Mike Kueber's Blog

July 29, 2013


Filed under: Economics,Education,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 8:54 pm
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As America continues to struggle with its deficit and debt, one of the most frequently suggested solutions is to means-test America’s two most expensive programs – Social Security and Medicare.  Although this populist approach might hold out some superficial appeal to many, if not most people, it also is subject to that old aphorism – i.e., the devil is in the details.  Most people probably have a general understanding of what means-testing is (Wikipedia says it is a determination of whether someone is eligible for help from the government, based upon whether that person possesses the resources to do without that help), but the detail is how do you determine whether a person has adequate resources.

I recently encountered means-testing with my son’s federal application for college financial aid.  Jimmy previously received aid based on my ex-wife’s finances, and this year when he shifted to become my dependent he was denied any aid.  The denial was based on a federal calculation that I was expected to contribute more than twice as much to Jimmy’s college education as my ex-wife was expected.  This calculation didn’t make sense to me because my ex-wife’s assets were comparable to mine.  Furthermore, she is working while I am retired.

So I dug deeper and this is what I found:

  • For purposes of financial aid, the federal government considers “resources” to be not just income, but also assets.
  • Assets do not include home equity or retirement accounts.

Home equity is what distinguishes me from my ex-wife.  When we got divorced, she took the house without a mortgage and I took an apartment and put my assets into a brokerage account.  Although the equity in her house and the assets in my brokerage account are virtually identical, the federal government has taken the position that a parent won’t be expected to use any of that home equity to pay for your child’s college education.  With my brokerage account, however, the federal government expects me to liquidate a portion of that every year to pay for college.

How is that fair?  Why should I be expected to contribute more to my child’s college education than someone with $1 million equity in a house?

And fairness is just one aspect of means-testing.  Another is the incentive or disincentive that it produces.  The internet is replete with articles analyzing how means-testing, whether income or assets, tends to discourage people from earning or saving money.  Although you may not think that people would decline to earn more money if it cost them government benefits, this has already been found to occur when applied to welfare and it is reasonable to expect seniors might do the same thing if earnings cut into their Social Security and Medicare benefits.

Unfortunately for me, I can’t figure out a way to avoid the harsh effects of the federal calculation for financial aid.  I can significantly reduce my income by avoiding any capital gains, but unless I take the money out of my brokerage and buy a house or condo, the federal government has decided that I can do without any of their help.  That is true, but so can a lot of other people who will get government assistance.

Incidentally, in discussions of means-testing for Social Security and Medicare, there are suggestions that an alternative that will produce fewer distorted incentives is to means-test lifetime earning instead of annual income or assets.  That sounds promising.






July 26, 2013

Saturday Night at the Movies #78 – The Words

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 6:23 pm
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What a wonderful movie!  The Words (2012) is a story within a story within a story.  The underlying story involves a WWII GI who falls in love with a French girl and then writes a novella about their relationship.  Unfortunately, she loses the manuscript and that precipitates the end of their relationship.  Fast forward 60 years and a struggling young writer from NYC finds the manuscript, falls in love with it, and has it published under his name.  Fast forward 20 years and an established NYC writer has written a book about the young writer from NYC and how his life was affected by his plagiarism.

The cast is great – the WWII GI is played by Ben Barnes and 60-years later by Jeremy Irons; the beautiful French girl is played by Nora Arnezeder, the struggling young writer from NYC is the movie’s star, Bradley Cooper, and his wife is Zoe Saldana; and finally, Dennis Quaid is the established NYC writer.

The relationship between Cooper and Saldana is the centerpiece of the movie, and it reminds me much of the relationships depicted in the TV series Felicity – i.e., ambitious, artsy young people in NYC trying to find a place in life that accommodates their dreams yet accepts practical reality.

The Rotten Tomato critics hated The Words – only 22% like it.  One critic said that it “is a well-acted but narratively limp indie that’s undermined by a failure to connect emotionally with its audience.”  Not exactly; 50 of the Rotten Tomato audience liked it, and I was one of those.  In fact, I more than liked it.  Three and a half stars out of four.

July 25, 2013

Craving approval

Filed under: Relationships — Mike Kueber @ 5:39 pm

I don’t know what caused it, but I have a significant character flaw in craving approval or, conversely, avoiding disapproval.  Example – yesterday after a Wednesday yoga class, I was visiting with one of my favorite yoga instructors, Melissa Burns, and as I was walking away she said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”  Her statement was based on the fact that I regularly participated in her uber-challenging hot-vinyasa practice on Thursday.  I responded, “You bet,” even though I had already decided that I was going to take an alternative, easier yoga class on Thursday – Dhyana’s slow-burn class.

Why did I do that?  I did it because I didn’t want Melissa to think that I was rejecting her class in favor of Dhyana’s, even though I was.  Then when Thursday rolled around, I tried to please both yogis by attending back-to-back classes, but was unable to pull it off because Melissa’s killer class left me completely drained.  As I dragged myself out of the yoga studio following Melissa’s class, Dhyana was walking in.

This character flaw of mine would be bad enough if it were limited to situations like choosing a yoga class.  Unfortunately, it has more significant ramifications.  Probably the most significant is that it causes me to communicate inaccurately with others.  Instead of communicating the unvarnished truth, I often distort the truth into something that the listener wants to hear, especially when the truth will cause the listener to think less of me.

I’ve searched the internet and haven’t found a consensus about what causes individuals to act like I do. The TV psychologists often point to a disconnect between the love of a parent and child, but that doesn’t resonate with my personal recollection of growing up.  In any event, I think I’m getting better with this problem as I grow older, but I’m still clearly a work in progress.

July 24, 2013

Saturday Night at the Movies #77 – People Like Us

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 8:32 pm

Although People Like Us (2012) has received mixed reviews – the Rotten Tomatoes critics score it at 55% and the audience scores it at 63% – I found it to be thoroughly enjoyable.  It involves a hyperactive, struggling young businessman on the East Coast called home to the West Coast for the funeral of his estranged dad, a modestly successful guy in the music business.  Following the funeral, the son learns that his dad had a love child and wants the son to deliver to this love child his only cash assets – $150k.  The son is played by Chris Pine, the love child is played by Elizabeth Banks, and the son’s mother is played by Michelle Pfeiffer.  This movie is satisfying because the three leading characters are people like us – fundamentally flawed, but basically good people fighting to survive in a challenging world.  I give it three and one quarter stars.

July 20, 2013

President Obama speaks out on the Zimmerman verdict

Filed under: Culture,Issues,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 1:41 am
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Earlier today President Obama finally provided America with his reaction to the Zimmerman verdict.  According to an article in the NY Times, he said that, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”  I doubt that Obama was that angry and violent.

The most interesting comment in the article was Obama’s lament that young African-American males are treated as suspicious by the American public, and he listed the following examples:

  • “… being followed while shopping in a department store, hearing the click of car doors locking as they cross a street, or watching as women clutch their purses nervously when they step onto an elevator.”

My question is how do we address this concern.  Are department stores supposed to look the other way or drivers and women supposed to ignore their concerns?  Or should we recognize these are natural symptoms to a culture where young African-American males inordinately commit in crime.  Some may call this a chicken-egg conundrum; I suggest that President Obama is treating the symptom instead of the cure.

July 18, 2013

Sunday Book Review #102 – Law Man by Shon Hopwood

Filed under: Book reviews — Mike Kueber @ 12:59 am
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Law Man made it to my reading queue because of the following Facebook message from Brent Lee, an old friend from Aneta, ND:

  • Another book I would recommend, Law Man, was an easy reading interesting book about a small town, basketball playing, son of a farmer, who went to federal prison and then, while in prison became a successful lawyer and had a romance with a hometown girl that led to marriage. A story of redemption.”

I’m not sure Brent realized how much Shon Hopwood’s story would resonate with me.  Brent and I came from a town even smaller than Shon’s and we played high school basketball there, albeit not at Shon’s star level.  I was the son of a farmer and became a lawyer who filed numerous writs to get inmates out of prison.  Unfortunately, I never had a romance with a beautiful hometown girl (although Brent’s sister Debbie was as beautiful as the girl in Shon’s fairytale story, and in my dreams she could have played that role, but she moved out of town after our freshman year in high school).

Brent’s summary of Law Man is dead-on.  It is such an inspiring story of redemption that you can hardly believe that it is a true story.  On the surface at age 22, Shon must have appeared like a loser destined for a horrible life – he couldn’t hold a job or a girlfriend and started robbing banks to avoid having to work.  When the criminal-justice system collared him after his 5th heist and sentenced him to 12 years in prison, his life looked lost.

During those twelve years in prison, Shon somehow found a calling as an inmate lawyer and just as importantly found a soulmate, a girl from his hometown who reached out to him.  But his story is incredible not because he found a calling or a soulmate, which happens from time to time to inmates, but because he found a world-class calling and a world-class girlfriend.  He got so good at writing briefs that he worked with some of America’s best appellate lawyers, and his soulmate was so beautiful that people mistook her for being a model, plus being smart and athletic.  I can’t imagine this story not being turned into a movie.

Upon further reflection, however, Shon’s story of redemption is not totally incredible.  Unlike most inmates, he came from a solid, supportive family and community in Nebraska.  He was not a lifetime criminal, but rather a decent, immature kid who turned to crime in a moment of weakness.  Although the federal prison system did not play a significant role in reforming Shon, I am grateful that it did not prevent him from maturing into the solid citizen he surely is.

Shon married his soulmate and they are currently raising two kids while he attends the University of Washington Law School on a Bill Gates scholarship.

July 16, 2013

Aphorism of the Week #16 – You come into the world alone and go out of the world alone

Filed under: Aphorism — Mike Kueber @ 6:51 pm
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A few days ago, I made a passing comment about the contrast between having a soulmate and the aphorism that, “You come into the world alone and you go out of the world alone.”  Although the aphorism seems self-explanatory, I decided to explore it on the internet to learn its story.  During that exploration, I was surprised to learn that aphorism had an unquestioned author – Emily Carr – and that it was a significant abridgement of Carr’s original statement:

  • “I wonder will death be much lonelier than life. Life’s an awfully lonesome affair. You can live close against other people yet your lives never touch. You come into the world alone and you go out of the world alone yet it seems to me you are more alone while living than even coming and going.”

All this time, I’ve considered the aphorism to refer to the loneliness of death while actually it is referring to the loneliness of life.

A similar misconstruction has occurred with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s aphorism, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”  This aphorism also seems self-explanatory – i.e., dumb people struggle to avoid inconsistency.  But the actual aphorism is much longer:

  • A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and tomorrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradicts everything you said today.”

Instead of scolding minds for faulty logic or memory, Emerson is encouraging people to do more than calculate.

The popular abridgment of these aphorisms reminds me of a previous job I had that involved digesting a huge amount of information in a short time.  The most productive employees at this job learned to “top sheet,” which is a term for relying on only the tip of the iceberg in making a decision.  In life, however, top sheeting is not the best way to get to where we want to go.

July 15, 2013

A cautionary tale – Trayvon and Zimmerman

Filed under: Culture,Law/justice — Mike Kueber @ 7:02 pm
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For the past couple of days, ever since returning from my apartment pool on Saturday night and learning of the Zimmerman verdict, I have engaged in a lot of Facebook dialogue on the subject.  Mostly, I have reacted to the outrage at a perceived travesty of justice.  Of course, this outrage pre-dated the verdict and has been building ever since the criminal-justice system in Florida declined to prosecute Zimmerman for killing Trayvon.

According to the Trayvon apologists, there are three culprits for freeing Zimmerman:

  1. The racist, bigoted law & order people (police and prosecutors) who, following their investigation, declined to charge or arrest Zimmerman.
  2. The incompetent special prosecutors who, although they felt the political winds and decided to charge and arrest Zimmerman, failed to present a credible case for conviction.
  3. The six racist, bigoted women on the jury who accepted Zimmerman’s argument of self-defense.  These culprits are given the least attention because we know so little about them and it’s hard to claim bigotry solely on the basis that they disagreed with you on self-defense.

As President Obama is wont to say at moments like this, the Zimmerman/Martin matter, like the Gates incident, can be a teaching moment.  The teaching to Trayvon apologists is that the South remains suffused with racist people, an innocent black teenager can’t safely take a walk at night, and a mostly white jury will excuse vigilante conduct against black kids.

I suggest this cautionary tale reminds us of things we already knew:

  • Lots of conservatives in this country believe strongly in defending themselves and their neighborhoods against perceived outsiders instead of relying exclusively on their police departments.
  • Lots of conservative states in this country, like Texas and Florida, have adopted laws that give the benefit of a doubt to those people who are defending themselves and their neighborhoods.
  • When innocent bystanders encounter overzealous, self-proclaimed authority figures, it is not a good idea to confront them and it is a horrible idea to physically challenge them.  Just walk away from the nosy neighbor; don’t assault him.


July 11, 2013

Saturday Night at the Moview #76 – Felicity (TV series, Seasons 2-4)

Filed under: Movie reviews,Uncategorized — Mike Kueber @ 5:35 pm

I obviously haven’t been posting much in my blog, and this post reveals why.  On July 6, I posted about the first season of Felicity, the WB series in 1998.  Today, one week later, I am posting about the second, third, and fourth seasons (1999-2002).  That means I watched more than 60 episodes in a week, which has to qualify for serious binge viewing.

What prompted my binge?  My posting on Season One concluded with me giving the show three and a half stars, and the succeeding seasons kept getting better.  The characters (college kids trying to figure out life) and setting (Manhattan) are simply irresistible.

While searching the internet for trivia on the show, I stumbled across a website that reviewed the series a few years ago.  Although the website provided a great review, it criticized two things about the show that I thought were actually its strongest points.  The following was my self-explanatory response to the review:

  • Great review.  I just finished binging on all four seasons on Netflix and loved it.  My only quibble is with your two major criticisms – (1) Felicity’s waffling between Ben and Noel, and (2) the time travel.  I don’t think there was any waffling after Season One.  Although I had no idea who Felicity would go with that first summer, when she chose Ben, the die was forever cast.  Although Felicity naturally had a case of buyer’s remorse in the following Seasons, I thought it was genius for the writers to indulge that remorse by showing Felicity and the viewers through Its a Wonderful Life time travel that Ben for her was inevitable.  Obviously, I’m Team Ben, too.”

Four stars out of four.

July 6, 2013

Saturday Night at the Movies #75 – Felicity (TV series Season One)

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 12:10 am
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This is a lot of talk in the media about people engaging in binge viewing of TV series on Netflix, and I recently have partaken of eight seasons of “24,” five seasons of Friday Night Lights,” and lastly a single season of “Revenge.”  After finishing “Revenge” last week, I concluded that this binge viewing was great and went looking for another TV series.

One that kept popping up on various lists was “Felicity.”  The Netflix description reads, “In this Emmy Award winner, Felicity Porter abandons her med school plans to follow her heart — and her crush, Ben — to a different college. Once there, she falls for another guy, establishing one of television’s most intriguing love triangles.”  Although the movie is characterized as a teen drama, I was drawn to it because its setting is a college in Manhattan.  I have been fascinated by Manhattan ever since college, and would have gone to law school there if NYU or Columbia Law had accepted me.

I decided to give it a try, and within a couple of episodes I was hooked.  Felicity is played by Keri Russell and although she is adorable, she is almost too perfect, a little too earnest and eager to please.  Four other excellent characters complete the ensemble.  “Felicity” might sound like a college version of “Friends,” but “Felicity” is a drama and the characters, at least in the first season, are heavily incestuous.  It might also sound like variation of “Friday Night Lights,” but FNL focused heavily on parenting while “Felicity” allows its young adults to work their way through problems with minimal parental involvement.

Although the storylines aren’t as well-developed as those on “24” or “FNL,” I love watching this teen drama because it examines in a serious way a series of relationship issues that kids coming of age must confront.  If I had been lucky enough to live in Manhattan, I would have loved to experience the way these kids are.

And I’m hopeful that the three remaining college years are as satisfying.

I give the TV show three and a half stars out of four.

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