nine HUD-approved counselors to choose from. I didn't know that, so I asked the National Council on Aging (NCOA), a HUD-approved HECM counseling intermediary, for a recommendation.

The NCOA takes HUD-approved reverse mortgages seriously and offers trained counselors for no fee to low-income participants and for a $125 fee to higher-income applicants. The fee can be rolled into the reverse mortgage along with closing costs, home appraisal, etc., and the fee is waived with NCOA counselors unless you go through with obtaining a HECM.

The goal of this post today is not to provide you with details of the workings of HECM reverse mortgages, but to explain what you can expect from the counseling session.

My Counselor
Counseling may be done in person or by telephone. A face-to-face meeting is advisable if you are relatively uninformed about how HECMs work. In my case, I already had a lot of information so I was offered a phone session with Buz Zeman, a HUD-authorized counselor affiliated with NCOA.

He is also the director of Housing Options for the Elderly, Inc. (HOPE) in St. Louis, Missouri, and a veteran, since 1993, of 3,000 HUD HECM counseling sessions who also trains incoming HUD counselors. There isn't much he doesn't know. He was thorough, patient and an all-around good guy – a smart, impartial coach to obtaining a reverse mortgage.

In our first conversation last week, he asked some personal questions that would aid him in preparing for our counseling session: my age, income, marital status, estimated value of my home, whether there is a mortgage or other encumbrances, etc. All information is confidential and never disclosed to an applicant's lender.

We set a date and time for the counseling and Buz emailed a packet of information that included:

  • A letter confirming our appointment along with a list of the included documents for my review
  • A sample certificate of having completed the counseling
  • An overview of reverse mortgages
  • A list of the topics to be covered during the counseling session
  • A loan analysis including estimates and comparison – as examples - of the several versions of HECMs that I might choose from
  • Amortization tables showing examples of how much money would be paid out and left as equity over a period of years
  • Benefits checkup – other kinds of financial help that may be available locally
  • Going green and Energy Star information
  • Information you should know about after getting a reverse mortgage

Counseling will determine if you are eligible for a reverse mortgage and help you make an informed choice, but counselors do not recommend specific loan products or specific lenders.

The Counseling Session
Buz telephoned at the appointed time and he began with his explanation of the counselor's role. He then went through the personal and property eligibility requirements - currently, most co-op apartment are excluded but, according to Buz, should be included soon.

Then we went through the details of how a reverse mortgage works and in great detail, the numbers in the example reverse mortgage types he had prepared for me. I printed these out so I could follow along more easily than onscreen and make notes as we spoke.

Personalized HECM Details
This isn't easy stuff even if, like me, you have done extensive homework on reverse mortgages before the counseling. Buz's estimates came on a page with three examples of possible loan types I might choose from, side-by-side so I could compare.

He explained how the loan amount and interest rate are arrived at and how, if you choose an adjustable mortgage, it can change in the future. The loan principal limit is an estimate at this point that will change depending on the appraised value of your home which you won't know until you have begun the loan process.

[By the way, interest rates are very low right now, but there is no guarantee that will remain so in our volatile economic climate so this is a good time to do it if you have been considering a reverse mortgage.]

Costs and Fees
We went through the fixed costs and fees, and those that are variable – the latter being the lender's “margin” (interest rate), monthly service fee if you choose a variable rate loan and its “set aside,” origination fee and closing costs. These are subtracted from the final principle amount of the loan.

Like I said, there is much to learn in the details of this which involves a lot of numbers and percentages, but Buz patiently explained each item with excellent analogies that made it easier to understand.

I had been given similar estimates from the three lenders I had contacted. Most of the numbers were near matches to Buz's except for the loan origination fee of which there is a large spread of nearly $3600 among the three. Buz explained that although the origination fee is capped for most HECMs at two percent of the home appraisal, in recent months as HECMs have become more popular, some lenders have been reducing this charge (and/or some others) to be more competitive, which is a good reason to shop for a lender.

Buz noted that occasionally exorbitant title company fees have been discovered. This should not vary much from what a counselor has estimated for you and you can question these costs.

It helped a lot when Buz explained costs that are familiar from forward mortgages and those that are unique to reverse mortgages.

An important consideration is closing costs that can vary widely from lender to lender, but they should be close to your counselor's estimate. If they are much higher, you should consult your counselor. In my case, I have the list of closing costs from my recent purchase of this home so I will be able to compare those with the itemized list I will get when I apply for a reverse mortgage with a lender.

Prior to our counseling session, I had typed out a list of questions I had. Most of those were answered as Buz talked me through the possible loan terms and he carefully explained those that remained. This part of the counseling took up most of our time together.

Other Counseling Topics
He also explained tax implications. No income tax is paid on reverse mortgage income (it is a loan, after all) and interest is not deductible. Important: food stamps, SSI. Medicaid payments and a few other benefits can be negatively impacted.

Sometimes there are options other than a reverse mortgage that may be more sensible depending on personal circumstances and intended use of the funds. Those were clearly explained too along with the borrower's obligations.

Obligations include keeping property taxes, homeowner's insurance, flood insurance (if required in your area) and repairs up to date.

Buz and I covered many other details of reverse mortgages, but these are the major points. Buz also assured me that if I have more questions he is available by phone and email to answer them.

Choosing a Lender
You should definitely shop for a lender to get the best deal. Even a .25 percent difference in an interest rate can translate into an increase or decrease of thousands of dollars in the principal amount available to you from a reverse mortgage. And as mentioned above, some lenders are currently reducing costs in the name of competition, but this could change in the future.

Each lender you speak with should give you a written preliminary cost estimate on all the kinds of reverse mortgages that are available. Later, when you have chosen a lender, you will receive a Good Faith Estimate (GFE) which will be as close as possible to the final figures, although they can change slightly in the interim between receiving the GFE and closing.

Fraud is a common concern in regard to reverse mortgages; they have had a poor reputation. This should not be so. The vast majority of HECMs abide by HUD regulations, but there are occasional exceptions. From the preliminary material Buz emailed before our session:

”HUD has learned of a fraud scheme involving HECM loan officers. In one scheme, the loan officer arranges for the title company to pay the loan proceeds through two checks. One check is sent to borrower and the other is kept by the loan officer.

“In another scheme, the loan officer persuades the senior to sign over loan proceeds to the loan officer for future disbursement to the HECM borrower...

“The proceeds received from a loan should be paid directly [and only] to the borrower or should be deposited into the borrower's bank account.”

I don't know if all counselors do so, but Buz included in his package to me a list of lender deceptive practices that should be a red flag to anyone considering a HECM. Among them:

• Pressure to buy other financial products and services with the proceeds from your reverse mortgage

• The suggestion that a HECM is a “government benefit.” It is not; it is insured by the federal government

• The suggestions that a HECM will provide income for life. Funds are available only for as long as you live in your home

• A lender who pressures you to act quickly

• A lender that obligates you to fees before you receive the Reverse Mortgage Counseling Certificate

Bottom Line on Counseling
Buz cautioned that all counseling is not created equal so shop for a counselor as you do for a lender. If a prospective counselor tells you, for example, that the session can be done in less than hour, it will not be useful or worthwhile.

Although HUD requires training for all their approved counselors, Buz says it is not always adequate. HUD is working to improve training and certification, but meanwhile you should choose carefully to get the full benefit. Any good counselor should send you a package similar to what I have outlined before the session.

Personally, I recommend finding a counselor through the NCOA. It is an excellent advocate organization for elders that takes its mission seriously.

As mentioned above, I am convinced that counseling makes more sense to be done prior to shopping for a lender. Buz and the NCOA agree and are pushing for that to become standard.

I could not be more pleased with the counseling I received from Buz. Even with the research I had done before our session, I learned a lot that I hadn't known. He gave me alternative ways to think about some of the details and choices I was considering and I came away from our conversation feeling thoroughly grounded – so much so that I wish I had a Buz Zeman for other aspects of my life.

Thanks to Buz and my own research, I have decided to go forward with the HECM, and the next post in this series will report on the loan process.

The TGB Reverse Mortgage Series
Part 1: One Reason For a Reverse Mortgage
Part 2: The Basics
Part 3: Finding a Lender
Part 4: Do Not Fear HECMs
Part 6: The Home Appraisal
Part 7: Lender Conditions


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Walt Grant: Charlie “Chuck” Brown


GAY AND GRAY: A Movie Not to be Missed

The documentary film, Stonewall Uprising, is currently showing in many places around the country. I think many elders, especially those of us with vivid memories of the 60s and early 70s, might very much enjoy it.

Why? Because filmmakers Kate Davis and David Heilbroner have framed the story of the gay riot in 1969 in Greenwich Village during which sexual outcasts fought police repression in a way that catches the spirit of those exciting times.

The Stonewall eruption was about the crazy-making dissonance between a youth culture that was exploding with exuberant sexual liberation (and some commitment to peace and racial justice) and the still repressed condition of gay, lesbian and transgendered people.

In enclaves around the country, young heterosexuals were breaking all the old rules, living together other without marriage, taking advantage of readily available contraception, scandalizing their parents. Not surprisingly, homosexual people of the same age wanted the same freedoms. The moment was ripe for rebellion and the fags, drag queens, trannies and other riffraff at the Stonewall Inn acted it out in a two day riot.

All of this is not the message we emphasize through our contemporary, and necessary, gay civil rights movement. These days, we usually seek respectability, not exuberant freedom. And we should be able to join the military and get married if we wish. But first we had to just BE in all our raunchy excitement! The film, Stonewall Uprising, tells that tale.

Full disclosure: Kate and David - straight folks, by the way - are (comparatively young) friends of mine. We've been hearing about the making of the film for a couple of years.

This movie carries me back into my young self. I wasn't in New York then, but I was living that cultural explosion. I wouldn't want to live in that time again; but it sure is fun to visit.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, D. Sugar: Sell the Condo! The Grandchildren are Coming!


Heat Waves and Elders

category_bug_journal2.gif When, in 2006, I was forced to sell my apartment in Manhattan, I had to decide where to go. Because I considered New York City my natural home (and still do) and had been there for 40 years, it was a difficult choice - no particular place attracted me.

What was easy, however, was to eliminate the entire southern half of the United States. The reason? I hate hot weather. Dry heat is bad enough; hot and humid, for me, is agony.

I am physically miserable in hot weather but worse, my brain stops functioning. I become incapable of useful thought and can't even organize simple household chores that in normal weather I do by rote. Air conditioning does, of course, help but I don't like the feel of air conditioned air – it's clammy and just weird.

My body's response to extreme heat is different these days. In younger years, depending on my level of activity, I sweated over my entire body. Wearing sweat shirts soaked it up and I could get by.

With menopause, something changed. Since then, I hardly ever sweat in that wet-as-a-shower way – at least not on my body. But perspiration pours off the back of head, soaking my hair as much as if I had just washed it.

With temperatures in the uncomfortable three figures for much of the U.S. in recent weeks, it's a good idea to remind ourselves that in old age, we need to take special care because our internal temperature controls don't work as well as in our youth and heat can, in fact, be deadly for us.

In France in August of 2003, during an extreme heat wave, 14,802 heat-related deaths occurred, most of them elders. In the U.S., it is estimated that about 370 deaths a year are attributable to heat, half of them elders. There are precautions we can take.

Even if, like me, you dislike air conditioning, when temperatures hit 80F, it's time to pump up the volume of that appliance. Fans, say experts, don't protect against heat-related illness when temperatures are above 90 degrees; they just push hot air around.

So if you don't have an air conditioner, in the hottest part of the day it good to get yourself to, for example, a mall or go to a movie or the library or visit a friend who has air conditioning for a couple of hours.

If you have air conditioning and have elder friends or neighbors who don't, invite them for a visit in the afternoon. Some other hot weather tips:

• Wear light-colored, loose clothing.

• Drink plenty of liquids and make reminders to yourself to do so. Elders sometimes don't feel thirst (another thing that stops working well with age). One way to know if you are drinking enough water is to check the color of your urine. Light-colored is good; dark indicates dehydration.

• Do not drink caffeinated and alcoholic beverages; they are dehydrating.

• Plan trips out of the house and exercise for the early morning hours.

• Eat light meals that don't need to be cooked. High-water-content foods are good: cantaloupe, watermelon, apples, for example.

• Keep a spray bottle of cold water to help you cool down. Or use a damp, cool towel around your neck.

• Close doors to rooms you are not using to keep cool air from dissipating.

• Medications for high blood pressure, diabetes and other conditions can inhibit the body's ability to cool itself, so it might be a good idea to ask your physician if you can cut back during hot weather.

• Pull down the shades during the hottest times of day.

In that regard, I have been quite successful in keeping my home cool during hot weather without the air conditioner. In the morning, when the temperature here in Portland, Oregon is typically in the high 50s and low 60s, I open all the windows. Just yesterday morning, that lowered the indoor temperature from 74F to 65F in 30 minutes.

Here's Ollie the cat taking in the cool, morning air in the window sill.

OllieintheWindow

I keep my eye on the thermometer and when the outside temperature reaches 65F or 70F – usually by late morning - I close the windows and the shades. I haven't needed the air conditioner yet even on 90-plus degree days. It saves a lot of money, too, not using the air conditioner. But to repeat: do turn it on when it is necessary.

Heat exhaustion occurs when the body gets too hot. Symptoms are thirst, weakness, dizziness, profuse sweating, cold and clammy skin, normal or slightly elevated body temperature. Move yourself or someone experiencing this to a cool place, drink cool liquids, take a cool bath or shower and rest.

Heat stroke is a medical emergency. It can cause brain damage so get thee or the affected person to a hospital. It occurs when body temperature reaches 104 or 105 in a matter of minutes. Other symptoms include confusion; faintness; strong, rapid pulse; lack of sweating and bizarre behavior. Don't fool around with this.

There now. That's pretty much all you need to know about protecting yourself and others during hot weather. If you want to know more, just google: seniors “hot weather”.


A TGB EXTRA: In the category of age doesn't make you any smarter or nicer than you were when young: at the market yesterday, as I was trying to back out of my space in a crowded parking lot, I was blocked by a car left in a well-marked, no parking zone. The license plate read: GRAMMI. Grrrr.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ann Berger: Everybody's Good For Something


REFLECTIONS: On Social Security

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections We thought Social Security was safe when Barack Obama was elected. He had opposed George Bush’s attempt to turn the program into millions of 401(k)s subject to the whims of the stock market.

And Obama pledged to keep and preserve Social Security as it is, a defined benefit pension/insurance plan that pays $650 billion to 53 million older Americans, the disabled and the surviving spouses and children of beneficiaries.

But Obama has fallen for the cut-the-deficit frenzy, appointing a commission run by banker Erskine Bowles and right-wing, former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson, that began its work by attacking and talking about cuts in Social Security’s benefits.

The president, who says he is still hostile to such cuts and that its long-term financial problems are easily fixed, adds ominously that “everything is on the table.”

That makes me nervous because Obama compromises too much with sworn enemies of Social Security, so perhaps he, as much as the rest of us, needs a primer on the crown jewel of the American moral imperative towards its older population.

How It Works
Social Security is about to celebrate its 75th year and still too many people don’t know much about it. It has lasted through wars and recession, longer than many blue chip corporations. Yet the reasons for its abiding strength are not universally understood.

For example, I’ll wager that not many of us realize that Social Security’s basic benefit – Old-Age

Survivors and Disability Insurance (OASDI) - was designed to replace, on average, about 40 percent of a worker’s final salary. Now, 75 years later, give or take one or two percent, that average replacement rate remains about the same.

But more than that, Social Security was designed to be progressive, which means lower-salaried workers can count on pensions replacing a larger portion of their wages than more affluent persons. To oversimplify, the low-wage waitress, who earned, say, $15,000 a year through most of her working life, can live fairly comfortably on a 40 percent replacement rate.

For a person earning $200,000 a year, Social Security’s benefits are relatively small, but not inconsequential, for the checks will be available no matter the changes in even an affluent beneficiary’s situation during retirement.

There should be no means test excluding the rich from Social Security; the sudden disappearance of the value of 401(k)s, belonging to Enron retirees is a case in point.

Redistribution of Income
It is true, as the experts say, that Social Security was designed to redistribute income from the more affluent wage earners to the lower income workers. That, of course, is the essence of progressivity and one large reason the program has been so successful and beloved. It’s worth knowing the details.

To begin with, Social Security consists of the old age benefit, (35 million workers and dependents), disability insurance (9 million), and survivors’ insurance (6 million, mostly children).

According to the Urban Institute, the Social Security programs redistribute income in five major ways:

  1. From richer workers to poorer workers through a progressive benefit formula.
  2. From shorter lived groups (blacks, men and the less skilled and educated) to longer-lived groups (women and the better educated white collar workers).
  3. From single persons to married couples through survivor benefits paid to spouses and children who don’t need to make further contributions.
  4. From the healthy to the disabled through disability payments for persons who qualify.
  5. And from later generations to earlier generations.

Pay As You Go System
The “redistribution of income,” of course, is anathema to conservatives and many Republicans, who have battled Social Security from its beginning as too much government. But younger persons (and many older beneficiaries) have little understood that Social Security is and always was a pay-as-you go system, in which today’s payroll taxes provides the benefits for the older generation.

Some in the younger generations resent that they pay for my benefits, but some day, with luck, the younger generation will grow older and will need their children’s contributions for their benefits. This pact between generations is one of Social Security’s great strengths and moral contributions.

Not a Ponzi Scheme
Another complaint heard from the younger generation is that Social Security returns too little on their investment, or that its like a Ponzi investment scheme, taking from newer members to pay older members.

But Social Security is not now and never was an investment plan; it is a pension and insurance plan with defined benefits based on one’s lifetime earnings, supported by $800 million (in 2008) in payroll taxes (12.4 percent, split between employer and worker) on incomes up to $106,800.

More on that cap later. But know this: in its 75 years, Social Security has never been on the red.

Nowhere Near Bankrupt
Nevertheless, too many young people – and demagogues in politics and business – have fallen for the myth that Social Security is near bankrupt and benefits won’t be there when they become eligible. But the 2009 report of the Social Security trustees, whose reports are made yearly, contradicts the gloom sayers.

Under the law, the trustees are obliged to peer 75 years into the future to assess Social Security’s health. Nowhere in any report have the trustees anticipated bankruptcy.

In the short-term, the trustees reported, the combined Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) and the Disability Insurance (DI) trust funds are now adequately financed over the next ten years. Most such projections are based on very conservative economic growth rates and other estimates (by the Congressional Budget Office) are more optimistic.

Even though the recession has meant more money is being paid out that is coming in payroll taxes, the Social Security system remains in the black because of its increased earnings from interest (about $700 million a year) paid to the massive $2.4 trillion trust fund, which is expected to increase to $3.9 trillion by 2018. What a tempting dish of money the greedy privatizers would love to lay their hands on.

But in the longer term, if the growth rates are lower than they are now or have been, the trustees concluded that around 2018 the benefit costs will rise more rapidly than income, largely because of the retirements of the post-World War II baby boom generation (persons born between 1946 and 1964).

Economist Paul Krugman asks, “What happens in 2018 or whenever, when benefit payments exceed payroll tax revenues? The answer is nothing,” for the system can redeem some of those bonds it holds.”

Eventually, around 2037, say the trustees, Social Security will have to begin to cash in some of the special issue treasury bonds it holds to pay current benefits, but only if nothing is done by the Congress in the meantime.

We will get to proposed solutions, but I should note here how small the problem is: The trustees say Social Security’s deficit for the next 75 years amounts to two percent of payrolls, which means an increase of one percent in payroll taxes split between employee and employer could solve the coming shortfall.

But do you know of any bank or corporation that can say they will be in business for the next 30 years? Let me count: Whatever happened to U.S. Steel, the Pennsylvania and New York Central Railroads, Enron, AIG, and dozens of defunct banks and saving and loans?

Social Security and the Deficit
The privatizers and Obama’s commission are worried that entitlements such as Social Security are adding to the budget deficit. But the fact is that Social Security now adds not a penny to the deficit. Here’s why.

The heart of Social Security, the $600 billion plus benefits it pays, come out of self-sustaining trust funds paid for by payroll taxes. It is not – repeat - not part of the budget.

This year, the Social Security system, with more than 15,000 employees in Washington, its vast headquarters in Baltimore and hundreds of offices throughout the country, has asked for $21 billion for administration expenses.

It is one of the most efficient organizations in the land, sending out millions of checks on time, keeping track of the earning of millions of card holders, as well as monitoring Medicare and deciding on disability and survivor claims. That $21 billion, a tiny fraction of the benefits paid, is the only money that’s part of the deficit. (If Social Security, at some distant time, must redeem its bonds, the Treasury will reimburse Social Security and that expense would become part of the federal budget, but that’s a very long shot).

So why the fuss about Social Security adding to the deficit? The reason is the dishonesty of Republicans and their right-wing allies on the Commission who are using the deficit to dismantle and turn the program, which they’ve long opposed, into millions of private investment accounts.

Simpson told a reporter, contrary to the trustees, that Social Security is already broke. Erskine Bowles, Bill Clinton’s chief of staff was making a deal with Newt Gingrich to cut Social Security when it was sidetracked by Cinton’s troubles with Monica Lewinsky. If Bowles and Simpson are honest, they must know that the Social Security problem is not the deficit, but the long term financial health of the nation’s most treasured social insurance program.

That’s happened before and it took a couple of Republicans to save and strengthen the system.

Past Problems and Fixes
In 1983, when Social Security was in imminent danger, President Ronald Reagan, convened a commission headed by Alan Greenspan to solve its financial problems. Reagan had been a critic of Social Security, even suggesting that it be made voluntary, which would cause its collapse.

But Reagan grew in office and the Greenspan commission saved the system for the next 75 years with a few significant fixes. It slowly raised the retirement age to 67, it raised Social Security payroll taxes beyond what was needed to pay benefits and, most important, the commission brought into the system all federal (and many state) employees, including members of Congress who had their own retirement programs.

The result was the growth of the trust fund to an amount that will be able to pay benefits to the 70 million boomers. Simpson scoffs that the treasury bonds are “a bunch of IOUs” forgetting that all bonds are, in essence, IOUs. But the United States has never defaulted on its bonded debt.

Current Social Security Problems
Today the problems of Social Security, as the trustees indicated, are not grave. Greenspan says the coming Social Security shortfall “is not a big problem.” Yet members of Obama’s commission are seeking draconian fixes – all of which would cut benefits.

For example, they are considering slowly raising the retirement age to 70. But because Social Security is vital to keeping older people out of poverty, raising the retirement age would consign millions to live in poverty waiting for their benefits. How many people in their sixties who worked hard at tough jobs will die while waiting?

A study for the AFL-CIO by the liberal Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), notes that the commission so far has talked only about cutting Social Security benefits rather than shoring up the system. One proposal, changing the formula for calculating benefits, would reduce checks by up to 9.6 percent for middle income wage earners who are in their late 40s.

Raising the retirement age to 70 would cut benefits by up to 10 percent for workers in their forties and fifties.

And cutting the cost-of-living adjustment even by one percent would result in a 12 percent cut in benefits for retirees.

Economist Dean Baker, director of the CEPR, noted that so far the commission seems to be considering only benefit cuts. “There is a great deal of talk in policy circles about cutting Social Security, but very little discussion of the financial situation of those affected by the cuts.”

A poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, commissioned by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, found that only two percent of Americans believe Social Security is a major cause of the deficit and 78 percent oppose raising the retirement age.

Easy Fixes for Social Security
There are easier fixes that won’t cut benefits: Obama proposed the simplest solution when he was running for president and before he became enamored with turning the cheek of compromise. At the moment, as I mentioned, the Social Security payroll tax is imposed on the first $106,800 of earnings, which means the most affluent executives pay no more than their secretaries. Obama proposed raising the cap to $250,000 while lowering the taxes for many workers.

The National Committee poll found that 50 percent of Americans, including some high wage-earners, favored solving Social Security’s future problem by removing the cap. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein said the Congressional Budget Office estimates removing the cap would raise $100 billion a year in revenues. And it would solve Social Security’s future shortfall.

Even the most affluent figures, including Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, have suggested removing the cap. Social Security could also raise money by being allowed to invest in higher-yielding Treasury bonds rather than the lower yielding special bonds.

You can do some research on how to solve Social Security’s 30-year financial problem by playing the Social Security game at the site of the American Academy of Actuaries. It shows how removing the cap would more than solve the program.

But we Social Security advocates need you to understand that if the present version of the Republican Party regains control of Congress, it leaders and its candidates have promised to kill the nation’s finest contribution to social justice. They will dance on Social Security’s grave rather than celebrate its diamond jubilee.

For one of the best statements on Social Security and the deficit commission, here is the testimony of John Kenneth Galbraith's son at the deficit commission.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, William Weatherstone: Seniors Beware: Modern Technology


Interesting Stuff – 26 July 2010

Until about a year ago, I wrote a weekly Elder News column for this blog with short takes and links to web items related to aging. Sometimes I miss that feature so today, here are a handful of things – mostly unrelated to aging - that have recently caught my attention.

The Speed of Change
British mystery writer P.D. James. who will celebrate her 90th birthday next week, spoke to the Montreal Gazette about the “horrifying” pace of technology change which, she says, elders cannot keep up with. Not all the change is bad, however. James thinks teaching children about sex at younger ages than in her youth is a good thing for kids. But, she notes, it's not so good for mystery writers:

"Dear old Agatha Christie had 'A' murder 'B' because 'A' was having an affair and thought 'B' would tell,” says Dame P.D. James. “Now, of course, people write about their affairs in the Sunday newspapers.”

Read more of her interview here.

Thinking Plants
A Polish scientist, presenting findings at a meeting in Prague earlier this year, says his work shows that plants transmit information from leaf to leaf in a way that is similar to human nervous systems.

“When we shone the light for on the plant for one hour and then infected it [with a virus or with bacteria] 24 hours after that light exposure,” said Professor Stanislaw Karpinski from the Warsaw University of Life Sciences, “it resisted the infection. But when we infected the plant before shining the light, it could not build up resistance...”

Another plant scientist, Professor Christine Foyer, a plant from the University of Leeds, said Karpinski's study "took our thinking one step forward.”

"Plants have to survive stresses, such as drought or cold, and live through it and keep growing," she told BBC News. "This requires an appraisal of the situation and an appropriate response - that's a form of intelligence.”

More detail on this story at the BBC website.

Astonishing Unemployment Map
If you include the underemployed and those who have given up looking for a job, about 31 million are, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, out of work in the U.S. The astonishing map in the YouTube video below, titled "The Decline: The Geography of a Recession," was created by labor writer LaToya Egwuekwe. It shows the growth of unemployment county by county from January 2007 until May 2010.

You can see a larger version of the map animation at this website.

Hospital Delirium
Eighty-four-year-old Justin Kaplan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, became delirious in a hospital last year while being treated for pneumonia.

“For hours in the hospital, he said, he imagined despotic aliens, and he struck a nurse and threatened to kill his wife and daughter.”

Doctors call it hospital delirium and the astonishing fact, according to the American Geriatrics Society is that it affects one-third of patients older than 70.

“A delirious patient happens almost every day,” said Dr. Manuel N. Pacheco, director of consultation and emergency services at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass. He treated Mr. Kaplan, whom he described as “a very learned, acclaimed person,” for whom “this is not the kind of behavior that’s normal.

“People don’t talk about it, because it’s embarrassing,” said Dr. Manuel N. Pacheco, director of consultation and emergency services at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “They’re having sheer terror, like their worst nightmare.”

Read more at The New York Times.

Nice Political Zinger
Our American politicians aren't known for their senses of humor, but there was a rare exhibit of quick wit yesterday on Fox New Sunday, hosted by Chris Wallace. While discussing the Shirley Sherrod furor, this exchange took place between former House leader Newt Gingrich and former presidential candidate, Howard Dean:

GINGRICH: If the Obama administration is this afraid of Glenn Beck, how do they deal with the Iranians?

DEAN: There may be some similarities, Newt.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jerry Rasmussen: Elizabeth Cotton's Banjo


ELDER MUSIC: Paul Kelly

PeterTibbles75x75You never know who you're going to meet on the internet and I came to know Peter Tibbles (bio here) via email over the past couple of years. His extensive knowledge of most genres of music and his excellent taste became apparent only gradually (Peter's not one to toot his horn) but once I understood, I knew he needed his own column at Time Goes By - or, better, that TGB needed his column - which appears here each Sunday. You can find previous Elder Music columns here.


category_bug_eldermusic Paul Kelly is Australia’s best known singer/songwriter and one our best.

Paul Kelly

Paul was from Adelaide originally. Legend and one of his songs have it that he was born in a taxi on the way to the hospital. As he put it in the song, It's All Downhill From Here,

I was born in a crowded taxi
Daddy scooped me right up off the floor
And he carried me up the path
Through the big swinging doors

He was the sixth of nine kids and his grandfather was an Italian opera singer at La Scala in Milan who was touring Australia when the First World War broke out. He stayed and married one of his singing students, Anne McPharland, who was Australia's first female symphony orchestra conductor.

To quote Robert Forster writing about Paul in The Monthly:

“It can seem futile trying to chase down biographical material on Paul Kelly because just as he's ducked the glare of mainstream pop stardom, his self-effacement and unease with his past have left the songs to sketch the details, a situation he probably feels comfortable with.”

Paul moved to Melbourne when he was 21 and has been here pretty much ever since. He writes songs from the small moments of life and turns them into profound statements.

I’m sorry if that sounds over the top, but you’ll see.

He first came to general notice with the song, From St Kilda to Kings Cross, about a bus trip from Melbourne to Sydney. In the song, Paul is reluctant to leave Melbourne to travel to Sydney and I can understand his reticence as I am fellow Melbourne resident.

Here is the St Kilda Esplanade (Melbourne) mentioned in the song...

St Kilda Esplanade

…..and this is Kings Cross (Sydney).

Kings Cross

♫ Paul Kelly - From St Kilda to Kings Cross

I find this next an intensely moving song about a cleaning lady (and no, it’s not Sadie for those readers who are well versed in Oz pop history) and her son. It shows how Paul can make poetry out of the most mundane of subjects. This is Other People's Houses.

♫ Paul Kelly - Other People's Houses

Paul Kelly

Paul can rock with the best of them - after all he started in a rock band, The Dots. This is a rocking number but he still brings his songwriting skills to the fore. To Her Door was his biggest hit. These are the first few lines where he sets the background to a possible reconciliation that’s not actually mentioned in the song.

They got married early, never had no money
Then when he got laid off they really hit the skids
He started up his drinking, then they started fighting
He took it pretty badly, she took both the kids.

Succinct writing that lets you fill in the gaps. Songwriting rarely gets better than this.

♫ Paul Kelly - To Her Door

(Silver Top is a taxi company in Melbourne)

Paul Kelly

Here is an interesting love song - a father talking to his child. You don’t often hear them from that perspective. The song is When I First Met Your Ma.

♫ PaulKelly - When I First Met Your Mother

The Fitzroy Gardens mentioned in the song are (just one of) the gardens that surround Melbourne’s central business district.

Fitzroy Gardens

Paul wrote a song based on Raymond Carver’s short story, So Much Water So Close to Home. He condenses the story of men on a fishing trip who find the body of a murdered girl in a river and then fish on for a couple of days, before reporting it.

It is written from the perspective of one of the men’s wives. This is not the only song he has written from a female point of view. The song is called Everything’s Turning to White.

♫ Paul Kelly - Everything's Turning to White

Paul Kelly

Paul is involved in trying to improve the lot of our indigenous people and not just through writing songs. It was a toss-up between including this song or From Little Things Big Things Grow that he co-wrote with his good friend and Aboriginal singer/songwriter, Kev Carmody.

The latter song is a little more specific and it probably requires some knowledge of what it’s about, so I’ve gone with Special Treatment. This was inspired by right wing nutbags carrying on about how Aborigines are getting special treatment with all the government policies designed to improve their lot.

As always, it’s not an angry song; Paul just points out the facts. Special Treatment.

♫ Paul Kelly - Special Treatment

I’d like to finish off with another quote from Robert Forster about Paul’s singing voice:

“Kelly doesn't seem to be interested in authenticity at all - it just comes naturally to him, and it reaches further because of that, to the campfires and the bush, the suburbs and suburban pub and the inner-city sophisticates. His voice - sly and warm, laconic and sometimes frail - may be the closest thing we have to a national one.”

Paul Kelly


GRAY MATTERS: Dr. Robert Butler

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the weekly Gray Matters column which appears here each Saturday. Links to past Gray Matters columns can be found here. Saul's Reflections column, in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation, also appears at Time Goes By twice each month.


My friend and mentor, Bob Butler, liked to tell the story about the old man who went to his doctor complaining of pain in one of his knees. When the doctor told him that it was a sign of old age, the patient told the doctor, “My other knee is just as old. Why doesn’t it hurt?”

The lesson, of course, is one of the simple truths about aging which marked Dr. Robert N. Butler’s long career: Old age, he taught us, is not an affliction but a blessing and a vital part of a life to be lived.

People don’t die of old age, he said, nor do they inevitably decline into senility. They die of diseases, some of which can be prevented and cured. And it so it was with Butler, who died earlier this month at 83 of acute leukemia. But he worked until three days before the end. And what work he did.

He came to fame winning an unlikely Pulitzer Prize for a book on, of all subjects, aging. But the book, Why Survive? Being Old in America, gave new hope and publicity to the fastest growing group in the nation’s population, Americans over 60. The book described the plight of older people, nearly 20 percent of whom were struggling in poverty which was much higher than the 9.7 percent rate today. It was just ten years after Medicare and Medicaid, and the practice of geriatrics was relatively primitive.

Butler had been a research psychiatrist, but became a geriatrician promoting the specialty in medical schools throughout the country. According to The New York Times, the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York asked Butler’s advice on whom to hire for a new geriatrics chair. He proposed successfully that the school create a department devoted to gerontology; it was the nation’s first.

Geriatric medicine has not been a popular specialty, partly because most patients end up sick and/or dying and the practice is not as rewarding as, say, orthopedics or pediatrics. But as Butler wrote in his book, he learned about the strength of the elderly from his grandmother:

“What I remember even more than the hardships of those years was my grandmother’s triumphant spirit and determination. Experiencing first hand an older person’s struggle to survive, I was myself helped to survive.”

But he has taught the current generation and millions of older Americans, who have never heard of Butler, that mere survival is no longer the goal of old age. It’s a new time to live as well as you can.

Butler’s book and his rather revolutionary approach to aging made him the natural to become, in 1975, the first head of his creation, the National Institute on Aging which is part of the National Institute of Medicine.

He held that post for six years, during which he wrote and spoke against what he called “ageism,” the mostly legal discrimination against people because of age. At the Institute, he established research on aging as a legitimate field. He helped found the National Council on Aging, and numerous federal and state laws have erased much of that discrimination and have given older people special help, like handicapped parking.

As a result of the Butler revolution, organizations promoting healthy aging and the political, cultural and social aspects of aging have become important parts of American life. AARP is the largest and most influential membership organization of its kind in the nation fighting for Medicare and Social Security as well as how to live the good life after 50.

And there are at least a dozen other groups lobbying and advocating for older Americans. If aging has been transformed so that 60 is the new 40, Bob Butler is at least partly responsible.

After his first book, he wrote Sex After Sixty, in 1976, with his second wife, Dr. Myrna Lewis, who died in 2005. And he’s written dozens of articles, papers and books since.

But his most definitive work, two years ago, was The Longevity Revolution, The Benefits and Challenges of Living A Long Life. As Butler was fond of noting, life expectancy in the United States and most nations of the has gained an average of more than 30 years in the last century, more than had been attained in the preceding 5000 years of human history. And it’s still growing rapidly, as a result of medicine, genomics, revolutionary drugs and preventive health techniques like tests for cancer.

Butler has called these great advances in longevity the Age Boom. And his final life work has been the creation of the International Longevity Center in Manhattan, a superior think tank on aging.

He established an annual Age Boom academy for journalists and researchers and in 2001, I was privileged to attend the first of these intensive, week-long seminars on the latest research into aging, where I learned of new drugs, new discoveries on brain function.

It was there that I learned that, contrary to a long-held belief, that the older person’s brain does not necessarily deteriorate, but continues to grow neurons and synapses almost until death. Dementia is not the inevitable result of aging.

Butler and another writer, Theodore Roszak in America the Wise, called on all of us to celebrate, rather than fear, the growing population that is living longer, healthier, more productive and rewarding lives. Yet, as Butler wrote,

“Despite this great human achievement, one of the most striking demographic events of all times, some politicians, pundits and economists respond to this revolution in this longevity with gloom and doom.”

Butler was an ardent advocate for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and, eventually, universal health care. But he and Roszak condemn those forces, mostly Republicans, headed by former hedge fund billionaire and Nixon Commerce Secretary, Pete Peterson, who believe the nation’s social insurance cannot afford longevity. So now they seek to privatize Medicare and cut Social Security benefits.

Although Social Security is sound for another 30 years but could be extended even further with minor adjustments (a one percent raise in payroll taxes or removal of the $106,000 cap on the income subject to taxes), Peterson, most Republicans and some conservative Democrats are talking about raising the Social Security retirement age to 70.

They do not take into account the workers in heavy industry or the coal mines who cannot wait until then to quit working. Raising the retirement age is an automatic cut for millions of workers in their fifties or sixties. And who can estimate how many workers will die after they are 65, waiting for their Social Security checks.

Peterson, who once suggested that the United States was becoming a “nation of Floridas” with unproductive older people laying about, has been in the forefront of those who wished to privatize Social Security. Now, he’s using longevity and the debt and economic crisis that he and his Wall Street buddies helped create to get their hands on the $2.5 trillion in Social Security trust funds.

Would that Butler were still alive to continue his fight to preserve the social insurance legacy that helped give this century the longevity revolution he celebrated.

Write to saulfriedman@comcast.net


To the Keyboards, Elders

category_bug_ageism.gif Until Wednesday's post, it had been many months since either Crabby Old Lady or I had had a good rant about everyday, commonplace ageism. It felt so good - and is important enough - that I'm doing it again today.

In general, ageism is not taken seriously. In its most grievous forms - age discrimination in the workplace and in healthcare - it deprives elders of employment years before they are ready to retire and sometimes denies medical procedures that would improve and extend elders' lives – the latter of which Celia addressed in her comment on Wednesday.

Although we were discussing less serious forms of ageism, I wonder if all types are not equally debilitating in that they feed on and support one another making discrimination against elders acceptable. If elders are commonly slighted in the media, for example (which we are), certainly that makes it easier for an employer, when he or she is planning layoffs, to dump more gray-haired old people, no matter how experienced, than younger ones.

In hundreds of small ways each day, it is reinforced to everyone that youth is the gold standard of life and it is acceptable to treat old people as though they are not quite full citizens.

Elizabeth Rogers made an important point Wednesday about dignity – of which elders are mostly deprived:

“The only way we'll get through this aging thing with a scrap of dignity intact is to keep on giving 'em hell - and spending our money for goods and services where people look and talk TO, not at, us. We've earned the right to be treated decently - as long as we remember to be pleasant to deal with.”

Elizabeth's point is well taken, but I'm not so sure about that last part, “remember to be pleasant to deal with.” If someone has ignored me or treated me badly, I don't believe I have any obligation to “handle” them or treat them more nicely than they have behaved with me. Maybe it's the New Yorker in me.

A few years ago, I had been standing in the lengthy breakfast line at a deli counter in Greenwich Village for a long time. One of the clerks served the man in front of me and then let his eyes skip past me to the man behind me.

“Hey,” I said loudly enough for everyone in the shop to hear. “What am I, chopped liver?”

“I didn't see you,” said the clerk. “I'll get to you when I'm finished with this customer.”

“Just a damned minute,” I said. “I was here first. Let him wait his turn.”

It's not that it mattered if it took another couple of minutes for me to get my coffee and bagel. What matters is that I be treated the same as younger people. That I not be ignored because I am old. That I be accorded the same dignity as everyone else.

Margie's grandmother, I'm certain, would have agreed with me:

“Her retorts,” reported Margie in her comment, “which, depending on her mood, would sometimes escalate into 'I'm not deaf and dumb, you know!' and 'Do I look stupid to you?' I like to think that a few of those waitresses learned a thing or two about aging from my grandma.”

Doctafil made it clear to an ice cream clerk that she would not be ignored and Paula, in her comment, suggested:

“Speak up - early, often, and with a list of questions fired fast, like a slightly annoyed school principal.”

Hurray for everyone in these stories. In a culture that values youth above all else, elders will not be given the ordinary respect younger adults and even children receive unless we speak up each and every time we are ignored, made invisible and treated as though we are slightly incompetent.

If it takes some yelling or belligerence to get those people's attention – that's okay. There's an old joke about a guy who, to the horror of a friend, keeps whacking his mule in the head with a two-by-four. The punchline is, “First, I've got to get his attention.”

And sometimes, because ordinary, everyday, insulting ageism is so common, people need a virtual whack on the head to get the point.

If we don't speak up, we become complicit in our own disrespect. For the benefit of all elders and for our children who will be elders someday, each of us has an obligation to help set it right every time these things happen. Otherwise there is no chance it will stop. Or, as Nance puts it:

“This is the leading edge of a tsunami of elder-awareness. With a cohort the size of this one, I defy the country to remain as ignorant and prejudiced as they've been.

"To the keyboards, Comrades!”

EDITORIAL NOTE: Tune in here tomorrow for Saul Friedman's weekly Gray Matters column in which he writes about Dr. Robert N. Butler, the man who coined the word, ageism.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: Guanxi


It's Not Old Eyes, It's Anyone's

Yesterday, the Bluetooth earpiece I had ordered arrived. The purpose is to have both hands free when I'm talking on my cell phone. You know the drill otherwise: someone says, “Check out this website,” and you're stuck trying to type in the URL with one hand because you can't hold a cell phone by your shoulder without losing the call.

Having never hooked up a Bluetooth device, I needed to read the instructions. This is what I was confronted with:

Instructions

Huh? And that image is true to size. And it's not my old eyes - a 17-year-old couldn't read that font.

Grrrrr.

It's a minor annoyance and I solved it with a scan and font increase in paint.net. However, no one should be required to do that to read a couple of pages and it makes me angry that I've given money to a company that makes no effort to meet such an obvious customer requirement. But too late now.

Mostly, however, this is to tell you that I'm taking today off from blogging. Two friends are having a terrific summer adventure motorcycling from New York City to the west coast and back with their beautiful, black Labrador, Rufus, riding in his own attached car. They arrived here a couple of days ago, we had a wonderful visit, but I'm a little tired and need to rest.

I'll be back tomorrow. See you then.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Walt Grant: Safety First


Why Aren't They Talking to Crabby Old Lady?

For a good while, Crabby Old Lady has sensed that some of the media has stopped talking to old people – not in general (although a case could be made for that), but about their own important life events. This was on her to-do list to look into, but the idea was still vague and she had misplaced the examples that had piqued her interest.

Then on Monday, two items turned up in one day. An email arrived with this message:

“When you love someone, you're committed to their well-being; you would never dream of letting them live someplace where they didn't feel at home...

“Find the best senior housing for your loved ones at SeniorsforLiving.com.”

Crabby understands that it does sometimes fall to grown children to find living accommodations for their aging parents, most often when they are no longer capable of making decisions for themselves. But millions of elders find new homes ranging from age-limited communities for the 55-plus crowd, to various levels of independent living, clear up to planning for the possible need of assisted living, nursing and respite care.

The company that sent this email deals in all these possibilities. Plus, they call themselves SeniorsForLiving which sounds to Crabby like they are talking to her. But throughout the website, they spoke only to others.

A short while later, Crabby stopped by the AARP website where the day's featured story was titled, When Parents Need to Move. Wait a minute, thought Crabby. Isn't AARP's aim, goal, mission, etc. to represent the interests of people like herself - older than 50 - who are their members? People who join their organization of their own free will? People who pay their own membership dues?

So why are they, and why is SeniorsForLiving.com talking past Crabby Old Lady like she's not in the room?

Okay, 50-, 60- and 70-year-olds sometimes deal with ailing 80- and 90-year-old parents so a story about their need makes sense. But as anyone else in their sixties and older, Crabby is all too aware that she may need daily help caring for herself one day and it jars her sensibility to be left out of the conversation – especially from two organizations whose business is all old people all the time.

No one has trouble talking to Crabby Old Lady about anything else. Everywhere she turns, people urge her to color her gray hair, take up skydiving, embrace Twitter, buy a Kindle – you know, all that stuff that's supposed to make her appear younger.

But when it comes to the really important issues about getting old – like the possibility of waning health, for example – they refuse to directly address Crabby, as though she is already demented.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Mary B Summerlin: It's Easy – You Can Do It


Elder Music and Shared Passions

category_bug_eldermusic One of the first things someone told me about New York City when I moved there in 1968 was that if your interest or passion is one in a million, there are seven more people there who share it. Now that we have the internet, of course that pool of like-minded people is even larger.

I met Peter Tibbles, who writes the TGB Elder Music column on Sundays because he sent me a lot of email notes about the music stories I was writing. We are blog/email friends because he lives way down there in the land of Oz and I'm in North America, but he is no less important to me for the distance.

I don't remember how I came to know Citizen K and his eponymous blog, but we've actually met in person when he and his wife visited Portland, Maine a couple of years ago. Perhaps we'll do that more often now that I live on “his” coast.

This story begins with Peter's recent Elder Music post about Emmylou Harris. Citizen K's was the first comment that day:

“She can do no wrong!

“While leaving one of Emmylou's shows, my late wife opined that, 'It's not fair that someone can look like that and sing like that!'”

Now. Due to the way things happen online, two days ago I received this email note from K:

“Peter Tibbles and I have become friends via Time Goes By. After his post last week, we exchanged mails confessing our lifelong crushes on Emmylou Harris and jokingly explored the possibility of a blog called 'Old Farts for Emmylou.'”

That's funny, but it's also quite cool. How often does it happen that you can help two people, who wouldn't otherwise know one another, find a shared passion?

In this case, Peter and K have turned their joke into reality with a blog titled, 365 Days of Emmylou Harris and subtitled A Year-Long Mosaic of Videos, Photos, Art and Words. You can see it here.

But wait. I don't know about you, dear readers, but I think the two guys' initial inclination for the blog name - Old Farts for Emmylou – had a ring to it that's missing in their whitewashed version. What do you think?


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ian Bertram: Real Books


Elder Scams and Cons

You're way too smart to be taken in by a con artist, right? You may worry about your parents and older friends being scammed, but you know you can see one coming a mile off. Or can you?

Elders are the most common targets of scams and frauds. A recent survey [pdf] conducted by Infogroup/ORC for Investor Protection Trust, a non-profit organization that promotes investor education, revealed that 20 percent of people in the U.S. age 65 and older – 7.3 million – have been victims of a financial swindle.

According to the FBI, elders are the most common targets of fraud and the number and types of scams on the FBI website is astonishing. You should know about these:

  • Health insurance
  • Counterfeit prescription drugs
  • Funeral and cemetery fraud
  • Anti-aging products
  • Telemarketing fraud
  • Internet fraud
  • Investment schemes
  • Reverse mortgage scams

It was the last item on the FBI list that brought me to this topic because I couldn't understand why there are so many warnings about reverse mortgages when it is no longer possible for lenders to sell borrowers other financial products while setting up a reverse mortgage.

According to the FBI, there are different, more creative ways involving real property to fraudulently separate elders from their money (see list here; scroll down to "reverse mortgages") and their last bit of advice is the best: “seek out your own reverse mortgage counselor.” That is, never set up a reverse mortgage with someone who contacts you.

As I got interested in following up on those other kinds of elder scams and fraud, that one simple idea became bleeding obvious: NEVER, EVER BUY ANYTHING FROM STRANGER WHO CONTACTS YOU.

Whether it is a reverse mortgage, diamond earrings for your wife or daughter, insurance or an investment, do your homework – the internet makes it easy. Call trusted friends for advice, talk your banker or other appropriate professionals with whom you have done business in the past to select a product or service.

For yourself or a parent, it is not hard these days to avoid many potentially fraudulent solicitations.

You can cut down on unsolicited calls from sales people with the national Do Not Call registry, managed by the Federal Trade commission. Sign up with your personal phone number(s) and except for political organizations, charities and telephone surveys, all sales calls will stop.

I've been signed up since the registry began in 2003, and it works. On the rare occasion I've received a call from a telemarketer (three or four times in seven years), I've told them I'm on the registry and they high-tail off the phone. Penalties are stiff.

If you receive an offer to have your telephone number removed from telemarketing lists – especially for a fee – run. Yes, scammers even try to scam the fraud protectors. Although it doesn't hurt to register your cell phone with the registry, federal regulations already prohibit most telemarketing calls to cell phones.

Here's all you need to know about cell phones and the registry at the FTC website.

The four credit rating agencies (Equifax, TransUnion, Experian, Innovis) have together created another opt-out service for what are called “firm” offers of insurance and credit – that is, “pre-approved” and “pre-screened” offers that usually arrive by snailmail.

At the website, you can opt out for five years, opt out permanently or, if you change your mind, opt in again. I've only just opted out, so I can't say yet if it works as well as the FTC Do Not Call registry.

Some con artists are – well, artists at what they do and anyone might be taken advantage of when they're not paying attention, so here are some reliable sources of fraud information:

FBI Elder Fraud page with tips on avoiding them

FBI List of Frauds with tips on avoiding them

AARP – Alerts and general information

And don't think that because a sales person is our age that he or she is honest. Just last week, Bloomberg published a story about aging con men who target elders.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: Privacy


ELDER MUSIC: Bach Solo

PeterTibbles75x75You never know who you're going to meet on the internet and I came to know Peter Tibbles (bio here) via email over the past couple of years. His extensive knowledge of most genres of music and his excellent taste became apparent only gradually (Peter's not one to toot his horn) but once I understood, I knew he needed his own column at Time Goes By - or, better, that TGB needed his column - which appears here each Sunday. You can find previous Elder Music columns here.


category_bug_eldermusic I started this as a general piece on Johann Sebastian Bach but the first couple of tracks I chose were for a solo instrument. Ah, I thought, why not do the whole column on some of Bach’s works for solo instruments? Then I can visit old Jo again some time (as if I need an excuse).

These are stripped back works; think of them as Bach Unplugged if you like. Actually, more like Bach Uninstrumented (except for one).

Bach wrote quite a lot of works for a single instrument. He must have had a bunch of good musos around asking for new works all the time. Of course, he was pretty good on several instruments himself so maybe they for his own delectation.

Johann's father, Johann Ambrosius Bach, taught him to play violin and harpsichord. An uncle, Johann Christoph Bach, taught him the organ. Alas, his father and mother both died within months of each other when Jo was only 10.

He moved in with his oldest brother, Johann Christoph Bach. There could be a bit of confusion at Bach family get-togethers, I imagine. I'll save the rest of his background for another day and get on with the music.

Bach

The piano as we know it didn't come along until way after Jo went toes up. He wrote a bunch of things for the harpsichord, one of which I'm featuring down below. Enterprising pianists over the years have thought, "We can play these, keyboards are the same." Well, except for the colors of the black and white keys being reversed.

I wonder if the white keys played louder in Bach's time (very obscure joke). Anyway, what all that waffle means is there are a lot of transcriptions of harpsichord works for piano and I, for one, prefer the piano interpretations. This is the strange, but always interesting, Glenn Gould playing the Toccata in E minor BWV 914.

♫ Toccata BWV 914

The violin was certainly around in Jo's time. After all, he learned to play it himself. Around 1717, Jo was on the lookout for a stable job and found one with Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen. Leo was a musician himself who appreciated Jo's talents, however, he was a bit uptight, a Calvinist, and there was none of that elaborate music in Jo's religious works for him.

So Jo wrote secular works: orchestral suites, the six suites for solo cello and the Brandenburg concertos are all from this time. He also wrote sonatas and partitas for solo violin and it's part of one of the partitas we have today, the Partita No 2 D minor, BWV 1004.

♫ Partita for Solo Violin No 2 BWV 1004

Bach

I’m not a big fan of organ music except when Booker T or Al Kooper is at the helm. This isn’t the case here. I had to play several of these CDs to find a track that didn’t offend my sensibilities. The things I do for you. Of course, it’s Bach, so it could have been a lot worse.

Here is the fugue in B minor BWV 579 (After Corelli). That means that old J.S. was not above a bit of pinching from other composers. We know that he copped some of Vivaldi's as well. I guess it’s the folk process, only on a grander scale.

♫ Fugue in B minor (after Arcangelo Corelli)

Bach

Jo didn’t write any pieces for guitar but he did write for the lute. Guitarists through the years have transcribed these for the guitar, as has been done for the piano (well, not the guitarists in that case), I’m happy to go along with that.

For those who prefer the lute, there's a bit of luting going on down near the bottom of this column. For the moment, it's some guitar work. This is the Sonata No 2 in A minor BWV 1003. It began life as a sonata for violin, so it wasn't just lute transcriptions the guitarists indulged in.

♫ Sonata No 2 for Guitar

In spite of being a whiz on several instruments, Jo was best known in his day as a keyboard player, particularly the organ. However, he certainly liked to dabble a bit on the harpsichord. Indeed, he transcribed other composers' works for this instrument. He was particularly fond of Vivaldi and arranged a bunch of his violin concertos for the harpsichord.

This isn't one of them, I just threw that in for a bit of light relief. This is one of his own, the Allemande from Partita No. 1 in B major BWV 825.

♫ Allemande

Boy, I don’t know about this lute. This is from the cover of the CD and if I saw that lute approaching, I’d be out of there. It looks like a shark or a crocodile or at least a barracuda. They had dangerous instruments back in Jo’s days. It also looks as if you had to be half undressed to play it.

Bach-Lute

According to the CD, this is a 13-course lute. Sounds like a degustation to me. No accompanying wines were mentioned, however. Be that as it may, this is the Gavotte from the Suite in G minor for lute, BWV 995.

♫ Gavotte I and II

Bach

I think the apex of Jo's solo works were for the cello. I know the organ aficionados will disagree with that and that's their privilege.

He wrote six cello suites and all of them are marvelous, so it was a bit of a coin toss to decide which one to play. Actually, more the throw of a die (as there are six of them). I didn't do it that way, I let my ears do the tossing and came up with number 3. This is the second movement, the Allemande, from the Cello Suite No. 3 BWV1009.

♫ Cello Suite No. 3



GRAY MATTERS: Growing Poverty

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the weekly Gray Matters column which appears here each Saturday. Links to past Gray Matters columns can be found here. Saul's Reflections column, in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation, also appears at Time Goes By twice each month.


Long before there was a war on terrorism and the war on drugs, the nation declared war on poverty. Specifically, Lyndon Johnson in his first State of the Union, in 1964, declared amid great cheers from the Congress, an “unconditional war on poverty in America” and he pledged not to rest “until that war is won.”

In his last State of the Union in 1988, Ronald Reagan, who had been no fan of Johnson’s agenda, declared to snickering lawmakers, that in the War on Poverty, “poverty won.”

He was right, of course, but at least part of the reason was the hostility of the Republicans and segregationist Southern Democrats to the array of Johnson’s civil rights and anti-poverty campaign.

Richard Nixon adopted the War on Poverty and gave us the Social Security cost-of-living protection, but he abolished the Office of Economic Opportunity and other key segments of the law. Jimmy Carter eroded part of Social Security, and Bill Clinton boasted that he “ended welfare as we know it” by destroying the Depression-era Aid to Families With Dependent Children.

This bipartisan gnawing away at anti-poverty programs has had consequences for millions of poor American families.

In 1964, 19 percent of Americans lived below the poverty line; the numbers of poor Americans was estimated at a shameful 50 million. That declined to 12.8 percent in 1968, and 11.1 percent as late as 1973.

But after that brief decline in the poverty rates, since Reagan’s speech in 1988 and his emphasis on the “truly needy,” poverty in the United States has made a slow climb upwards to the 2008 rate of 13.2 percent, nearly one percent higher than in 2007, the most significant increase since 1994. And that doesn’t count the near-poor who live desperately just above the poverty line.

But the overall figures don’t tell half of the ugly story of poverty in the richest nation on earth. The 2008 Census Bureau figures – bad as they were – do not take into account the effects of the Great Recession. It will doubtless show an alarming slide into poverty for millions of American families, especially children and young workers and minorities who for the first time in their lives, need food stamps, Medicaid, extended unemployment insurance and the poverty programs that have been decimated.

In these cynical times, with deep divisions between left and right, it’s hard to believe there was a time when a book and a couple of articles struck a chord in the American conscience that made the plight of the poor a major issue.

University of Virginia historian Kent Germany recalled the works that caught the attention of President John Kennedy and his brother Robert. The New York Times’ Homer Bigart wrote a series on poverty in Appalachia which is at Washington’s door step. And the New Yorker’s Dwight MacDonald wrote a glowing review of Michael Harrington’s The Other America, a searing portrait of the 50 million poor.

John Kennedy had campaigned in the desolate areas of West Virginia. Later, Robert Kennedy made a tour of the most poverty-stricken areas and his report to his brother set in motion what became Johnson’s War on Poverty. Part of the groundswell for action came from the moral imperatives of the civil rights movement which opened many wounds including the plight of the poor – rural whites as well as blacks who lived without basic amenities.

Thus the Johnson administration, in the wake of Kennedy’s murder and his 1964 election sweep, pushed through the Congress the elements of his war on poverty, some parts of which still stand: the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO), Volunteers In Service to America (VISTA), Upward Bound, Head Start, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, the Community Action Program, programs for rural areas, the urban poor, migrant workers, small businesses and local health care centers.

And because the reasons for poverty had their roots in racism and segregation, the Great Society programs included an $11 billion tax cut, the Civil Rights acts, the Food Stamp Act, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (which encouraged school desegregation), the Higher Education Act, the Voting Rights Act, and, of course, the monuments of Medicare and Medicaid.

Those two years, 1964-5, were the greatest periods of the federal government’s social activism since the Great Depression’s New Deal. But Johnson’s agenda and the latter years of his presidency were crippled by the Vietnam War and a Republican come-back in 1966.

Since then the turn away from government has been dramatic, epitomized by Democrat Clinton’s declaration that the “era of big government is over.” But what have we wrought in this time of the near-depression and the need for government? The poor and the newly poor have only a tattered safety net and official indifference.

According to the Census Bureau there were nearly 40 million American men, women and children struggling in poverty in 2008, before the full effects of the downturn were felt. Now the numbers surely reach past 50 million. The Pew Research Center estimates that 55 percent of adults in the workforce have become unemployed, taken a pay cut or had their hours reduced. The official unemployment figure is 9.5 percent, but many estimates say the real unemployment/underemployment rate is closer to 20 percent.

The long-term unemployment rate has not been seen since the Great Depression, with a quarter of the jobless without work for more than a year. Yet Republicans refuse to help with extended unemployment benefits; they cry crocodile tears over the deficit caused by the recession they helped create, but they seem not to care about the human costs.

Economist Dean Baker says, with some knowledge, that the Republicans want to keep unemployment high to discredit Barack Obama’s economic policies the better to win the off-year elections in November.

High, long term unemployment has put a strain on pantries and other facilities providing food for the poor. And most shameful are the unemployment rates (more than 25 percent) among young workers and their families.

And no one is suffering more than children. Before the recession, the official poverty rate among persons under 18 was close to 20 percent. Poverty rates among children over the last 40 years ranged from 15 to 23 percent. So we are at a new high. According to the Urban Institute, before the downturn, 37 percent of children lived in poverty for their first year, and ten percent spent half their childhoods (nine years) in poverty.

Kids know what poverty is like. I remember the humiliation when my mother applied for what was called “relief” and inspectors came to the house to determine if we were really poor.

During the Depression, writers like James Agee, Sinclair Lewis, T.S. Eliot and photographers like Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans and Robert Capa helped Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal stir the American conscience to action as Homer Bigart, Michael Harrington and the Kennedys did a generation later. Where are such voices now?

Write to saulfriedman@comcast.net


Reverse Mortgages – Part 4: Do Not Fear HECMs

category_bug_journal2.gif This week, I met in person with each of the three prospective reverse mortgage lenders I had spoken with on the telephone. They had all emailed comparison estimates of types of HECMs I might choose showing interest rates, loan amounts, monthly payouts, closing costs, etc.

These people are not the actual lenders; they are originators who work with banks – usually several – with which they place the reverse mortgages they originate.

All three, who deal only in reverse mortgages (no forward mortgages), are knowledgeable about the many details of HECMs and I was struck by how passionate and compassionate they are – two of them in particular - about helping elders to a more comfortable old age if possible.

Two confirmed something I had read in several places online; the number of reverse mortgages is down this year. One hangup is that in 2009 HUD reduced loan amount limits by 10 percent. A related reason is that fewer people (no more than one in 30, one lender told me and another confirmed) can qualify for reverse mortgages nowadays because they have increased their forward mortgages through refinancing over the years and/or have outstanding lines of credit leaving too little equity to qualify for a HECM.

The rule is that outstanding liens on homes must be paid off from the proceeds of a reverse mortgage and in fact, some people use HECMs for that alone – to eliminate a mortgage payment - and do not take any cash. So if the equity isn't there, two of the lenders told me, they can't do anything to help elders, some of whom are in terrible financial trouble with nowhere to turn.

For a long time, reverse mortgages have been seen as a last resort to use only in desperate circumstances when money is needed and there is no other source to tap. One of the reasons reverse mortgages have had such a bad reputation is that until a few years ago, lenders were allowed to make the loan with one hand and simultaneously sell the borrower another kind of financial instrument – sometimes fraudulently - with the other hand.

Unscrupulous lenders might, for example, sell the elder an annuity that did not pay out until he or she was 100 years old, or something equally repellent. That has not been possible for some time; lenders are forbidden by HUD to sell any other financial products to their reverse mortgage borrowers.

Still, the belief that this happens hangs on – so much so that just about any explanation about HECMs, including consumer advocate organizations and mainstream media, includes a warning about fraud - almost always about those annuities that never pay out.

It is gradually being recognized, however, by people who take the time to investigate the reality of HECMs, that reverse mortgages can be one more tool in planning for a reasonably secure retirement.

Many elders lost large percentages of their life savings and investments in the 2008 crash and therefore lost a chunk of income they had planned on and saved for. For others, pensions have been whittled down or have even disappeared due to corporate bankruptcies. And homes many elders had long expected to sell to help with their retirement have lost value or, in the current real estate climate, can't be sold at any price.

All this leaves elders, after a lifetime of planning, high and dry with no place to turn.

But if there is a good deal of equity in an elder's home or, even better, it is mortgage-free, many – including me – are beginning to see no reason to leave that money sitting there doing nothing. One of the lenders I met with told me of meeting with an elderlaw attorney recently who, until they spoke, had no idea about how a reverse mortgage works and the value it can have for his clients.

There is no reason to be afraid of a HECM, but the details can be daunting so you do need to do your homework.

The closing costs for a reverse mortgage, including the loan original fee and the mortgage insurance premium, are higher than for most forward mortgages, but they are added on to the mortgage – or, rather, are deducted from the proceeds the borrower receives. In my meetings with the three lenders, each gave me estimates of the costs and proceeds of several types of mortgages using the purchase price I recently paid as the appraisal estimate, and walked me through all those numbers, interest rates and caps, service fees, etc.

And, as I said above, they are all knowledgeable, experienced and likable people. I would have no difficulty working with any of them, so choosing one would be difficult. Except...

Most of the closing costs and upfront fees are set by HUD. The variable is the origination fee (also deducted from the proceeds of the loan) which has, in recent years, been in the $3000-$5,000 range. This year, however, lenders are increasingly reducing the origination fee and even swallowing all or part of the upfront mortgage insurance premium, which is substantial – two percent of the loan proceeds.

Two of my potential lenders gave me estimates that included the standard origination fees; the third reduced it by more than 75 percent. In the end, this entire endeavor is about money for my future.

Reverse Mortgage Series
Part 1: One Reason For a Reverse Mortgage
Part 2: The Basics
Part 3: Finding a Lender
Part 5: The Mandatory Counseling Session
Part 6: The Home Appraisal
Part 7: Lender Conditions


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Olga Hebert: Chuck Visits the Garden


REFLECTIONS: On Official Stupidity

SaulFriedman75x75 Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman (bio) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.


Category_bug_reflections I doubt if you’ve heard of the late J. Edward Hutchinson, a Republican congressman from Michigan from 1963 to 1977. But for a time back then, he presented me and the rest of the press with a dilemma common in journalism, which has relevance today: How can we describe a politician or public official as dumb or stupid without being unfair, inaccurate or too subjective?

Hutchinson, a stolid old-line conservative, was the ranking, top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee considering the impeachment of President Richard Nixon for the crimes he committed in connection with the Watergate scandal. The Judiciary Committee under Rep. Peter Rodino, D - NJ, was careful to remain bipartisan and 11 Republicans worried about the rule of law and the integrity of the Constitution joined Democrats in voting for impeachment.

I covered those weeks of open and closed-door deliberations as a reporter for the then Knight Newspapers and as a columnist for the Detroit Free Press. During those weeks, Hutchinson said not a word and didn’t ask a single question in all the committee’s open sessions. And as far as I was able to determine he said and asked nothing in the closed meetings when evidence against and for the president was presented.

In short, Hutchinson, who should have been leading the committee Republicans was a cipher which, according to one dictionary, means a zero, a person or thing of no importance. He might as well not have been there. But he was, totally silent, except for voting “no” with ten other Republicans opposed to the first article of impeachment.

My problem, as I wrote in my column, was to explain Hutchinson’s silence. A journalist can call a politician “dynamic” or “forceful” but how to get across the subjective judgment that he/she is just plain dumb, dense, ignorant or stupid?

All I could do at the time was to describe his silence. Much later he was to tell Nixon to resign. But Hutchinson’s conduct on the committee was condemned by the Michigan legislature and he resigned in the face of a primary challenge by David Stockman, who went on to fame as Ronald Reagan’s budget director.

The rules of straight journalism are a lot looser today. The Wall Street Journal scored a breakthrough some years ago with a page one story that named the then-senator from Virginia, Bill Scott, as the dumbest member of Congress. Scott promptly confirmed the story by issuing a denial. Since then, in this age of journalism as entertainment and the wild blue blogosphere, almost anything goes.

So I feel confident that I can, with objectivity and enlightened subjectivity, point out stupidities like those of Rep. Michele Bachmann, R - Minn., a born-again and again Christian who began this session of Congress by calling for a congressional investigation of President Barack Obama and members of Congress who, she said, are “anti-American.”

I think she meant that they were, you should excuse the expression, “liberal.” She said she was “very concerned that Obama has anti-American views.” The president’s suggestion that young people serve in Americorp, she said, was a plot to put young Americans into “re-education camps.”

She was one of the leading Republican liars when she and others picked up Sarah Palin’s claim that the health reforms would create death panels to permit the euthanasia of the elderly. Politifact called it “the lie of the year.” But Bachmann has persisted and defended her racist colleague, Rep. Joe Wilson, R - SC when he shouted “You lie” at the president during his State of the Union speech.

And, as expected Bachmann has joined most Republicans calling for the repeal of the health reforms that are about to become effective and are supported by most Americans who want to give the reforms a chance to work.

Even before the president sealed the deal with BP CEO Tony Hayward to set aside, in escrow, $20 billion to pay for its oil spill damage to people and the environment, Bachmann was against it:

“The president just called for creating a fund that would be administered by outsiders. Which would be more of a redistribution of wealth fund. And not it appears like we’ll be looking at one more gateway for more government control, more money to government.”

The money, of course, is to go to victims of the spill. When the details, including the appointment of Kenneth Feinberg to monitor the claims as he did for New York’s responders to the 9/11 attack, she joined her equally dense Republican colleague, Rep. Joe Barton, of Texas, in calling the escrow account a “shakedown.”

She didn’t join in Barton’s apology to BP, but she hasn’t blamed it for the Gulf of Mexico disaster. It was Obama’s fault. The death panel lies and the misinformation about anything Obama proposes, will fade, but were they based on dumbness, ignorance, stupidity or political venality and the irrational hatred of their president?

Her candidate for President in 2012, she said, is fellow right-winger Rep. Steve King of Iowa who cast the lone vote last year against acknowledging that slaves help build the U.S. Capitol. He has described gay unions as a “purely socialist concept.” More recently he told interviewer G. Gordon Liddy, a Watergate burglar,

“I’m offended by [Attorney General] Eric Holder and the President...The President has demonstrated that he has a default mechanism in him that breaks down...on the side that favors the black person.”

Without foundation or any evidence, he accused Holder of not pursuing a series of cases because those accused were minorities.

I nearly forgot to include among the stupid or dumb death panel liars and nuts, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R - N.C., who seems like a benign grandma until she speaks. On the hate crimes legislation, passed as a result of the beating death of a gay man, Matthew Shepard, Foxx voted against it and said that reports that he was beaten because he was gay was “a hoax that continues to be used as an excuse for passing hate crime bills.”

Shepard’s mother heard that piece of cruelty in the gallery.

In September 2005, Foxx was one of 11 members of Congress to vote against a $51 million aid package, supported by George Bush, for victims of Hurricane Katrina. And she was one of 33 Republicans to vote against an extension of the 1964 Voting Rights Act.

But her fame rests with her opposition to the health care reforms which will make insurance, like the kind Foxx and other lawmakers have, more affordable for an estimated 40 million people who are uninsured.

But last July Foxx said, “There are no Americans who don’t have health care.” Echoing Bush’s assertion that people can always go to emergency rooms, she added, “Everybody in this country has access to health care. We do have 7.5 million Americans who want to purchase health insurance who cannot afford it.”

And in a floor speech, she took the death panels lie to this absurd conclusion:

“I believe we have more to fear from the potential of that bill passing than we do from any terrorist right now in any country...The [health reform bill] will put seniors in a position of being put to death by their government.”

Unfortunately, one of the dimmer lights in the U.S. Senate, Charles Grassley, R - Iowa, joined in that stupidity. The Institute of Medicine says that 18,000 to 22,000 deaths, including some of Foxx’s constituents, are recorded each year among those who are uninsured. Does Foxx care?

That question leads me to wonder why even smart politicians are so dumb as to fail to see the folly and danger to constituents in their own words. Case in point: Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, head of the Republican Governors’ Association and a longtime leader among more sensible Republicans.

He has ambitions for the presidency in 2012, but that was before he took a most sanguine view of the Gulf oil disaster that threatens the seafood-rich coastal waters of his state. With the oil heading toward Mississippi, Barbour likened it to the gasoline sheen found around ski boats. He said, “We don’t wash our face in it but it doesn’t stop us from jumping off the boat to ski.”

Before oil clumps started coming ashore, prompting his belated call for help from the federal government, Barbour said the spill was nowhere near the size of the one from the Exxon Valdez when, in fact, it’s many time larger.

He said, “It’s just possible that what happens here will be manageable and of moderate and even minimal impact.” Speaking of impact, it should be pointed out that BP gave the Republican Governors’ Association $10,000 a few years ago, part of $51,350 it got from oil companies which contribute heavily to the state’s tax base.

Even as dead fish washed ashore, while other Gulf Coast governors struggled for ways to keep the oil away, Barbour encouraged potential visitors to “come on down to play golf, enjoy the beach, catch a fish.”

Other Barbourisms: “If a small animal got coated enough with it (oil), it could smother it. But if you got enough toothpaste on you, you couldn’t breathe.” The oil, he said, is “weathered, emulsified, caramel colored mousse, like the food mousse. Once it gets to this stage it’s not poisonous.”

But Bob Cesca of Huffington Post pointed on June 26, to what he called “a new level of stupid” from Barbour, when the governor said, of the $20 billion BP was placing in escrow, “It bothers me to talk about causing an escrow account to be made, which will make it less likely that they’ll make the income that they need to pay us.” It took Jon Stewart to point out the absurdity: Said Cesca,

“Paraphrasing Stewart, Governor Barbour appears to be suggesting that if BP sets aside $20 billion to be paid to victims of the oil spill, it won’t have enough money to pay out to victims of the oil spill. In other words, Barbour is against compensating victims because he supports compensating victims.”

Barbour is no stranger to lost causes. Not far from the Confederate flag he keeps in his office signed by Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis, Barbour has a large portrait of the University Greys, a Confederate rifle company that suffered 100 percent casualties at Gettysburg.

And when Republican Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia left any mention of slavery out of his declaration of Confederate History Month, Barbour defended him, saying, “there’s no need to mention slavery,” even though it was a central cause of the Civil War - uh, pardon me, The War between the States.

I tried to find Democrats on the various lists of stupid members of Congress, but the only one I found was an anonymous site that listed, former Rep. Cynthia McKinney, of Georgia, the first black woman to represent the state. She served six terms before she was defeated when Republicans crossed over to vote for her Democratic primary rival.

She may have been a firebrand and a conspiracy theorist, questioning who was behind 9/11 and she was quirky, but she was not stupid. She opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and ran for president for the Green Party.

It might be amusing to point to the foibles, the inanities and absurd statements of these mostly right-wing Republican figures. Indeed there have been more that I have not included. But their ignorance, stupidities and the venality that seems to accompany their hatred and opposition to everything their president says or does cannot help but hurt the nation, its institution and ordinary people.

What is the excuse for the Senate’s Republicans, who make a pretty good living off the taxpayers, to deny extended unemployment benefits to 1.4 million workers who have been without jobs for more than a year? Their kids, who are getting free breakfasts, are told by one Missouri legislator (a Republican) that they should have breakfast with their parents and not sponge on the government or get a job with McDonald’s to get free meals.

Republicans say they worry that the unemployment costs would increase the federal deficit which their votes during the Bush years helped create. The real reason, as expressed by George Will, was a hoary old Republican argument that was made against Social Security, that unemployment compensation will discourage people from looking for work.

At the same time, Will and his conservative cohorts criticize Obama for the lack of jobs. Go figure.

I believe there is something else at work here: There is plenty of evidence that Republicans, since 1992, have attempted to reverse elections that Democrats –and moderate liberals –have won. So Republicans, during the Newt Gingrich years and later, with the Starr and other pointless investigations, sought – with some success – to destroy and discredit Bill Clinton’s presidency. Unfortunately, Clinton did not help himself.

And in 2000 and 2004, Republican corporate money and right-wing activists undermined and reversed Democratic chances. At best, in the eyes of many Americans, the outcome of those elections remains questionable.

Now, yet again, the Republican mission, as enunciated by their gods, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, is to bring about the failure of the Obama presidency and the reversal of the people’s will. Where is the party of Lincoln in this effort?


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Johna Ferguson: Chinese Features


Favorite Vacations

I've known since last week that this one would be busier than usual: meetings with several potential reverse mortgage lenders, a lot of reverse mortgage homework, some plumbing work here to oversee and several other obligations – in addition to the usual chores and errands and TGB work.

Even while recognizing it could cut into the time I needed for other things, on Sunday I began reading a novel that from reviews and recommendations, I could pretty well guess would be unputdownable (if you'll forgive the nonce word). And I wasn't wrong.

Mage of Postcards: Sorry, no review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo except to say if you like well-plotted mysteries or police precedurals with a couple of fairly compelling protagonists and writing that in some places is good enough to make you jealous, go for it. It's much better than most summer reads.

Pat Temiz: I'm glad I haven't bought the other two books in the series. If so, I'd have to give up the blog for the next week or two. I'll get the second one only when I know I have a couple of free days.

It's been so long since I've read a novel that I had forgotten how much fun it is to lose yourself (“drown” as Ashleigh Burrows of The Burrow aptly puts it) in a long, compelling story. I read a lot of non-fiction – aging-related, politics, history – and I enjoy them, but putting them down isn't difficult like a page-turner of a novel.

While having a great, good time reading and simultaneously feeling guilty about ignoring TGB over the past two days, I could almost hear my mother saying, as she so often did when I was kid, “Ronni, put down that book and go outside. Go ride your bike.”

In those days, I'd sneak the book with me and as soon as I was out of sight of home, I'd sit under a tree and continue reading. Maybe that's why I have never disliked rainy days – they are good excuses to stay in and read.

It hasn't changed; I've always been that way. When I'd grown up and couldn't wait to find out what happens next in a book, I do the minimum I could get away with at work without screwing up anything, then shut my office door and read. (This is, of course, before some jackass invented cubicles.)

At least once, I stayed up all night to finish a good book and then called in sick to work so I could sleep during the day. Most of the time, after an all-night reading binge, I dragged myself into the office, but for all that got done, I might as well have stayed home.

Always, my happiest kind of vacation has been to take a stack of books to wherever I was going. Let others wear themselves out traipsing through every ancient castle in the vicinity or studying every painting in the city's museums. That goes only so far with me, then I want to lie back in a comfortable chair, put up my feet and lose myself in a book. Now THAT'S a holiday.

I think I'll assign a week not too far in the future as my vacation, shut down the computer for the duration and read the rest of the Stieg Larsson trilogy.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Jerry Rasmussen: T-Shirt Testimony


The Joy of a Good Summer Read

Yesterday, Crabby Old Lady explained that she was light on blogging because she was having a load a fun with a great page-turner of a novel she doesn't want to put down. And so it is, as I write this, on Tuesday afternoon, that after four-hour meeting with a potential reverse mortgage lender, my mind is mush and all I want to do is get back to the book.

You will just have to forgive me; until I finish that story, I'm not going to have much interest in anything related to this blog.

To give you a little bit of something to chew on, let me tell you about two online places I look forward to each morning and one that that was a fascinating surprise.

Naked Capitalism
I've been reading Naked Capitalism every day for several years. It's a financial/economics blog run by Yves Smith who operates a management consulting firm that specialize in corporate finance. Each day, there are two or three original stories from Smith and others along with a collection of links to the best or most interesting or enlightening or infuriating financial stories online.

Although finance and economics is the blogs reason to be, there are often links to science stories and anything else that catches Smith's interest. What they have in common is that all are well chosen, excellent reads.

And then, to help keep up your spirits after all the bad news, there is always the “Antidote du jour” - a to-die-for-cute animal photo, every single day.

The Consumerist
It's been around for a good while, but I've only recently discovered The Consumerist, the blog of Consumers Union with the subtitle “consumers bite back.” It's packed tips and complaints and stories about good deals and deals gone bad. It's fascinating.

I mentioned The Consumerist a few weeks ago when the blog gave its annual Worst Company in America award to my new cable provider, Comcast. What I didn't know then is this is the third year in a row Comcast has "won."

To the Supercave
Over a lifetime, I have read a few of stories about caving, spelunking that I found mildly interesting, but it's not much on my radar. Until this link popped into my mailbox this morning. An interview with a writer who has just published about the efforts of “extreme cavers” to find the deepest place on earth. It is fascinating – oh, and I found it on Naked Capitalism this morning.

Now I'm going to go finish that book. See you tomorrow.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Brenton “Sandy” Dickson: Seventies Madness


Unintended Technology Troubles

[EDITORIAL NOTE: You won't find anything about being old here today. Crabby Old Lady is halfway through the first novel she has read in more than a year - Steig Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Yeah, yeah – Crabby is way behind the rest of the world in reading this popular series, but she's just as hooked. So she's slacking off pretty much everything else until she finishes. ]


Because Crabby Old Lady heard this little story on local television news last week, you'll have to trust her about it; she hasn't been able to find a web report to link to (not that she tried THAT hard.)

According to the news reader, there has been a rash of injuries due to pedestrians stumbling, tripping, bumping into each other and inanimate objects and on at least one occasion, falling through an open manhole into a sewer.

The reason for these mishaps, said the news person, is that all these people are too distracted typing tweets to watch where they're walking.

Cue all our snarky comments about how anyone this stupid deserves to fall into a pile of raw sewage, right? Well, not so fast. Wait until you hear some official's solution for the problem:

New software to allow people to speak their tweets instead of typing them.

Crabby can't tell who or what is dumber – the pedestrians or solution. Just as Crabby's tired, old ears have been relieved since the boors who used to scream into cell phones have given that up for texting and tweeting, some jerk wants everyone yelling in public again? Phooey.


At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Walt Grant: Naval Academy Procedures