Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Living on Borrowed Time

Last week a five-minute blast of very high straight winds hit our property in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In the hundred feet between our house and cabin and the lake, we lost all or parts of eight large trees: three hemlocks, two spruces, one cedar, and two maples. I haven’t explored the south end of my near-shore property, so there could be more. I have traveled most of the paths that wander through the remainder of my eighty acres looking for damage and found nothing major.

Why the disparity in damage levels, and does this have any larger significance beyond me having serious chainsaw work ahead of me?
  
View of lake 2013. Note density of trees and short understory

When I bought the land in 1997, the trees at the lake’s edge were generally towering white pines and sprawling white cedars. The next tier of forest consisted of black spruce (60%), white pines and white spruce (10%), and deciduous trees (mostly red maple, white birch, quaking aspen – 30%). Beyond that 100-foot line, the deciduous trees became dominant with evergreens accounting for at most a quarter of the trees.

The black spruce were already starting to die from blight. A diseased tree would first exhibit the problem in the fall when many of the needles at the treetop turned yellow. By the next fall, the tree would be dead, and within three years the top would blow off, leaving a twenty-five-foot stub, which generally fell in the following decade. After twenty years of this infestation, perhaps five percent of black spruce near the lake remain.


The understory 2017

The spruce deaths have opened the understory for new growth, and a mass of balsam, pine, and hemlock have reached up to fifteen feet tall. During this period, a few of the white pines, which were already past their prime and on their decline, have also died, losing their needles and dropping branches as the years pass. A third source of destruction occurred when beaver “harvested” up to a third of the large deciduous trees in that first hundred feet, including almost all of those at or very close to the water.

One advantage of all this woods-thinning is that we have a much better view of the lake from our house than when we first built it. The bad news is that when we consider the density of trees taller than twenty-five feet in that first one-hundred feet, there is no forest. Those trees have become a collection of individuals.

More open view of lake 2017 (of course it was foggy the day I took this)

Those of you without significant forest experience may not realize that trees in a forest grow differently compared to the same tree in a suburban yard. Because of the lack of competition in the yard, trees grow out, expanding their canopy using long limbs that require thick trunks. The quest for canopy space in a forest requires rapid vertical growth. Light reaching the floor of a forest signals affected trees to grow tall as quickly as they can so they can grab that small spot in the canopy. Lower limbs are quickly abandoned. Strengthening the trunk takes a back seat to reaching height quickly. This results in tall, thin trees whose trunks are often brittle.

Twenty years ago, high winds that whipped across the lake were met by a dense collection of trees. Pines formed the core of the defensive front. Tall and supple and strong, and backed up by the large numbers of spruce behind them, they forced much of the wind to deflect up and over the forest. Now the big trees are isolated, with large gaps between. High winds are no longer deflected up; they retain their strength, sweeping past the pines, and pounding individual trees with their full force.

The unbroken wind uses the densely packed needles to apply extra leverage to individual trees, causing those cedar and spruce trees with shallow or weakened root systems to tip over. Trees with stronger root systems, like maples, birches, and hemlocks, remain standing, but the unchecked winds apply immense force to their leafed out or needled upper portions. If the trunk has a weaker spot, the winds can rip the tops of those trees off their bases. This is what happened to the hemlocks and maples.

Collectively, the forest—before it was weakened by disease, old age, and beaver—could withstand almost any straight winds with only minor damage to the tall trees. Individually, trees are hard-pressed to sustain the periodic battering we receive in the U.P.

The birch and maple trees initially benefited when the black spruce died and dropped to the forest floor. There was more light for them. Their roots had less competition. When the beaver wreaked its devastation, it didn’t chew down the evergreens, leaving the towering hemlocks to stand alone. When a huge pine died, all the other trees grew faster using the extra light.

The tall trees that remain now claim a disproportionate share of the natural resources. Their leaves or needles gather most of the light. Their extensive root systems, hidden under the ground, absorb most of the water and nutrients.

The tall trees are now this forest’s billionaires. The black spruce were the forest’s middle class: hollowed by a disease that benefited those at the top of the food chain that claimed much of the canopy and feasted on the nutrients released to the soil. The understory trees are the forest’s working poor, struggling to get by on the scraps left by the big trees, but flourishing where they do receive enough light.

Those billionaire trees are living on borrowed time. When the winds come, the eviscerated middle class can no longer support them, and one by one they will be toppled.

~ Jim

This blog first published 17 July 2017 on Writers Who Kill.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Life Lesson from Choral Experiences

I started singing in choirs in elementary school. In those early years, we learned music by ear: listen to the teacher and reproduce what you hear. It’s how we learned to speak, but easier for some than for others. Later, we learned to sing by reading music. In that, I had an advantage because my parents forced piano lessons on me starting in second or third grade. I discovered you can learn by rote, but it’s much easier if you first master the tools of the trade. That, it turns, out, applies to much in life.

There can be stars in choirs, but a discerning listener of the best choruses can’t distinguish one voice from another. Unless you have a solo, you are supposed to blend in, not stick out. And, it turns out, sticking out is not just about the sound. Choruses, like teams, often wear uniforms, coordinate moves: lifting and setting down their music folders, entering and exiting a stage with precision. Much of being a chorus doesn’t just involve singing well.

In sixth grade, I made the all-county chorus—as a first soprano! The only thing I recall of the experience is the principal of my school mentioning he spotted me right off—I was the one yawning before the performance began. Even from a distance he recognized me because of my idiosyncrasy.

In junior high, competing schedules forced me to choose between band and chorus. With a voice that provided random octaves and a pre-teen boy’s embarrassment over the same, my tenor sax and I chose the band. I was content to sing long hours along with the radio.

By the time I reached high school, my voice had sorted itself out and I sang tenor in my church choir. The choir had a sufficiency of bass/baritones, so both my father and I sang tenor. Neither of us were natural tenors, but we could hit the high notes. We did have a third tenor in the choir and he had a fine natural voice but was, unfortunately, a bit shaky on the notes. The director determined that if Dad and I bracketed him, the true tenor sang the right notes, and as a threesome we had sufficient volume to carry our part. The result of making individual sacrifices (my throat did hurt after pieces like Handel’s Messiah) made for a better overall result.


For nearly twenty-five years after high school, I was not a choir member; but when I changed jobs and moved to Cincinnati, I was determined to join a church with a choir. I visited St. John’s Unitarian (one of four Unitarian churches I was checking out) the Sunday their morning service consisted of a congregational sing of selections from their brand new hymnal. Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time and need to recognize your luck. I had a blast sight-reading the bass parts. Someone in the congregation ratted me out to the choir director, who buttonholed me before I even left the sanctuary. The next Thursday I attended my first rehearsal.

That choir performed some great music, especially as part of our annual Spring concerts: Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Vaughn Williams, contemporary pieces as well, including my favorite American composer, Morten Lauridsen, plus South American and Indian works. I sang English, Latin, French, German, Spanish, Hindi, and Swahili (and probably others as well). Those works were a stretch for me and for the choir, but the hard work was always worth the effort even if the concert performances were never perfect.

[Here's a YouTube of Lauridsen's "Dirait-on" if you'd like a 5-minute treat.] 





Through that association, I had an opportunity to sing in a chorus that performed with the Cincinnati Symphony at Riverbend. We had only four rehearsals and were expected to come to the first rehearsal knowing the music (light years away from my early grammar school days of learning music by rote). What an eye-opening experience that was for this decidedly amateur performer. Everyone sang out (in church choirs there are usually just a few who sing out and the rest follow) and it was easy to find my mistakes and correct them because people on the right and left of me were singing something different. The rehearsal conductor expected us to correct our own mistakes. He concentrated on entrances, cutoffs, and shaping the sound. We had one dress rehearsal with the full orchestra under the baton of Jesus Lopez-Cobos, and then the performance.

It was also through the church choir that I met Jan, my partner of twenty-three years.

When we left Cincinnati and joined the choir of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Savannah in 2010, it was very small with a few excellent singers, but many much less skilled than I. We sang simple music, often in two or three parts, not the eight-part harmony of the works we often did at St. John’s. It was a bit discouraging, but I held onto a recognition I had made years ago: no matter how tired I was as I dragged myself from work to rehearsal, I felt refreshed at the end of the two hours. Even though in Savannah rehearsals were shorter, and the pieces less satisfying, I still retained that feel-better-after-singing experience.

And over the years, more quality singers joined the Savannah choir. I thought, oh good, now we’ll start doing more robust works. That hasn’t happened; this choir director has chosen to take her finer choral instrument and shape its sound. Pitches are now spot on, not just very close. She works on the sound of vowels, precise cutoffs and entrances. Rarely, we’ll end up with six or eight parts for a portion of a piece, but what is most important to her is our sound.

For a boy brought up in the nasal-speaking Rochester, NY area, rounded vowels are sometimes a stretch. I still miss singing the big pieces and would like to do more of that before I lose my voice and can no longer sing; but in the meantime, I’ve discovered I can bury myself in the hard work of sounding as one voice of a beautiful chorus.

~ Jim

This post originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog 5/7/2017.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Jim Jackson Simplified Income Tax Plan



I posted the first version of my tax-simplification plan in February 2012. Five years later, I made a couple of tweaks, but the essence stays the same. It's clear, simple, and best of all would be completely transparent. I've emphasized that last aspect more in this updated 2017 version.

I challenge President Trump to match me in boldness and effectiveness in generating revenue to run the government and being transparent about how the Federal government spends our money.

Personal Income Taxes:

1. All income, regardless how earned is treated equally under the Jim Jackson plan. A dollar earned by wages, dividend, interest, capital gains or pass-through from some corporate-like entity are all taxed the same. Everyone should feel they have a stake in funding the public services provided through the Federal government.

2. Every person is taxed individually. If a couple owns a joint account, each is taxed on 50% of the income. If one spouse works and the other stays home to take care of the children, pets, sick relatives or lays on the beach, only the income earner is taxed.

3. How you spend your money, if legal, is no matter to Federal government or its income tax structure. There are no deductions for mortgage interest, medical expenses, casualty losses, contributions to charity. Nor are there credits or deductions for the individual or their dependent children or extra deductions for being older than someone else, or blind or anything. Taxable income equals gross income.

4. I propose graduated rates. Having four brackets seems fine to me, but if tax experts prefer three or five, I’m not going to argue. The first bracket should be 5%. To repeat, everyone who earns income should contribute to the Federal government. (And yes, I know some will need more support than their income is taxed. That’s fine; provide them the services they need or make a direct payment to cover the need. Do it directly, don’t try to cram it into an income TAX system.) The top rate should be 45%. I personally think it should be higher, but at 45% the income earner ends up with more than the government. Make the other two rates 15% and 30%.

5. I propose a five-year transition. In the first year, everyone can choose to pay either on the new tax plan or 20% new and 80% old. The next year, the same choice, but with 40% new and 60% old. After five years, we are totally under the new plan. Once a person chooses to pay entirely under the new tax plan, they can’t revert to the transition.

I know that my proposed transition will initially bring in fewer taxes than the plan without transition because everyone will choose the alternative that works best for them. Here's where I'll rely on the experts, since I do not know what income levels each tax should kick in since I don’t have the data, time nor requisite skills to determine the revenues from my proposal. Given the current budget deficits (and my proposal for corporate income taxes), we clearly need more income than we are getting. Here's what I would charge the experts to do: Set the income levels so that if there were no transition, the current level of Federal government expenditures would be fully paid for (after reflecting the minor income the government receives from fees, tariffs, etc.)

This solves the economic catastrophe if we were to immediately eliminate the current budget deficit. The difference between the projected post-transition income and actual income paid will be the budget deficit for the first year. The projected deficit shrinks over the five-year transition to zero.

Another reason for the transition is because a lot of smart people who earn their living off an overly complex tax system will need to retrain for productive work. My proposed transition provides a planned obsolescence of their skills. Just think how the economy can grow if these bright people apply their minds to productive activity.

6. Note that personal income tax rates will need to be higher than they would otherwise be to reflect the elimination of corporate income taxes (see below). I charge my experts when setting the income breakpoints for the brackets to make sure that this primarily effects those well off who receive substantial income from interest, dividends, partnership income, etc. Hence the need for a 45% rate.

Corporate Income Taxes

1. Eliminate all corporate income taxes. End of plan. No transition. No deductions for anything. [I challenge you, President Trump to be so bold and comprehensive!]

2. This plan eliminates all loopholes. That means, if Congress wants to “encourage” some business activity, they must cut checks to provide corporations incentives, not hide the largess within “tax breaks.” This provides clear transparency regarding government spending and will allow better and more effective analysis of the results gained for money spent.

3. Eliminating the corporate income tax means the US should become a tax-haven for corporations, bringing back some jobs from overseas. Let the other governments figure out how they want to respond. [Again, President Trump, will your plan provide as much of an incentive?]

4. It also means corporations will be making more money, which they will eventually have to pass through to shareholders in the way of dividends, which (see above) are fully taxed. It's unclear how much of a lag there will be between the increased cash flow and increased dividends. Much of the billions held overseas to avoid U.S. taxes will be repatriated and paid out to shareholders (or go to increased investment, which would also be a good thing). I do recognize that those who own U.S. equities will disproportionately gain value as stock markets would react positively to the elimination of corporate income taxes. However, individuals will need to use it or lose it (see estate taxes below) and therefore will convert significant portions of those gains from unrealized to realized (taxable) income.

5. Since corporations get no deductions for charitable, political or other contributions, they might wonder why they should make them—or at least shareholders should be asking that question since the money is coming directly from their future dividends.

6. Government lobbying will continue, but taxpayer scrutiny of political votes will be easier when the only way they can give money to corporations is through direct payments, not hidden as deductions and credits deep within the corporate income tax. It should also focus attention in political races to how each side proposed to spend money, which I believe would be healthy.

7. Personal income tax rates will need to be higher to reflect the elimination of corporate income taxes—which is fine in the long run but might cause some larger deficits in the short term. Unlike other budget deficits, this one is self-correcting since it is only a temporary imbalance until the increase in corporate net income is passed through to investors.

Estate Taxes

1. A hereditary oligarchy is an anathema to a broadly representative government. Therefore, if someone didn’t manage to spend or give away their money before death, the government shall help them do it through the estate tax.

2. This item more properly belongs under the income tax section, but it occurs after death and Republicans have labeled the estate tax a death tax anyway, so I’m including it here. What am I including? At death, the difference between market value and book value of all assets is income in the year of death. The individual could have sold the asset, realized the gains and paid taxes. They chose not to make the sale while they were living, but now they are dead and income taxes are owed.

It does not matter whether we are talking about shares in Apple or the family farm that has increased in value or a small private business. Income has been earned and it shall be taxed. Life insurance agents will be happy that they still have a role in estate planning for small businesses.

3. After paying any income taxes, estates over $1 million dollars (adjusted for inflation from the date the limit was first $1 million) are taxed at a 50% rate. The very rich will still be incredibly rich, but less so than with no estate tax.

4. Estate tax planners still have a modicum of work to do since planned giving/ gift taxes etc. will still exist. However, note that under the proposed plan, the Government gets its 50% off the top before any distributions to heirs, charities or created foundations.

Summary:

I estimate (based on nothing concrete) that the Jim Jackson tax plan eliminates 99+% of the current tax code and regulations. By eliminating all deductions, it allows each individual to decide for themselves without government incentive how to spend their income. It forces government to make explicit expenditures to corporations or individuals rather than hide them in the tax code, which will allow the public to better understand where we are spending our money and whether the government is effectively addressing the needs of the people.

Does the Jim Jackson tax plan need to be fleshed out? Of course, but I suspect I already included more than sufficient detail to attract plenty of attacks from the entrenched corporations and wealthy, not to mention the anti-corporation liberals.

~ Jim

Monday, April 24, 2017

10 Similarities Between Birding and Writing

Birding and writing have a lot of similarities. Say what? Read on.

I'iwi
As part of our Hawaiian vacation, Jan and I joined a birding tour of the islands. It was a great vacation and I did very little writing while we were gone, but I did think about writing. Here are ten ways birding and writing are similar.

1. In birding and writing, no matter how good you are, someone is better than you, at least in some aspects.

No additional commentary needed on this one.

2. Birding and writing can both be solo activities.

Much of my writing time is spent by myself, often in the early hours of the morning before others have risen. One of my favorite times to bird is soon after sunrise before heat sears the day. The birds are frequently most active then (they’re hungry) and, even in suburbs and cities, human activity is mostly quiet. The commitment and effort for each activity can be individual and requires very little more than directed effort: paper and pen or computer for writing, alert eyes and ears (binoculars help) for birding.

Red-tailed Tropicbirds
3. It’s often more fun when you bird or write with a group.

I do love being out in the woods or fields by myself (or joined by a faithful hound), but birding with a group has some real advantages. Multiple sets of eyes spot more birds. Group expertise aids any identification problems, and I gain insights from other group members. Lastly, there is the comradery of a shared passion.

So, too, with writing. Many of us benefit from critique groups, writing retreats (even when they are virtual), and the comradery of a shared passion.

4. Sometimes the fastest way to a desired result in birding and writing is to pay for expertise.

I dislike paying other people to do things I can do myself. However, I’ve learned there are times and places where paying for expertise provides a superior result. In writing, a professional developmental edit not only saves me the time of countless rewrites I would have to suffer through to make a story as strong as I would like it, but a professional spots issues I would never see for myself.

Young Laysan Albatross waiting for parents to return with food (this was in someone's front yard!)

In birding, I could bumble around trying to find the right places to see a particular bird and then struggle to identify it when similar species are also around. Paid experts who have scouted the area can significantly increase my odds of seeing more and different birds than I could do on my own.

In an expert’s hands, arcane becomes accessible. For example, when asked how you can tell a yellow-billed cuckoo from a black-billed cuckoo, a novice takes the name clue and concentrates on the bill. Someone who knows those two species can tell them apart in a flash by looking at the tail. Now you know, too.

5. Sometimes in birding and writing one significant detail paints a memorable picture.

In Hawai’i, there are no woodpeckers. The pound-on-a-tree-to-get-food niche was taken by the Akiapolaau, which over generations shortened and strengthened its lower mandible into a strong stub it uses for pounding holes into the tree. The top mandible curved into a specialized instrument to pry food from the hole. One look at its bill, and I can remember that bird forever. There is nothing like it.

Akiapolaau

Nor can one forget a character described as, "He was a funny-looking child who became a funny-looking youth — tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola."

6. In birding and writing, little details often make a big difference.

LBJs: Little brown jobbies, are the bane of birders everywhere. Yet, if you focus on the correct detail, you can differentiate between one confusing fall warbler and another, a male versus a female. The differences can be subtle: white wingbars versus pale yellow, a full eye-stripe versus a partial, winter coloring versus mating plumage. These differences give clues to birders about species or subspecies, age, and sex -- useful when birding and important when we write about a specific time or space.

Pacific Golden Plover in winter and summer plumage

Consider these Pacific Golden Plovers in winter and mating plumage and think about how impoverished a paragraph would be that only mentioned their name without any sense of which set of clothes the bird was wearing.

Forest devastation
7. You never know what else you’ll learn while you’re birding or writing.

Keeping an open mind while writing or birding often leads to interesting insights. Sometimes I am drawn to write about something as a way of exploring a topic that perhaps I didn’t realize I needed to understand. When birding, I often discover something I had not understood. I knew before my trip to Hawai’i that the islands had suffered significant avian species losses since Captain Cook “discovered” the island chain.

While in Hawaii, I “discovered” that the remaining endemic bird species are being ravaged by a combination of avian diseases new to the islands and decreasing habitat caused by new microbes and viruses recently introduced into Hawaii. The death of forests inevitably leads to the death of birds, especially those specialized to only one or two plants.

8. Setting the scene is equally important in birding and writing.

Common Myna with attitude

In good writing, a character acts within a setting, and the setting brings out certain character elements. Eliminate setting cues and the writer must rely on talking heads or internal dialog. Setting is a major clue birders use in their attempt to identify an unknown bird. Some birds are ground dwellers, others prefer the tops of trees. Some like forest, others prefer open space or ocean.

Marsh Sandpiper, taken through a fence at a LONG distance
And yet the biggest surprises are when a character or bird are found out of their natural habitat. How did they get there? How do they adjust? We want to know what will happen. On our last official birding day in Hawai’i, we visited sewage treatment settling ponds and spotted a Marsh Sandpiper. This species breeds in Central Europe and Central Asia and normally winters in Africa, the Persian Gulf, India, or Australia—and yet this wanderer found its way to the big island of Hawai’i. Anthropomorphize for a moment: what stories it can tell after it returns home to its flock.


9. A picture can be worth 1,000 words.


My memory is triggered by pictures. I could journal a thousand words to describe the power of waves lashing the shore created from lava flows centuries ago in an effort to remember the experience, or I can take a single picture and use it to trigger a remembrance of the day, including the wind whipping the tops of waves, the scent of the sea. I use those same picture-triggers to inform my writing when I am describing a scene, for instance standing on a Hawaiian cliff, watching Red-footed Boobies flying by.

Red-footed Booby

10. Paying it forward works equally well in birding and writing.

I could spend an entire blog’s worth of words simply listing names of writers who have befriended me without recompense. I like to think I would appear on others’ lists as well. Similarly, I can think of birders who have gone out of their way to help me become a better birder, for example differentiating between Greater and Lesser Scaup. I always offer my telescope to others to see birds in a way their eyes or binoculars will never allow them to see, like seeing a Black-crowned night heron “up close.”

Black-crowned Night Heron

I either convinced you or not about the similarities between birding and writing. What I’m curious about is which picture you like best and why.

~ Jim

This blog originally appeared 23 April 2017 on Writers Who Kill

Monday, March 27, 2017

Remembering Pearl Harbor

War is caused either by an imperialistic stance by an aggressor, a failure of nations to successfully negotiate their differences, or a combination of the two, which is how the United States ended up in World War Two.

When Japan invaded Manchuria (imperialism), the United States reacted by refusing to sell Japan oil. This was no small matter for Japan, who bought 80% of its oil from U.S. companies. When the terms the U.S. required to begin shipping oil to Japan were too high for the Japanese government to accept and still maintain face—a commodity more important to politicians than to the millions of regular people who suffer when nations resort to war—Japan attacked the U.S. at Pearl Harbor on a date that FDR decried would live in infamy.

In two hours, Japan sank most of our battleships, numerous other vessels, and killed 2,400 people. As battles go, the material losses were major (although temporary, as most of the battleships were raised to fight again). In comparison to other battles, the human loss was small. On a single day at the battle of Antietam (Sharpsburg, MD) nearly 23,000 soldiers died. The atomic bomb dropped at Hiroshima killed over 40,000 people that day and 50,000 -100,000 more in the next four months.

I know all those statistics, but what resonated most with me as I toured Pearl Harbor, part of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument (including the USS Arizona memorial), is the virulent hate so many immediately felt toward those of Japanese heritage living in the United States. In Executive Order 9066, FDR set in motion what would become the mass internment of Americans with Japanese ancestry. In the mainland U.S., over 100,000 were interned. In Hawaii, with a population of over 150,000 individuals with Japanese ancestry, fewer than 2,000 were interned!

Did you know the disparity of treatment of between locations? I did not. This was racism, pure and simple.

Fear allows presidents to take actions that would otherwise be unconstitutional. FDR subjected citizens of Japanese ancestry to the loss of property, freedom, all citizen rights, simply because of fear that they might conspire against their country.

President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus soon after the start of the hostilities now referred to as the Civil War, the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression. The Judiciary determined that the right to suspend habeas corpus resided in Congress, not the President. Lincoln ignored the court order.

Lincoln was wrong to ignore the courts. FDR was wrong to tar all those with Japanese heritage with a single brush. Yet, in surveys, Lincoln and Roosevelt are considered two of our greatest presidents. For example, in the Siena College Research Institute, Presidential Expert Poll of 2010, Lincoln was rated #3, FDR was #1[1].

During the McCarthy era, political persuasion (and sometimes only presumed political persuasion) was cause for citizens to lose their jobs, to be blacklisted by industries regardless of whether they had ever committed any act against the interests of the United States.

This is our past. We should not run away from it. We must remember it to avoid repeating it.

We feared Native Americans and tried to exterminate them, or at least confine them to reservations. We feared Southern sympathizers and allowed presidential power to trump the checks and balances of our three branches of government. We feared the Japanese and illegally interred 100,000 fellow Americans.

Our current president uses fear of race, religion, and national origin to pit U.S. citizen against U.S. citizen. In our society, I am lucky to be privileged: an Anglo-Saxon male with sufficient financial means that I don’t need to rely upon charity to live. From the perspective of those in power, I should be concerned about losing all that I value because of the growing influence of those who are “not our kind.”

They are correct that I am concerned about losing what I most value. However, we have very different concepts about what has greatest value.

If I do not stand with Muslims and Jews and Blacks and Mexicans, if I do not stand with the poor regardless of race or religion; if I don’t object when others’ rights are diminished in response to fear promulgated for political gain; if I allow anyone to trample the inherent worth and dignity of another, I have lost my own soul.

~ Jim

This blog first appeared on the Writers Who Kill Blog 3/26/17




[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_rankings_of_presidents_of_the_United_States#Siena_College_Research_Institute.2C_Presidential_Expert_Poll_of_2010

Monday, March 13, 2017

Simplify

As we approach the coming equinox, thoughts turn to spring cleaning. It’s a tradition, is it not: spring cleaning? Not my tradition, mind you. My seasonal thoughts turn to spring peepers and leaves popping on trees and migrating birds, many freshly attired to attract a mate, and <groan> income taxes. I don’t notice the dirt I’ve tracked into the house until it’s pointed out to me. Nor do I notice overfilled closets, file cabinets, or newsletter mailing lists until there is no room for the addition I want to make.

With that introduction, you’ll not be surprised to learn I am a packrat. Aphorisms I grew up with and still repeat include, “Waste not, want not,” and “You never know when you might need it.” It’s a family tradition. When my father died, I “inherited” a ton (figuratively and probably literally) of family papers and such—mainly because I was the child with room to store all the material. I remember hearing about my grandmother joking to my father when my grandparents transferred the papers to him as part of their downsizing, “From our attic to yours.” I assume my children know what that means for their future.

I recognize this proclivity of mine. I often joked that I kept buying bigger (or more) houses because I needed more room to store books. A couple of years ago, I instituted a new practice regarding my personal library. For every new physical book I buy, one must find a new home. Down south, our church’s youth have a book sale to support their going to the denomination’s summer camp. Up north, we donate books to one of the local libraries. I look at it as giving someone else the opportunity of reading words I will not read again (at least in this lifetime). Electronic books are exempt from the physical storage constraint.

The digital age creates both opportunities to eliminate much of the physical records I keep and an almost limitless opportunity to keep more stuff that no one will ever use. For example, I kept in a file cabinet copies of all my tax returns—the earliest was while I was in high school! Legally, it makes sense to keep the most recent seven years; I filed the remainder because you never know who might be interested. Wouldn’t it be cool to see your grandparent’s or even great-grandparents’ taxes? Or my parents’ taxes the year I was born. (Back when we really were making American great again by investing in education and infrastructure. The highest marginal Federal personal income tax rate was 91%, although my parents’ marginal rate was probably only 22%).

So, I converted my historic tax returns to PDFs and stored them on an external hard drive. Now, if someone wants to know how much I made as a camp counselor in 1969, the answer is still available! That project emptied an entire cabinet drawer. And sometime in the future when my children look at a directory of that hard drive, they can clean the whole thing with one command. So easy.

Photographs are something else again. When film and processing cost serious dollars (at least for my budget at the time), I was parsimonious with my picture-taking. With digital cameras, I’ll shoot multiple frames—you never know which shot will be the keeper. This leads to resource problems. I need to spend time going through all the pictures to determine which are best. But can I delete ALL the others?

Are you kidding? This is me, we’re talking about. Sure, I delete the out-of-focus shots and the ones with someone’s elbow taking up half the frame. But the others? Well, you never know when . . . But I haven’t the time or interest in labeling the thousands of photos I electronically keep, so who am I really kidding here about the usefulness of the thousands of stored images. And yet, you never know . . . Not all that long ago one of my WWK blog mates wanted to use a picture of a house finch to illustrate her blog. Of course I had some to share. It’s that random variable positive reinforcement that feeds my hoarding addiction.

So with that as background, you may be surprised that I recently removed about 30% of the names from my author newsletter mailing list. I use MailChimp, which is free for me, provided my list includes fewer than 2,000 addresses. I was about to add another 100+ names gleaned from a contest, which would put me over 2,000. Faced with the choice of paying to email my newsletters or making room in that virtual closet, I made room.

I figured that the chances of someone who had not opened any of my last five newsletters would suddenly become a rabid fan were dismally small. Turns out using that criterion produced almost 600 email addresses. I admit when I saw how large the number was, I hesitated before pulling the trigger and assigning those 600 people to the terrible fate of not giving them the choice to ignore my newsletter for another year.

[There is room in my newsletter if you want to sign up. Here’s a link.]

I used to have a sign in my office that said, SIMPLIFY. It was meant as reminder that if I did not actively simplify, I would fall into the trap of spending inordinate time and energy managing my complications. I know I kept that sign someplace, because you just never know when it would be useful again. Oh wait, I just did a search of my computer’s hard drive and in two seconds it gave me the link to a PowerPoint file titled “Simplify.” See, you just never know . . . 

~ Jim

This post originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog 3/12/17

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Cowriting a Short Story

As a writer of the Seamus McCree Mystery/Suspense series, my marketing aim is to expose more potential readers to my novels. When Teresa Inge asked if I’d be interested in submitting a story for the 50 Shades of Cabernet anthology, I immediately agreed. It fit my marketing needs: a Seamus short story in an anthology with lots of excellent writers that would expose a new group of mystery readers to him. [Pre-order links for Amazon and B&N.]

Over the last few years I had worked closely with Tina Whittle in founding the Low Country Sisters in Crime Chapter and become a fan of her Tai Randolph series. In the back of my mind, I hoped we might find an opportunity to work on a joint project. After receiving permission from Teresa to submit a cowritten story, I approached Tina and she agreed. Now we had to figure out what to write.

Tai is a southern girl born and raised. Seamus is a guy of the north and was going to have to travel south for this adventure to happen. Tai buys and sells Civil War antiquities in Atlanta; Seamus is a Civil War buff. That was enough of a nexus, and at the end of two email exchanges, we had the basic outline of the story. Now, how to write it?

Having talked to writing duos at mystery conferences, I knew there were as many ways to approach the writing as there are pairs who write. Tina’s series is written from Tai’s point of view in first person. My series often uses multiple POVs, but scenes in which Seamus has the POV are also written in first person. We agreed to write the first draft of those scenes in which our character was the more important POV character. We’d write the scenes in order of the story and write everything in first person. To remove reader confusion about who the “I” in the scene was, we stole a technique from the 19th century and introduced each scene with a very brief descriptor. For example, the opening scene is introduced as Seamus McCree Meets a Daughter of the Confederacy at a Soiree.

Tina Whittle
I had responsibility for writing the first scene. Tina provided me background information on what Tai and Trey would wear and how they might act in the setting I planned. After I completed the first scene, Tina composed the second, at which point we agreed to straighten out little plot inconsistencies after we had a first draft completed. (I was happy with that solution because even though I outlined the story, I’m a pantser by nature and don’t want to be strictly constrained by any outline.)

After we wrote “The End,” it was time to revise. I took the first crack to straighten out a couple of plot bobbles and smooth our first draft writing. We traded the manuscript back and forth until we both liked what we had. Version four became our submitted.

The editor had only small suggestions. Looking through the edits, it was as if we had performed a Vulcan mind-meld. (Which you understand if you are a Trekkie fan; otherwise replace with “we thought exactly alike.”) Tina and I were pleased to discover we agreed on which of the editor’s suggestions to take, which to agree she had diagnosed a problem but to develop our own solution rather than accept her suggested approach, and which ones we felt needed push-back. One sentence proved particularly troubling, and we batted that one back and forth in a series of emails until we wrestled it to the ground.

Bottom line, would I do it again? Any time Tina wants, I’m up for it. I not only enjoyed working with her, I believe that our combined story was stronger than either of us might have produced on our own. (Now, of course, she might think that’s because I dragged her brilliance down, but if she thought that, she was kind enough to never mention it!)

Would I partner with anyone? I’d be open to discussing a project, but I’d have to feel comfortable that our styles were compatible. Check out how we did. [Pre-order links for 50 Shades of Cabernet: Amazon and B&N.]

~ Jim

Monday, March 6, 2017

Put Up or Shut Up (An Open Letter to President Trump)

Dear President Trump:

You won the electoral college election and, having been duly sworn into office, are the president of the United States of America.

Act like it.

Presidents represent all the people of the United States. They give up their personal right to voice unproven beliefs to the public as though they are facts because their pronouncements now come from the head of the executive branch of government, not from a private citizen.

Illegal Voters

When you claim to have won the popular vote had illegal votes not been counted, you are saying that at least 2.8 million more illegal votes were cast for Hillary Clinton than were cast for you. This is massive voter fraud. It means more than one in every 24 votes cast for Clinton was illegal. If true, this is a crisis for democracy in the United States. It is much more serious to address this problem than to fix the tax code or repeal and replace Obamacare or even tackle the problem of an insecure border.

Well over a month after you made the claim, we have heard nothing more about the investigation you planned to order. Why is that, President Trump?

Illegal Wiretaps

This past week you tweeted, Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my "wires tapped" in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism! and How low has President Obama gone to tapp (sic) my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy! If true, this is extremely serious.

Either President Obama has broken the law in a truly frightening way (he’s circumvented the process that requires Justice Department officials to obtain a judge’s permission before allowing them to execute a wiretap, or he’s circumvented the FISA court by not obtaining a legal order to surveil with respect to a foreign entity) or the Federal Government has acted legally (implying someone(s) in Trump Tower, or the Trump Organization, or the Trump Campaign acted in such a way as to justify a court ordering the surveillance).

You must have factual evidence to justify accusing a former president of usurping power from the courts and illegally obtaining information about a presidential candidate and his associates. With such a serious charge about the power of the presidency in a democratic country with supposed checks and balances, it is critical that the public understands exactly what has happened and how we can prevent any future president from committing similar nefarious actions.

The time, President Trump, has come for you to PUT UP OR SHUT UP.

Because you have stated that Administrative leaking is a security issue, and you have tweeted that nothing was found on the wiretaps, I must assume no secret material is involved. Please release the verifiable details of the wiretaps. How were they issued? Who carried them out? What was discovered?

And tell us who is performing the critical inquiry into your claim of voting fraud. What specifically is their charge? When is their report due to the American people?

Regarding any further statements you make:

Please provide the proof prior to or simultaneously with your presentation of the issue you choose to address. In the vernacular of the playground, PUT UP or SHUT UP.


~ Jim

Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Primer on Replacing Obamacare

“For every complex problem, there is a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong.” – HL Menken

“Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.” – President Donald J. Trump

For the last six years, congressional Republicans have had a clear, simple, and wrong solution to fixing the Affordable Care Act (ACA or “Obamacare”). They voted umpteen times to repeal it and offered no measure to replace it.

The law, as many laws are, is a complex compromise between aspiration (mostly by Democrats) and legislative reality. It was not perfect at birth and, like a six-year-old car that has had no maintenance, is in worse shape today. Had Republicans spent the last six years fixing the problems in Obamacare, it would be in much better shape. But that is all past. We must look to the future.

With Trump’s election as president, Republicans suddenly became the dog that caught the Obamacare car. What do they do with the thing? In my Open Letter to President-elect Trump and the Members of the 115th Congress (on repealing Obamacare) I closed with these words:

If you do not have sufficient experience with the actuarial and underwriting principles that underpin the individual insurance marketplace, I urge you to work with the American Academy of Actuaries to understand how those principles relate to any proposed legislation before casting your vote.

Perhaps had President Trump reflected on my open letter he would not have been so surprised about the complexity of health care.

Fortunately, Congressional leaders recognized that the wrong approach of repealing without replacing a law that runs to 906 pages (and tens of thousands of pages of regulations) would lead to multiple disasters. With healthcare, even the minutia has minutia.

However, there are several broad truths about heath care that are important to keep in mind as we evaluate the Republican’s proposed replacement.

The total cost of medical insurance =
the total cost of medical benefits provided, plus
administrative costs, plus
profit

To reduce the cost of medical insurance requires reducing some or all of its three components.

Reducing corporate profits is not part of the Republican (or Democratic) agenda.

Everyone would like to reduce administrative costs, which everyone agrees are too high. There are very few incentives in place to reduce administrative costs. Obamacare forced certain insurers to rebate to their policyholders a portion of paid premiums if overhead, including profits, exceeded 20% (15% in the large-employer market) of premiums collected. I received a rebate related to my premiums for 2015 from my large-deductible medical care policy.

Moving to a one-payer system would probably reduce administrative costs. It has for other countries; but the U.S. has its unique issues, so I am not making promises. Shifting policies to give consumers a larger choice of insurance options will not materially affect administrative costs—and may increase marketing costs.

Which leaves us with reducing medical costs as the only practical method to reduce overall premiums.

Reducing the cost of medical benefits provided can be achieved by
(a) reducing costs charged to patients or their intermediaries (insurance companies or the government),
(b) shifting the costs from covered insurance to some other source of payment, or
(c) eliminating utilization of the benefit.

Reducing Costs Charged: Competition without collusion usually reduces costs. Republican proposals to allow insurance carriers to operate over state borders could offer additional competition and marginally reduce administrative costs. (Insurance companies often must keep separate corporate entities and books for each state in which they operate.) Changing laws to provide greater competition on drug prices would address that aspect of cost. Three steps Congress could take to reduce drug costs incurred are to allow Medicare to negotiate costs with drug companies, to outlaw the ability of a drug patentholder from paying another company to withhold a generic from the market, and to allow the public to import drugs from other countries when they are the same drug sold at a lower price.

Regulating provider prices (as Congress has tried with Medicare reimbursement rates) often leads to shortages of providers when doctors make the economic decision to stop accepting Medicare patients and concentrate instead on private insurance payments.

Shifting Costs from Covered Insurance: One of the most popular approaches to reducing medical insurance premiums is to shift costs from the policy elsewhere. The two major approaches are to increase the policy deductible and to cap expense reimbursements.

Before I became Medicare eligible, I purchased high-deductible insurance. I was healthy and gambled that my out-of-pocket medical costs would be less than the insurance costs of a low-deductible plan. However, if something major happened, I didn’t want to pay for that out-of-pocket. My insurance costs were significantly reduced – BUT at the cost of taking on considerable risk. (My gamble paid off for the fourteen years I had individual coverage.)

My behavior was affected, however. I thought twice before going to a doctor or agreeing to a test or procedure. This is a double-edged sword. Because I had monetary skin in the game, I was a more careful consumer. However, studies have shown that when people defer routine healthcare, the long-term costs of chronic diseases increases because the individual enters the health care system at a more advanced stage.

The two ways of limiting reimbursement is to impose a lifetime maximum or reimburse fixed amounts for a particular benefit (for example $200/day in the hospital). As costs increase and reimbursement does not, more of the total costs are shifted from the plan to the covered individual. (The same will happen to states if they receive block grants. Unless Congress continues to increase the block grants to match cost increases, the states must either pick up the tab or cut benefits to those covered.)

Eliminating Benefit Coverage: There are multiple ways to decrease benefits and reduce costs. Health care policies could exclude certain procedures now covered. They could decide to eliminate coverage for organ transplants, or abortions and birth control, or sex-change procedures, or wellness exams, or any drug that costs over $1,000 a year, or whatever was deemed legal. The United States could effectively ration health care by limiting the number of procedures performed each year. This is the approach Canada has taken to reduce costs: fewer procedures equals lower costs.

Reducing the number of covered individuals: Finally, the easiest way to reduce costs is to reduce the number of individuals covered. Increase Medicare’s eligibility age to seventy from sixty-five and you’ve eliminated five years of costs. Eliminate medical coverage for Medicaid-eligible individuals, and cut those costs.

Obamacare increased overall covered costs by including additional benefits in plans, decreasing the acceptable size of deductibles in order to avoid a tax-penalty (I had to pay a penalty the first year because my high-deductible plan did not qualify), and significantly expanding the number of individuals covered under medical insurance by allowing children to remain much longer under their parents’ policy and expanding Medicaid edibility for those states who accepted it.

Republicans currently claim their proposal will decrease medical costs. The question that we need to answer is how will they do it? What are the tradeoffs they are proposing? Whose ox is gored?

The truth about pre-existing conditions

I pay house insurance every year and I hope to lose money every year because I don’t want my house to burn down just so I can win. Even though I have “lost” money on my housing insurance every year, it’s reasonably fair. Actuaries and underwriters price my insurance based on my house’s size, structure, safety measures, type of wiring, how far it’s away from a fire hydrant and fire station, and so on. They can reflect all the pre-existing conditions of my house in determining the premium.

In the past, we have done the same thing with individual medical insurance. If you are a young, healthy male, don’t smoke, do drugs, or engage in risky avocations (motocross racing, for example), your medical insurance can be inexpensive. Your biggest risk is from accidental injury; you rarely get sick. And you don’t get pregnant, which is why individual insurance for women used to cost more than for men.

Until as a society we decided that wasn’t fair, and eliminated sex as a basis for determining premiums. Men now subsidize women in this regard.

Many group medical insurance plans charge the same premium regardless of age. Older folks have more medical issues than younger ones. The young subsidize their elders. This is also the case for Medicare. Young(er) beneficiaries generally cost less than their older compatriots, yet premium costs are the same.

Even where plans reflect age in their premiums, they may not reflect health status. All Medicare beneficiaries pay the same premiums (ignoring extra premiums paid based on income status). Healthy beneficiaries subsidize sicker ones.

When we turn to the individual insurance market, healthy people think premiums should be based on their age and health. Why should they pay to cover someone who is older, or overweight, or has diabetes? It’s a fair question and one that needs an answer.

Under Obamacare, the answer was essentially that the young and healthy had to join plans and pay more than their fair share as part of a societal good. The same extra costs that are buried in group plans now became embedded in individual plans. Younger individuals either joined and paid these extra costs through their premiums or chose not to join and paid the costs through a tax. Because Obamacare provided a financial mechanism for supporting the extra costs of those with pre-existing conditions, they could require insurance companies to provide coverage for those sicker people. It was up to insurance companies to enroll enough of the younger, healthy individuals to break even on the deal.

What happens under such a system? The sick sign up in a New York minute: it’s a great deal for them. It’s up to insurance companies to enroll enough healthy folks to pay the tab for the sick ones. Insurance companies set rates based on an assumption of how many sick and healthy people they could attract. Where they were unable to enroll as many younger healthy individuals as they planned, they lost money. To make up for those losses, they raised premium rates. In those areas of the country where states supported the new marketplaces, lots of younger people joined the plans. Competition remains and premiums increases are moderate. Where states did not support the new marketplace, enrollment was well below expectations, resulting in subsequent huge rate increases and carriers dropping out of the market.

The death spiral of individual plans

Those of us involved in employer group medical insurance saw this death spiral when employers first introduced optional higher-deductible plans in an attempt to lower their insurance costs. Back in the 1970s and early 1980’s, most plans had no or very small ($100 individual/$300 family) deductibles. Increasing the deductible to $250 or $500 produced significant savings relative to the costs at the time. Employees chose the plan that made the most economic sense to them. Healthy individuals and families rushed to the higher-deductible plans. Older and sicker individuals stayed with the old no-deductible plans.

At the same time, companies first introduced Flexible Spending Accounts, seeding them with money for those employees choosing the higher-deductible plans and allowing employees to set aside tax-free money to pay for the costs they would now need to pay out-of-pocket.

Note what employers did: they lowered plan costs and provided “tax credits” to help pay for the plans. The very same elements Republicans currently promote (although we do not yet know the details). How did that work?

The next year, the costs of the no-deductible plan increased significantly. It included sicker folks after all, and in the second year, those on the margin dropped their expensive coverage and selected the higher-deductible plan. Those folks in the high-cost plan were on average even sicker. In a short time, the high cost plan had astronomical premiums and the companies dropped those plans altogether.

Deductibles for everyone have continued to increase, as have premiums, but at least under the group plan concept, those with pre-existing conditions can still receive coverage, and that coverage is subsidized by their fellow employees.

Take the same scenario to the individual market and no such protection will exist for those with pre-existing conditions. With multiple insurance plans to choose from, the healthy will make economic decisions that will cause people with pre-existing conditions to experience that same cost death spiral. Sure, they won’t be denied insurance, but they won’t be able to afford it.

Squeeze the Balloon

Visualize medical costs as a balloon. Each new drug, each new treatment, each new test, each new procedure, each administrative change either blows more air into the balloon or lets a little out. Total U.S. medical expenses only decrease if we find ways to let air out of the balloon. Squeezing the balloon simply shifts who pays for it and makes the one doing the squeezing “good” by pushing costs away from their sector of the balloon.

Propositions such as changing Medicare from a single-payer system to a system in which all covered members receive a credit grant to allow them to shop for their own insurance does not affect the size of the balloon. It will affect who pays the costs, and, depending on its implementation, may create its own death spiral similar to the corporate experience of the 1970s and 1980s. Block grants shift responsibility and burdens from the Federal government and introduce additional inequities between states.

Conclusion

Above all, ignore the pretty words (and titles) politicians use to describe their laws.

When evaluating health care proposals, consider the specifics: how costs are being reduced, who will subsidize whom and by how much, and what incentives will counteract the inherent inequities in paying for medical plan costs.


~ Jim

Monday, February 27, 2017

Cover Wars


For the past week, I have been filling out a questionnaire that will provide the basis for an interview to appear in a magazine later this year. I’ll leave you in suspense about the details so I have fodder for a future blog. One of the questions was, “How did getting/being published change your life?” My response was that after publication I spend much less time on pure writing and significantly more time on sales and marketing activities.

To my way of thinking, it’s all about exposure. I have faith that my novels are well-written and a certain segment of the reading public will like them—but only if they get a chance to read them. The problem is to find ways to make those potential readers aware of my books so they can find out for themselves just how good they are.

Since you never know what works until you try it, I experiment with different promotional opportunities. One I tried last year is called “Cover Wars.” The concept is simple: every week fifteen book covers are displayed on a webpage. The public can vote for the best cover, and the winner receives some free promotion on the website that sponsors the contest. It costs nothing for an author to participate.

Now, I think my Doubtful Relations cover is a really good cover – the kind of cover that makes you want to pick up the book and find out more. I’m prejudiced, of course, but you can judge for yourself. I signed up, waited a couple of months for my turn to participate, and early one Sunday morning the contest including my book opened.

I checked out the competition. There was only one other book that I thought was a contender. Now, those of you who personally know me know I am a teeny, weeny, bit competitive. I wanted to win. The rules were that repeat voting was allowed, but no more than once a day. But the reason I had signed up wasn’t to win; I hoped the exposure would intrigue some folks who did not know my books to give this one a try.

I posted about the contest on Facebook and mentioned it to the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime, where I am currently the president. And, of course, I voted once a day for the best cover!

The other cover that should have been my competition garnered very few votes. The book that turned out to be my major competition was not a particularly strong cover; it was so busy the key message (title and author) was lost.

Some of my Guppy chapter associates got behind the contest in a big way, voting daily and encouraging others to vote. Had each of the chapter’s 700 members voted for my cover just once, it would have won by a landslide. Which tells you the contest exposure was small. The fifteen contest authors ginned up various amounts of support from friends, but there wasn’t a large group of folks out there in cyberland using this contest to find some great new books.

And that led to the marketing result: During the week of the contest, sales of Doubtful Relations declined compared to the average for the previous few weeks.

I also quickly recognized that the free contest was only free in terms of me not spending any money. I spent lots of time thanking people who let me know they had voted for my cover. And Mr. Competitive wasted mucho time tracking how my cover was doing compared to the competition.

I went to bed Saturday night with a very small lead, and woke up Sunday morning having lost by a bunch of votes. The winner had rallied her troops or bots or whatever for a last-minute push.

Lessons for me: Measure all the costs of a promotion, not just the cash outlay. Check some prior results to see the number of votes – that would have given me a clue that the contest was thin on reader engagement. Remember that whatever I tell myself about being disengaged from the result of a contest, I won’t be, so make sure to factor in all that wasted time checking to see how my entry in the race is faring.

So dear friends who are readers, where do you find out about new-to-you books that seem to be worth trying?

A version of  this blog was first posted at Writers Who Kill on 2/26/17.