Sunday, July 26, 2020

Please just listen to Dr. Fauci

So at 4:32PM CDT 2 September 2020 the numbers from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us for U.S. coronavirus cases & deaths are:

Confirmed Cases: 6,293,308
Deaths: 189,859
Recovered: 3,534,977

Now, if you divide Deaths by the sum of (Deaths + Recovered) you get
(189,859)/(3,724,836) = 0.0509
which is a 5.1% death rate. Not too bad, you say?
(BTW, the world death rate is just about 5% using numbers from the same source above. Also, we use (Deaths+Recovered) because we don't know the outcome of the rest of the positive cases yet. If we used Deaths/Confirmed Cases as Johns Hopkins University uses (see https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/data/mortality) then the death rate (what JHU calls the fatality ratio) is about 3%. This is still 15 times the fatality ratio of seasonal influenza.)

Let us look at the same numbers for the seasonal influenza virus. Many people (Mr. Trump included) have said that the novel coronavirus is no worse than the flu, so let's look.

From the official CDC web site at:
https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/2018-2019.html
(I used last flu season's data because all those numbers are complete and don't include any COVID-19 numbers.)

The case numbers and deaths from influenza are:
"CDC estimates that influenza was associated with more than 35.5 million illnesses, more than 16.5 million medical visits, 490,600 hospitalizations, and 34,200 deaths during the 2018–2019 influenza season. This burden was similar to the estimated burden during the 2012–2013 influenza season"

Unfortunately, the CDC doesn't tell us the Recovered cases, so we'll just use the medical visits as our denominator. So if you divide 34,200 deaths by 16.5 million medical visits you get
(34,200)/(16,500,000) = 0.00207
and rounding up, about 0.002
which is a death rate of 0.2%

So the COVID-19 death rate is about 25 TIMES the death rate of the seasonal influenza virus, at least in the United States. And we already have a vaccine for the influenza virus that millions of people take every year.

However, this doesn't say anything about how contagious COVID-19 is compared to the seasonal influenza virus. So lets look at that as well.

Here's a comparison of the novel coronavirus and the seasonal influenza virus from Johns Hopkins University. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/coronavirus-disease-2019-vs-the-flu

With respect to which virus is more contagious, here's what the CDC says
"While COVID-19 and flu viruses are thought to spread in similar ways, COVID-19 is more contagious among certain populations and age groups than flu. Also, COVID-19 has been observed to have more superspreading events than flu. This means the virus that causes COVID-19 can quickly and easily spread to a lot of people and result in continuous spreading among people as time progresses."
https://www.cdc.gov/flu/symptoms/flu-vs-covid19.htm

So, yeah, don't wear that mask. You'll be fine.

But maybe you should wear that mask - SO YOU DON'T KILL ANYONE ELSE, like your parents, your child's teacher, your neighbor, the checker at the grocery store, your spouse.

Look, I know that masks are uncomfortable. I don't like wearing a mask whenever I'm out of the house either. I don't like social distancing. I don't like not being comfortable going to restaurants or movies, or the theatre. But think about it this way; you're not wearing the mask so that YOU don't get sick, you're wearing the mask so that OTHER PEOPLE don't get sick. Until we have a vaccine the only way to stop this virus outbreak is to STOP THE SPREAD and the best way to do that on an individual level is to wear masks in public.

So please, listen to Dr. Fauci and wear the damn mask.

One last thing; for a very good and readable article on the "5 Things Everyone Should Know about the Coronavirus Outbreak" take a look at https://www.yalemedicine.org/stories/2019-novel-coronavirus/

Sunday, July 5, 2020

A Few Observations on Venturing Out During the Pandemic - 4 months in...

Observations today on coronavirus/quarantine/masks/venturing out into the world in Galesburg, IL.

BEWARE! I did my daily walk earlier today. Usually, I pass half a dozen or so people in my walk around the neighborhood; we stay on opposite sides of the street. Most don't wear masks - I don't wear one while I'm walking, but I've got it with me - but we don't get anywhere near each other. Today, though, I saw (1) a group of four older folks (at least as old as I am), 3 women and a man, walking together in a compact group, no masks, and no social distancing. Yes, they may all be living together, but... (2) Later I was passed by a group of five bicyclists, all adults, no helmets, no masks, all riding pretty close together so no social distancing there either.

So apparently this loosening up in Illinois is getting a bit out of hand.

MEDIUM GOOD NEWS: We also went to Hy-Vee on Henderson this morning during "senior hour". Many folks there still can't figure out the one-way arrows for the aisles. Nearly everyone in masks; I just noticed one person without one. This time all the employees were wearing them - and correctly (like covering their noses!). Folks were trying to social distance; the dots on the floor near the cash registers are terrific and people seem to adhere to them. Hy-Vee seems to be pretty much done with their wholesale "let's move every item to a different aisle" mania of the last few weeks, so that may have helped. There were still a remarkable number of gaps in the shelves where they are out of certain items. Luckily, we were able to get everything we needed.

GOOD NEWS: In the last two days I've had two appointments (don't ask, but it's OK) at the Illinois Eye Center in Peoria. Here are their criteria: (1) just the person with the appointment is allowed in the building (so Diane had to sit in the car), (2) temperature checks at the door, (3) all the employees in masks, (4) plexiglass shields at the check-in/check-out desks, (5) clearly marked social distancing signs and floor thingees, (6) all patients in masks, (7) hand sanitizer available in the halls and in every examination room, (8) folks following you through examination rooms wiping stuff down as you leave. I felt very confident and safe. 

Stay healthy, everyone!

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Mail-in Voter Fraud is (mostly) a myth

In response to a letter in the Galesburg, IL Register-Mail on Friday, 19 June 2020 in which was stated: "The narratives that mail-in voting is safe and that there is no fraud involved is demonstrably false." I would like to present several articles and references that provide context that refutes that assertion. I've not used references from CNN, AP, or MSNBC as some people apparently don't think those organizations are truthful.

There is a very good article from Snopes.com on May 26, 2020. They rate the claim of massive mail-in voter fraud as "Mostly False".
https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/mail-in-ballot-voter-fraud/

The Heritage Foundation finds 204 cases of Fraudulent Use of Absentee Ballots in all 50 states over the period from 1992 - 2016, more than twenty years of data. That is out of more than about 1 BILLION votes cast. See https://www.heritage.org/voterfraud/search?combine=&state=All&year=&case_type=All&fraud_type=24489 for the database. The Heritage Foundation defines FRAUDULENT USE OF ABSENTEE BALLOTS as "Requesting absentee ballots and voting without the knowledge of the actual voter; or obtaining the absentee ballot from a voter and either filling it in directly and forging the voter’s signature or illegally telling the voter who to vote for."

The Brookings Institution has an article on its web site: Low rates of fraud in vote-by-mail states show the benefits outweigh the risks by Elaine Kamarck and Christine Stenglein from Tuesday, June 2, 2020 that examines the Heritage Foundation database used in the report noted above. The Brookings report has an interesting table on the number of cases of mail-in voter fraud in the five states (Colorado, Oregon, Utah, Hawaii, and Washington) that used all mail-in voting before 2018. Their total from the Heritage Foundation database of mail-in voter fraud cases is at
https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2020/06/02/low-rates-of-fraud-in-vote-by-mail-states-show-the-benefits-outweigh-the-risks/ Their conclusion is that while mail-in voter fraud does occur, the number of cases is infinitesimal.

There is also a good article from the MIT Election Data + Science Lab at https://electionlab.mit.edu/research/voting-mail-and-absentee-voting that discusses the history of absentee and mail-in voting. Note that the director of the MIT Election Data + Science Lab is Charles Stewart III, Ph.D., one of the authors of "The Hill" article below.

There is an article at "The Hill" web site (not known for its liberal leanings): Let's put the vote-by-mail 'fraud' myth to rest by Amber McReynolds and Charles Stewart III, from April 28, 2020. See
https://thehill.com/opinion/campaign/494189-lets-put-the-vote-by-mail-fraud-myth-to-rest This article also does an analysis of the Heritage Foundation database and comes to the conclusion that in the case of widespread voter fraud "This is simply not true."

Finally, here is a link to the Federal Election Commission's Twitter accumulation by one of the commission's members on mail-in voter fraud from May 27, 2020: https://www.fec.gov/resources/cms-content/documents/2020-05-27-ELW-Facts-About-Voting-by-Mail.pdf

In short, voter fraud of all types does exist, but is exceedingly rare and has not been shown to change the results of any election. Data is your friend.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Social Security and Medicare payroll tax

The Social Security and Medicare Payroll Tax.

It funds Social Security and Medicare.

So, there have been recent suggestions that one way to help the economy during the current stock market slump and the coronavirus pandemic is to reduce the "payroll tax" that nearly everyone pays on earned income. I won't go into the politics of this, but I was curious how the payroll tax (FICA and MDCR on your paystub) contributes to the Social Security and Medicare systems.) So here's the result of my brief research. Enjoy.

The Social Security payroll tax is 6.2% of your gross pay for both employer and employee.
The Medicare tax is 1.45% each. (There is a surcharge for high-income earners, but we'll ignore that here.)

So the totals are 7.65% each for employer and employee (15.30% total for both). Note that this applies only to earned income. So your stock dividends and capital gains don't apply here.

The Social Security payroll tax income cap for 2020 is $137,700 (so neither the employee nor the employer pays the Social Security part of the payroll tax once the employee's gross salary is above this amount). This income cap goes up a little bit every year. In 2020 approximately 6% of all earners have income that is over the income cap amount and hence do not pay the payroll tax on any earned income over the $137,700 cap. (See https://www.ssa.gov/policy/docs/population-profiles/tax-max-earners.html )

There is no income cap on the Medicare payroll tax.

The payroll tax is what funds the ongoing operations of the Social Security Administration and Medicare. It is what provides the funds for my monthly Social Security benefit and my Medicare Part A premiums and some other Medicare costs. How does this happen?

Payroll taxes are used to buy special-issue U.S. Treasury securities for the Social Security Trust Fund. This happens daily. The SSA is paid interest on these securities by the federal government. (These securities are basically a loan from the SSA to the federal government.) In order to make benefit payments, the SSA sells securities from the Trust Fund. In 2017, the SSA bought $2 trillion worth of special-issue Treasury securities using the money it received from payroll taxes. The SSA also sold $1.156 trillion in securities to pay Social Security benefits.

Note that if the total amount of payroll taxes collected in a given year exceeds the dollar amount of benefits paid, then the surplus is retained by the Social Security Trust Fund - and the Trust Fund grows. Conversely, if the total dollar amount of payroll taxes collected in a given year is less than the dollar amount of benefits paid, then the SSA must reduce the amount of money in the SS Trust Fund to make up the difference - and the Trust Fund shrinks. So in 2017, because the SSA paid out less money in benefits than it took in in payroll taxes, the size of the Trust Fund increased. However, starting in 2021 the anticipated amount in benefits paid will be larger than the anticipated payroll tax revenues and the size of the Trust Fund will begin to shrink every year.
See https://www.ssa.gov/OACT/ProgData/fundFAQ.html
and
https://www.ssa.gov/OACT/TRSUM/index.html

It is anticipated that - if nothing is done to reduce or eliminate the rate of shrinkage - the Social Security Trust Fund will be exhausted by 2035 and in subsequent years the SSA will only be able to pay out about 76% of the expected benefits.

There are many ways to fix this, either by increasing income into the Fund, or by decreasing expenditures (aka benefits).

One way to do this is to eliminate the payroll tax income cap. If the payroll tax income cap is eliminated and everyone pays the SS payroll tax on their entire earned income, the Trust Fund will not be exhausted until about 2080. So that's one fix that is doable - make everyone pay the payroll tax on their entire earned income. Note that this only affects the 6% of earners that make more than the current income cap because the other 94% of earners were paying the payroll tax on their entire earned income already. See option E2.1 at https://www.ssa.gov/oact/solvency/provisions_tr2019/payrolltax.html

There are other proposed options that have various effects on the size of the Social Security Trust Fund. Many of them are considered not palatable by most people. The three options mentioned most often are (1) increase the payroll tax amount by several percent (so all people with earned income will pay more in payroll taxes going forward), (2) increase the retirement age by several years (which has the effect of reducing benefits to future retirees), and (3) decrease actual benefit amounts for future retirees by some percentage by changing the formula used to compute the PIA (the Primary Insurance Amount: your full retirement benefit at your full retirement age. See https://www.ssa.gov/OACT/COLA/piaformula.html and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primary_Insurance_Amount).

None of these options has a lot of support except in certain circles in Congress and some media outlets.

So, to get back to the original question about a temporary reduction in the Social Security payroll tax, here's my opinion, FWIW.

It's a really bad idea, for this reason: It will reduce the income going into the Social Security Trust Fund for this year.

There are a couple of consequences of this.

It will require the SSA to take more money out of the Trust Fund to meet this year's benefit obligations. I know, you say, but John, the Trust Fund is supposed to grow this year. Yes, except that those growth projections assumed the current payroll tax rate and were made before there were 39 million people who are now NOT paying the payroll tax for at least part of the year. At this point, by reducing the payroll tax for everyone else (which, BTW, will not help the 39 million unemployed people at all because they now have no earned income), there is even less money flowing into the Trust Fund, but there is still quite a bit flowing out (part of which is my monthly Social Security benefit payment). This will reduce the overall size of the Trust Fund, which will reduce the amount of interest income the Trust Fund earns - every year going forward.

And that will make the problem of the Trust Fund shrinking to zero even worse.

So, yeah, a really bad idea.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

A Modest Proposal on running elections (in the USA)

A Modest Proposal on running elections

My current ideas on elections and how they should be run; a response to the current electioneering and all the stories about how dangerous and insecure voting machines are.

Stuff we should do with respect to elections:

Part 1: Things I think are popular and doable in the short run.

1. Paper ballots. Every ballot cast has a paper backup that is archived and can be used in recounts.

2. Universal voter registration. You get a drivers license and you're 18, you're registered. You turn 18 and you don't have a license, you're registered.

3. The ONLY reasons to remove someone from the voter roles are (a) they moved and they informed you of the move or they registered in a different district (yeah, that would require comparing voter rolls across districts; that may be iffy), or (b) they die. Specifically, you can't remove them just because they haven't voted recently.

4. Make election day a national holiday. Everybody gets off except for essential health & safety personnel (and maybe they also get time off to vote).

5. Every state and local district has at least one month of early voting for every election AND early voting is done every day of the week, including weekends AND there's more than one place in your district to vote. The last one is, of course, to make it more convenient for everyone to vote.

6. The federal government should allocate waaaay more money to states to standardize their electoral procedures, machines, and processes.

Part 2: Things I think should be done, but will take more time and/or support.

1. All source code for all voting machines should be open source and should be reviewed by acknowledged experts in software development and computer security before it is used. They should be contracted and paid for this by the federal government and their reports should be in the public domain.

2. All electronic voting machines should generate a paper backup ballot that the voter has the opportunity to review before they cast their final vote. The backup ballots should be saved at each polling place and then transmitted to the counting location. No electronic voting machine should be connected to the Internet.

3. NO Internet voting should take place until it is proven (yes, proven) that voting via Internet connected devices (smartphone, tablet, computer) is at least as secure as executing financial transactions over the Internet (your bank & credit card transactions, for example).

4. There should be state and federal election commissions to regulate and review all voting machines. All voting machines (including upgrades to the software) must be approved by their relevant commission before they are distributed for use.

5. All elections should use ranked-choice voting.

6. All election results that use electronic machines should be audited immediately after the polls close and the votes have been counted.

7. All voting precincts should use the same style of voting machine. (Having half-a-dozen different voting technologies is just silly.)

8. For any federal election there should be mandatory rules on process and machines at the federal level.

Part 3: Things not directly related to voting or voting machines that I think need to be done as well. (and probably won't)

1. U.S. national elections should be limited to 6 months before the actual election day. No candidacy announcements and no campaigning are allowed until inside that 6 month window.

2. No private monies should be spent on national elections. All the money should be allocated by the federal government. (Failing that, see numbers 4 - 7 below.)

3. There should be a cap on the amount of money a candidate can spend on the primaries, and another cap on how much they can spend on the general election. (Hey, the British kind of do this. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Political_funding_in_the_United_Kingdom)

4. Corporations should be forbidden from contributing to candidates or parties and should not be allowed to run political ads at all. (Corporations are NOT people and don't have First Amendment rights.) Labor unions and other special interest groups (Say, the Sierra Club or the NRA) should be treated like individuals where campaign contribution limits and timing are concerned.

5. All political action committees and super-PACs should be banned.

6. The equal access provision for broadcasting should be re-instated by the FCC for federal elections.

7. There should be a maximum amount of money any individual can contribute to a single candidate in the primaries and in the general election. Let's say something like $1,000.

That is it for now, but I'm sure you and I can come up with way more interesting and safe things to do for elections.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

1969 - Fifty years ago

1969 - Fifty years ago

TL;DR

What a fantastic year.  For me, 1969 was just one of the best years I can remember. Here's why.

First, I'm really talking about the period from July 1969 through July 1970.

Why? Because it was a year of firsts for me. Many firsts, many interesting and mundane things that marked the year before I went to college.

----------------------------
* I turned 17 on 23 July 1969.

* 1969-1970 was my senior year in high school.
It was also my second year living in Pasadena, Texas. The high school I attended was Sam Rayburn Senior High School. It had 3,600 students, while my high school in New York - John F. Kennedy Catholic - had 600; a big change. At Kennedy I was in the middle of the pack of a bunch of Catholic students who were expected to excel by everyone, parents, teachers, peers. At Rayburn I was all of a sudden taking all advanced classes, labeled a nerd, and was the guy with the weird accent. I never really got used to living in Pasadena, or Texas for that matter, but being right near Houston and near the Gulf of Mexico made being there a bit better. There were a ton of things to do in Houston, and Galveston and the Gulf were less than an hour away, so once I had a car I could escape Pasadena pretty regularly.

* I got my first drivers license in the summer of 1969.
We'd moved to Texas in summer 1968, when I turned 16, but I missed the summer drivers education class. So, with my junior year high school schedule being full I had to wait an entire year to take drivers ed. The drivers ed car was an automatic and so it was easy to drive. The most 'fun' part was learning to drive on the freeways around Houston. Yeah, not that fun really. But I made it and passed drivers ed. The next problem was that I had to take my drivers exam in my mom's car and it was a standard shift so I had to learn how to drive a 'three on the column' and figure out clutching, etc. My mom took me to the parking lot of the high school football stadium (Yes, my high school had it's own football stadium. Texas, you know.) and taught me how to drive the standard transmission there. This was good because all the embarrassing stalls and jerky starts happened on the parking lot instead of in traffic. The only fly in the ointment was that in southeast Texas near the Gulf of Mexico there aren't any hills, so I had to wait till my mom moved back to New York to learn to drive that standard on a hill.

* I got my first car in the summer of 1969.
The car was a 1963 Chevy Corvair coupe with a small 6-cylinder engine and a 5-speed stick transmission. It was blue. Remarkably, it had seat belts, though no shoulder harnesses or head rests. I added head rests later which added to the cool vibe of the Corvair. Being a Corvair the engine was in the back. Two sets of 3 cylinders in two lines, each with a single-barrel carburator. Loved that car. I learned how to change the oil and do a tune-up on that car. I got my first set of tools for that car.

* In 1969 I took my first long road trip in the Corvair.
I was attracted to a woman in my junior class whose family had moved from Pasadena up to Tulsa, Oklahoma after junior year. My long trip was a drive from Pasadena to Tulsa in December during our Christmas break in 1969. It was the adventure of my teenage years. According to Google Maps it's just about 500 miles from Pasadena, Texas to Tulsa, Oklahoma. An 8-hour drive or so up I-45, US Route 69, and the Indian Nation Turnpike. I started right after Christmas, with the intention of spending a couple of days in Tulsa and then heading back. The drive up to Tulsa was pretty uneventful, as was my stay. Spending a couple of days with my friend and her sister cured me of my attraction and I was ready to go home. I started out early with cold weather and light snow in the air. By the time I was on the Indian Nation it was a blizzard and the road was pretty well snow-covered. Remember, I'd had my license for less than 6 months and had never driven on snow before. Also, snow removal in Oklahoma isn't as robust or efficient as it is in, say, Wisconsin. An hour or so into the drive I did a nice little 180-degree skid onto the median. Remember that "turn in the direction of the skid" thing? Well, it's a learned skill. Luckily, there wasn't much traffic - hardly anybody else wanted to drive in a blizzard - and I was able to get myself back on the road. Only to do a second 180 a few miles further down as the snow was turning to ice. I managed to get myself back onto the road again and proceeded down the Turnpike at about 15 miles an hour for a while. The Indian Nation Turnpike heads pretty much dead south from Tulsa, so an hour or so later I was out of the storm and the temperature had warmed up so it was just raining. Sometime after that and right before I was out of Oklahoma on US Route 69 near Atoka my Engine Overheating light came on. US 69 was a two-lane road that wound its way through some hill country in southern Oklahoma so there weren't many places to pull over. Getting desperate, I lucked into a wide space in the road that was created by the entrance to the Mack Alford Correctional Center. I pulled over, got out and opened up the engine compartment to discover that my fan belt was broken so the engine wasn't getting cooled (the Corvair had an air-cooled engine, so that fan was essential). I walked up to the entrance to the Correctional Center to ask if I could use a phone. The guard at the gate not only wouldn't let me use a phone, he told me to get out of the drive if I knew what was good for me. According to my map, there was a town about 5 miles south of me, where I  hoped I could find a service station. So fan belt in hand I started walking and managed to hitch a ride from a passing motorist who dropped me off at a station just on the outskirts of this town. My luck held and the station had the right size fan belt and I had enough money. Then I hitched back to my car and opened up the trunk to get out my tools. Only to discover that my brother had borrowed my toolbox and all my tools and had managed not to put them back before I left for Tulsa. So now I had a fan belt, but no way to put it on. Hoping that I could borrow a wrench at the service station I started hitching again. Miraculously, the first guy who stopped had tools and said I could borrow them to install my fan belt. Of course, he backed up from where he picked me up to where my car was parked and managed to hit my driver's side fender with his bumper. It was a small ding and I was already tired and still had a 6-hour drive ahead of me, so I waved him off, borrowed his wrench, installed the fan belt, thanked him and was off and running again. I did manage to make it home, where I retrieved my tools and put them back in the trunk. I haven't been back to Tulsa since.

* In 1969 I got my first real job.
My mother was graciously paying my car insurance, but gas and maintenance were all on me. So that summer of 1969 I got my first real job, sacking groceries at a Globe supermarket an easy walk from our apartment. I worked at the Globe full time during the summer and hung onto the job, working part-time after school started in late August. This kept me in gas money and let me buy my lunch in the school cafeteria every day. To save on parking fees I talked the owner of a convenience store that was right across the street from my high school to let me park next to his store during the day. How I managed to do this I no longer remember. The job at Globe was OK. I packed groceries for customers and after a few months also started stocking shelves. Despite the fact that this was Texas, I had to join a union to work at the Globe. I can't remember how much the dues were, but they couldn't have been much and the union membership got me a higher starting rate than the minimum wage, so it was all good. I worked at that Globe for most of my senior year, but quit shortly before graduation because I had too much else to do.

* I had my first car accident.
The Globe parking lot was also the site of my first traffic accident. The parking lot opened onto a busy four-lane street with no traffic light. So turning left out of the parking lot was always an adventure. One early evening in the fall of 1969 I was leaving the parking lot and turning left. There was a pickup truck in the rightmost lane turning into the parking lot and I thought there wasn't anybody in that next lane so I started my turn. Big mistake not waiting to look around the truck before turning. Because there was a car in that next lane and a second later there was a dent in my left front fender - the same fender that would be backed into in December in Oklahoma. The dent in my fender wasn't that bad, my car was still drivable. But the other car had managed to crack his radiator. Nobody hurt, and we got both cars back into the parking lot and called the police. First accident, the first time I had to show my insurance card, the first time I had to tell my mom about it.

* I learned to surf in the summer of 1969.
Another advantage of having a car was that I could drive to the beach. Galveston was a bit less than an hour from our apartment and gas was cheap in 1969. I loved going to the beach. In those days at the western end of Galveston Island you could drive out onto the sand and park. At the other end of the island if you took the ferry from Galveston to the Bolivar peninsula you could drive pretty much the entire length of the peninsula, 80 miles all on the sand. On Galveston island there were also several outfits that would rent you surfboards by the hour or the day. I'd roll down the windows, strap a surfboard to the top of my car and pick a spot somewhere along the seawall to park. I taught myself how to surf, mostly by watching other people and then trying to do what they did. In 1969 surfboards were longer and heavier than they typically are now and the waves in the Gulf of Mexico weren't that high. So it wasn't that hard to learn to stand up on the board and ride the small waves into shore. The rides weren't that long, but they were spectacular. The feeling of getting up and having the board flow through the wave was just really enormously invigorating. Many weekends I'd finish a Saturday late shift, hop in my car and drive down to Galveston around 11pm, spend the night on the beach and rent a surfboard as soon as they opened in the morning. I'd surf all day and head home exhausted and ravenous in the late afternoon. Occasionally my brother would go with me and once or twice a friend also hopped a ride. The freedom of being on the beach and catching waves was just wonderful.

* In my senior year I took AP Chemistry and met some people who would be friends for life.
At 17 I wanted to be a doctor. I wasn't sure why and I had no real idea what doctors did all day long, but I knew that they kept my mother alive (she was a very brittle Type 1 diabetic with all the problems that that degenerative disease brings), so that was my goal. The first step to meeting that goal was to load up on science and math classes. In my senior year I took Trigonometry and Math Analysis, a year-long physics sequence, and AP Chemistry called Chem II at Rayburn. Chem II was my favorite class, and not just because my teacher was a tall, very attractive 23-year-old blonde who'd just graduated from the University of Houston. Chem II was our homeroom and also our first-period class, so we had extra time with it every day. Wednesdays were our lab day, starting at 7:00am and running through the homeroom period and first period and we needed every second of that time. Since we were together so much of every school day, the 20 or so of us in Chem II became pretty close friends. Most of us were complete science nerds and so also had those Math and Physics classes together. Fifty years later I stay in at least some contact with a few of those folks. Some of them did become doctors (I didn't) or scientists or tech people, and many drifted off into other disciplines. But we all had good memories of Chem II.

* In 1969 I met my first real girlfriend.
What with being somewhat introverted and moving 2,000 miles between my sophomore and junior years of high school, I'd never really dated nor had a girlfriend. That changed about midway through my senior year when I met Sue. She was best friends with another woman - Susan - who was dating one of my Chem II buddies. Sue wasn't a science nerd but was kind and a good listener and we hit it off almost immediately. We dated the rest of senior year, went to prom, and hung out a lot. If I remember correctly, Sue's father was very protective, so our dates were many times constrained by parental rules. Our relationship continued into part of the summer of 1970 until I went up to New York to live with my father (more on that below). That next fall I went off to college and Sue stayed in Pasadena to attend the local community college. We had one last fling that next spring and then it was over. No regrets, no drama or histrionics. We just went our separate ways into new relationships. Still, she was the first, so thanks, Sue.

* I got accepted to college early in 1970.
I can't remember a time when I wasn't going to college. My mom talked about it when I was young and as high school hit it seemed like everyone was telling me about good grades and what classes I had to take to get into college. Nobody in my family had ever gone to college. My parents had not even graduated from high school - needing to work to help the family instead. So nobody knew the first thing about the process of getting into college or paying for it or what it was like. Also, this was 1969 so no internet, no Google, no web pages, no email. It was basically you, your high school guidance counselor, and whatever books you could find in the local library. Luckily for me I had done well on the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test; not well enough to earn a scholarship, but well enough to be inundated with literature from colleges that wanted students like me. That was the first part of my education about college. Getting out of Pasadena was a priority for me, so I devoured those brochures. I finally chose Lindenwood College II in St. Charles, MO. I chose Lindenwood for several reasons: first, they offered me a scholarship and work-study money. Second, it wasn't in Texas. Third, the II in its name was for the men's college that had just admitted its first students for fall 1969. The co-located women's college (Lindenwood College for Women back then) had 500 students; LC II had 100 men. I was hooked. Fourth, they had a computer that students could use. Being a child of the early 60s I was fascinated by the American space program and the race to the moon. One of the things that was hot at that time was all the computers that they used. This seemed like it would be a cool thing to learn.

* I saw my first R rated movie - MASH.
MASH is a black comedy, an anti-war movie, and pretty much my favorite movie of all time. Well, Casablanca might be number one, or they might just be tied. MASH was released in March 1970 and was an R-rated movie. Looking back I have no idea why it would have been R-rated at all. We were obviously all much more innocent and naive in 1970. Since I was 17 in 1970 I could go see it, and since I was living in Pasadena, Texas in 1970 I pretty much was on my own; my best friend Randy wanted to see it as well, but for some reason our schedules didn't work out. MASH is a terrific movie and I was suitably impressed. My 17-year-old brain could barely comprehend lots of the allusions and dark humor but I knew right away that this movie was "important." So I saw it like three more times that spring, the first time I'd ever gone back to see a movie more than once. I still watch it probably once a year or so.

* I got kicked out of class for protesting the invasion of Cambodia in May 1970.
This next story all probably happened because I'd gone to see MASH and was getting more interested in politics and the world around me. I can't say that I was really into politics in high school, nor was I a real political activist. But by early 1970 I was worried about being drafted and I was really ready for the Vietnam war to be over. I'd also just read "How old will you be in 1984?" a book of essays by and about high school student newspapers and free speech. The invasion of Cambodia in late April 1970 and the subsequent student protests lead me to want to do something. So I wore a black armband to school one day later in May. I didn't do anything disorderly and just went about my classes, but with the armband on. In 1970 in the Pasadena Independent School District there was a rule that students weren't allowed to "disrupt" classes. This happened to be a lab day in Chem II and while I was doing my lab work one of the assistant principals came into the classroom - disrupting it - and hauled me out of the room and down to the office. I was ordered to take off the armband, which I declined to do citing a recent Supreme Court case that asserted that high school students had freedom of speech (Tinker vs. Des Moines Independent School District, 1969). He didn't care and I was kicked out of school for the day and headed home. Thus my career of political activism started and largely ended.

* I spent the summer of 1970 living with my father for the first time since 1959.
My parents had gotten divorced in 1959 when I was seven years old. I'd not seen my father much except for my birthday and Christmas in all the intervening years. It wasn't because my mother wouldn't let us see him, it was that my father just wasn't really suited to being the dad of young children. He worked much better with older kids. So at the end of my senior year of high school I decided to go back to New York and live with my father for the summer before I headed to college. I sold my Corvair to pay for the plane ticket and showed up in Ossining, NY in early June (yes, he knew I was coming). My father was separated from his second wife and had a one-bedroom apartment in what passed for a high-rise in Ossining. He got the bedroom, I got the couch. It was an interesting summer. I listened to way too much Frank Sinatra music, my dad's favorite and a singer I learned to loathe. We must have hit every Italian restaurant in Westchester and Putnam counties. We visited my Dooley relatives whom I hadn't seen since we moved to Texas. And my dad helped me fix up a 1965 Chevy Greenbrier van (yes, it's a Corvair van!) so I could drive it back to Texas. On the way back to Texas, the van started burning oil big time. So much that I had to get off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, find a store and buy a case of oil so I could stop every few hours and put in another quart. I sold that van to my brother Michael in August so I could have money for books during my first semester at Lindenwood.

* I worked construction for the first time that summer of 1970.
When I got to New York in summer 1970 I didn't have a job. My father found me a job working off the books for a one-man stonemason operation. Dad would drop me off by the side of the Saw Mill River Parkway at about 7:00am every morning and my boss (whose name escapes me after 50 years) would pick me up. We'd go to the job site - it was the same large house somewhere in Westchester for the entire summer - and I'd mostly break rocks and mix mortar. We built a massive fireplace and chimney inside and out and a long rock retaining wall along the driveway. It really did take all summer. I got really good at hauling rock in a wheelbarrow and then lifting rocks up from one level of scaffolding to the next all day long. I really liked that job even though I was underpaid and the stonemason wasn't a particularly good or well-organized boss. The physical labor every day turned out to be fun; it gave me a chance to think a lot and I got to spend some of the lunchtime reading every day.

* I learned to drink beer - and like it.
The stonemason I was working for went out every day at lunchtime and bought a sandwich (I brought mine from home) and a six-pack of beer. He'd give me one and he'd drink the rest and then we'd get back to work. I can't recall what brand of beer it was, probably Schaefer or Rheingold, but I really hated it at first. But over the course of several weeks I started to like the tangy, somewhat bitter flavor and for the rest of the summer looked forward to that daily mid-day beer. One beer was enough to give me a little buzz and the back-breaking rock lifting was enough to sweat it out of me in short order. In 1970 the drinking age in New York was 18 and I turned 18 on 23 July. So for the rest of the summer I could go out to bars. That didn't happen very often because I didn't have the van till late in the summer and I was usually pretty tired after work. But it gave my father and me something to bond over. I also discovered that my father apparently knew everyone in upper Westchester and Putnam counties because every time we went to a restaurant he would know the owners and half the patrons. In every bar it was the same, my dad knew everyone. It made for easy introductions, but, of course, I was called the name I've always hated, "John Junior." So it goes.

UPDATE 01/02/2020:
* I was on TV for the first time. (How could I have forgotten this in the first post?!?!)
Senior year I was on the Sam Rayburn Prep Bowl team. Houston Lighting & Power sponsored this competition among the local high schools. The cool part was each contest (two teams at a time) was on the local TV station. I made it onto the Rayburn team along with Gene Thorne, David Gwyn (both unfortunately passed now, I believe), Danny Martinez, and John Beard. We did really well, winning 2 in a row before we were defeated by a team from Galveston. (They were really good.)

Friday, May 3, 2019

What is Medicare and Why do I care?

What's all this stuff about Medicare?

I keep seeing folks posting on Twitter & Facebook about Medicare, and, frankly, there's a lot of confusion out there. That's understandable, though, because signing up for Medicare is confusing. There are lots of options and there are some pretty severe penalties if you get it wrong. So here's my experience with signing up for Medicare back in 2017 when I turned 65.

(WARNING: I am not a Medicare expert; this is just what I know after figuring out how to sign up for Medicare. Make sure you read the "Medicare and You" booklet for the year you want to sign up to get the straight information. There are also lots of wonderful people at Medicare to help with questions. Go to https://www.cms.gov for the straight info.)

What is Medicare?

Medicare is a health insurance program for American citizens 65 and over. That's right, I said citizens. If you're an immigrant, you're out of luck unless you have a green card and have lived in the U.S. for at least five years or have become a naturalized citizen.

There are five (5) different parts of Medicare that you'll need to understand when it's time for you to sign up. We'll get to those in a minute.

Who's eligible?

Everybody who is 65 or older is eligible to sign up for Medicare (but see the citizen thing above).

How much is Medicare?

We'll get to premiums in a minute. You should know that if you're employed then every paycheck your employer will deduct 1.45% of your gross pay as the Medicare payroll tax. Your employer matches that (so the total is 2.9%) and sends it on to the government. If you pay the payroll tax for 10 years you then become eligible for premium-free Medicare Part A when you sign up at age 65. More on that below. For other parts of Medicare, there are monthly premiums you will have to pay once you sign up.

When do I sign up?

You have a 7-month window around the month your 65th birthday falls in which to sign up for Medicare. That's 3-months before your birthday, the month of your birthday, and 3-months after your birthday. My birthday was in July, so my window for signing up for Medicare was from April through October. If you don't sign up you'll be subject to penalties in the form of increased premiums - for life. You don't need to sign up if you are still working and have health insurance at work. BUT, my advice would be to sign up for Medicare Part A anyway. That's what I did. Most employers will make Medicare your secondary insurance.

What is not covered by Medicare?

The two big things not offered by Medicare are vision and dental insurance. It also doesn't cover most nursing home care and there are limits on extended care. See the Medicare and You brochure for the details.

What are the parts of Medicare?

There are five different parts of Medicare you need to worry about.

Medicare Part A

Part A is the hospitalization part of Medicare. It will pay for your hospital stays and many of the services you'd use while an inpatient. Most people will not have to pay premiums for Part A - you've already paid them as part of that 1.45% payroll tax you paid with every paycheck. If you didn't pay the Medicare payroll tax for at least 10 years, then you'll have to pay a Part A premium. The amount changes every year, so look it up. Part A has a deductible that you'll have to meet. In 2019 it's $1,364 for the first 60 days of each "benefit period", which is basically a hospital stay. Again, there are lots of variations on the rules.

Medicare Part B

Part B is the medical services part of Medicare. It will pay for your doctor bills, lab work, outpatient medical services, medical equipment, and other stuff. You MUST sign up for Part B when you are eligible if you don't already have health insurance through your employer. If you defer Part B you will be charged an increased premium every month for life.

Part B premiums are about $135/month in 2019 for most people. That's per-person. Medicare does not have the idea of family coverage. Every person is on their own. So if you are married, you and your spouse BOTH have to sign up for Medicare. Part B also has a deductible, which is $186 for 2019. Oh, and if you get Social Security the government will cheerfully take your Medicare Part B premium right out of your monthly Social Security check.

Medicare Part C

Part C is also called Medicare Advantage. It was added in the 1990s and replaces Parts A and B for those folks who sign up for it. Medicare Advantage is basically an HMO that is run by different insurance companies for the government. Like an HMO, premiums for these plans will vary, and you have a more limited choice of doctors and hospitals. Many Medicare Advantage policies also cover dental and vision care (which you don't get at all from traditional Medicare). Medicare Advantage is very popular for people who live in big urban areas because there are lots of doctors and hospitals. Those of us outside big urban areas (my town has about 30,000 people and the nearest bigger cities are about 250,000) have much more limited choices. If you choose Medicare Part C, you can't buy Medigap insurance (see below).

Medicare Part D

These are the Medicare Drug plans that were introduced in 2005. Part D plans are all offered by private insurance companies. Each company has a variety of plans, and each company has different "formularies" which are the lists of drugs that they will pay for. So your job as a consumer is to figure out which plan covers the drugs that you currently take. You can change plans every year. You can also go out to the Medicare website and enter all your drugs and your location and Medicare will show you all the plans in your area that carry your drugs. I only take a cholesterol drug and a steroid (for eye surgery), so my plan is pretty cheap at about $53./month.

Medigap Insurance

The dirty little secret about Medicare Parts A and B is that they only meet 80% of your costs. You need to pick up the other 20% yourself. This can be a pretty hefty amount if you have to have surgery or a lengthy hospital stay. So the government designed a set of insurance plans, labeled with letters of the alphabet, that insurance companies offer to Medicare enrollees to bridge that 20% gap, hence the name - Medigap. Of course, you have to pay for these plans, and the premium depends on which plan you get. The most popular plan is the 'F' Plan, which is, of course, being phased out (I have no idea why). Plan 'G' covers everything that Plan 'F' does, but you have to pay your Medicare Part B deductible (which was covered under Plan 'F'). And both you and your spouse will have to have your own Medigap insurance plan. See https://www.medicare.gov/sites/default/files/2018-07/02110-medicare-medigap.guide_.pdf for the complete guide to Medigap plans.

The Bottom Line

So the bottom line is, for most people you'll get:
Medicare Part A    (no premium, but there are deductibles)
Medicare Part B    (premium of $135.50/month, and $186/year deductible in 2019)
Medicare Part D    (premium varies by formulary; somewhere between $50 and infinity)
Medigap Insurance Plan 'G' (premium varies by the insurance carrier, usually about $100/month)

For my wife and I we have
Part A - $0/month
Part B - $135.50/month * 2 = $271/month
Part D - $56.50/month * 2 = $113/month
Medigap Plan 'G' - $94/month + $105/month = $199/month
Total:  $583/month in premiums.

To compare, our employer insurance (an Employee+One plan) was around $400/month while we were working; it also included vision and dental coverage and had a $750/year deductible each. So Medicare is actually more expensive for us in retirement than when we were working and we have less coverage (no vision or dental).

The other big alternative (particularly for people in large urban areas) is:
Medicare Part C  - Medicare Advantage (but you must enroll in Medicare parts A&B as well; premiums vary geographically and by insurance carrier) plus
Medicare Part D - unless your Part C plan covers drugs (which many do not)

Good luck to all with your Medicare! Hope this helps!