The Thoughts and Musings of Tom Allain

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it

Stephen Colbert
(b.1964)

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The Money Chronicles Volume 11: Was This a Scam?

October 19th, 2014

Nancy and I each drive a Toyota Prius. I bought mine in 2006 and she bought hers in 2011. A few days ago I got a call from Toyota asking if we wanted to trade in Nancy’s car. The teaser was this: they would sell us a comparable 2014 Prius at about the same monthly payment and we would get a car 3 years newer. I declined because Nancy is happy with her car and we’re looking forward to paying it off. But it got me wondering if this is a good deal or not.

This is where the math nerd in me kicks in. In the days following this I began to wonder if this would have been a good deal for us. Truth be told I’m a child of parents who grew up in the Great Depression and I still think of debt as a necessary evil. I’d be most happy if I didn’t have to pay off our home or our cars. Still I found it a fascinating question and I tried to crunch the numbers. It wasn’t easy because the auto world changes dramatically. The hot new feature of a few years ago is standard now. Think of anti-lock brakes and airbags.

Still, I started looking into the numbers. When we bought Nancy’s car in March of 2011 we paid $33,070.20 and financed the whole cost at 2.9% interest (her old car was so old we donated it to the San Diego Zoo). It was a five year loan with a monthly payment of $550.52.

Had we taken the offer we would get a comparable Prius for $30,930. It’s essentially a wash as the cost increased by only a little over $200. Interestingly enough the interest rate has decreased from 2.9% to 0.9%. Had we done this our payment would have been $527.42, a savings of $23.10 per month. At face value that sounds like a good idea: We pay less money each month for a newer car.

But wait: If we keep Nancy’s car we can pay it off in March 2016. But if we get this newer car we’ll be paying it until October 2019. That’s 3 1/2 years longer to have a car payment (assuming Nancy’s car lasts that long, and since my car is 8 1/2 years old and has nearly 189,000 miles on it, we can). What if we sell Nancy’s car now and use that money for a down payment on a 2014?

Glad you asked. The current blue book value of Nancy’s car is a little over $17,000. Let’s use that as a benchmark. OK, we sell Nancy’s car and use that as a down payment on a 2014. We still owe $11,220 so we’ll need to deduct this. Our downpayment goes down to $5,780. If the car is $30,930 and we put down $5,780, the finance price goes down to $25,150. I’m not sure Toyota will finance this, but my Credit Union will finance the car for 1.99%. On a five year loan that makes our payment $440.72.

Thanks Toyota, but we think we’ll pass.

The Justice Chronicles Volume 16: Are We Tipping On Marriage Equality?

October 7th, 2014

When we see a shift in public opinion about something we sometimes talk about a “tipping point,” that is, a time where it appears that the momentum has shifted and what was once a minority opinion has now become the majority.

It’s hard to remember this, but just a few years ago this was thought impossible. In 1996, 18 years ago, President Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA. It mandated that the federal government not recognize any marriage except between one man and one woman.

Fifteen years ago, in 1999, California led the country in issuing domestic partner licenses; it provided some of the benefits of marriage. Other states followed.

Massachusetts, in 2004, became the first state to allow gay couples to marry. But because of DOMA these married couples could not file joint income tax returns, or benefit from each others’ social security or other benefits. There had been a residency requirement (that you had to live in Massachusetts or plan to live there). This was a 1913 law and was intended to prevent Southern interracial couples from coming to Massachusetts to get married. It was repealed in 2008.

Also in 2008 the California Supreme Court ruled that the state could not ban gay marriage under the rules of the state constitution. Almost immediately there were calls to amend the California constitution to prevent marriage equality. Later that year Proposition 8 amended the constitution, though the state upheld the marriages that were performed between June 16th and November 4th.

In 2010 the District Court of Northern California ruled that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional (even though it was an amendment to the constitution). In 2012 the U.S. Ninth Circuit upheld the ruling; it was appealed to the Supreme Court but the Supreme Court ruled against them in 2013. Ever since then marriage equality has been legal in California.

There is much more to this and I encourage everyone to read the entire timeline at here.

The 50 states are divided into 11 circuits: you can view the map at here.

The 4th, 7th, 9th, and 10th circuits have all ruled in favor of marriage equality. In a surprise to many, the Supreme Court refused to hear any these appeals.

It’s a bit of a disappointment to those of us who favor marriage equality; we were hoping for the equivalent of Loving v. Virginia when the Court ruled that bans on interracial marriages were unconstitutional.

That said, it’s a devastating blow to those who oppose marriage equality. It appears that as of today Virginia, Indiana, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Colorado, and Utah will start issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. Because they belong to the 4th, 7th, 9th, and 10th circuits Wyoming, Kansas, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina will soon follow.

The Supreme Court could still take cases from the other circuits (the 5th circuit is looking at this) but I think this sends a clear message to the other circuits that the Supreme Court will rule in favor of marriage equality.

It appears that homophobia is the latest casualty in the march for justice.

Senator Ted Cruz: New Heights In Ignorance

September 10th, 2014

As I write this we’re in the middle of a crisis with ISIS (or ISEL or the Islamic State, or whatever). This is one of those times where I don’t envy President Obama and how he needs to respond to this threat to our safety.

One of the reasons I don’t envy him is that he needs to govern when the opposition party cares little for the health of our country, its citizens, and its descendents but instead cares only with the desire to destroy him and his party.

Today I saw that Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who is likely going to run for President in 2016, wants to revoke the citizenship of any American citizen who joins Isis (or Isel or the Islamic State).

This is playing well with Faux News and the rest of this country’s knuckle draggers, but it’s not Constitutional. The 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that anyone born in the United States or naturalized is a citizen of this country. An article here shows that someone who is a naturalized citizen can have his citizenship revoked, but anyone who is born a citizen cannot have his (or her) citizenship revoked.

If Ted really wants this to pass he needs to amend the Constitution. It’s not an easy process (and it shouldn’t be). There are two ways to do this. The first (that has never been used) requires that two thirds of the states petition congress to call a Constitutional Convention. The problem with this method is that a convention can rewrite the entire Constitution and I don’t know anyone who wants this. It ignores the collective wisdom of the last 225 years.

The other method has been used 27 times. If two thirds of both the Senate and the House vote in favor of an amendment and three fourths of the state legislatures agree, it becomes an amendment of the Constitution.

Senator Cruz is clearly not aware that he cannot simply propose legislation to revoke the citizenship of natural born citizens. Or perhaps he does, and he is doing this as a publicity stunt. In any case, we shouldn’t stand by and allow him to do this.

It’s time to demand that our lawmakers understand the law. And it’s especially time to require anyone who wants to be President to understand the Constitution.

Happy Labor Day To All

September 1st, 2014

Today many of us have the day off from work to celebrate Labor Day. For many it’s the traditional end of summer and the beginning of the campaign season for November’s election (even though campaigning these days seems to be continuous).

But it got me thinking about labor and the role of work in our lives. Earlier this year I read Doris Kearns Goodwin’s excellent book The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. Both men were members of the Republican Party and both were President (Theodore Roosevelt served from 1901 to 1909 and William Howard Taft served from 1909 to 1913).

They were also progressives and did much to advance the cause of the working man and woman. The late 1800s and early 1900s were very good if you were rich and very bad if you were poor. While we know the names of the wealthiest, Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan (among others), we don’t know the millions of people whose labor made their fortune.

It was commonly held back then that if you went to work for someone, he told you how much you were getting paid and you accepted it, even if if meant you and your family were going to live in abject poverty with little hope of relief. The Bully Pulpit gave me a quote that succinctly describes this. George M. Pullman developed the railroad sleeping car and dining car and founded the Pullman Palace Car Company. When describing the conditions of his workers he made it sound like a paradise. The lived in homes owned by Pullman, shopped in stores owned by Pullman and worshiped in churches owned by Pullman. The problem was that Pullman cut their wages in 1894 claiming that the company needed to do that to survive. It was later learned that the company paid out dividends to its stockholders that year of over $2,000,000 and reported profits of $25,000,000 (this in 1894 dollars).

When the workers attempted to arbitrate with the company, Pullman responded that there was nothing to arbitrate. He insisted that workers have nothing to do with the amount of wages they shall receive; that is solely the business of the company (you can read this on page 186 of Doris’ book: she footnotes Ray Stannard Baker). This, and hundreds of other examples, launched the labor movement in the United States and the organization of unions. We often look at this time as the era of Robber Barons.

Even the Vatican weighed in. In 1891 Pope Leo XIII wrote an encyclical called Rerum Novarum, commonly translated as “On Human Labor.” The Pope was concerned that workers were being exploited and wrote about the dignity of the individual worker. Truth be told he was equally concerned that the backlash against the Robber Barons would be acceptance of socialism, but his words are worth a read.

In the time since there have been incredible reforms. We now have a minimum wage. Child labor is (at least legally) almost nonexistent. Most of us work a 5 day, 40 hour week with paid vacation, holidays and sick leave. Most of the time we have recourse if we feel we are being treated unfairly. Most of the time we work in safe environments and are compensated if we are injured on the job. But none of this came easy. Our parents and grandparents had to fight for every one of these reforms and none of them are guaranteed to our children and grandchildren.

In my family I am the first generation who never had to work in a factory. My parents grew up in Gardner, Massachusetts where almost everyone, at least at some point in their lives, worked for the Heywood – Wakefield Furniture Company. The work was repetitive, exhausting, and boring. I am who I am because they worked hard to give me a chance to move beyond that. I will never forget that.

We honor Labor Day not by cooking hot dogs or going to the beach. We honor Labor Day by honoring laborers. Let’s all agree to keep fighting for the things they fought for.

It’s Been Nine Years, But Not Long Enough to Forget

August 26th, 2014

In August of 2005 we learned the word “Katrina” isn’t just a girl’s name, but a horrific hurricane. She began in the South Atlantic and moved northeast. It moved over Florida and gained speed and danger: she moved over the Gulf of Mexico and struck New Orleans on August 29th.

The next few days were horrific to watch, let alone to live through. The administration of President Bush claimed to have responded well to this, but virtually nobody believes this. Thousands were stranded without basic needs such as food, water, or bathrooms. If you don’t believe me, check out my page on this. We are still living with his failures on this and many more events.

His decision to strip FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) of anyone except his cronies showed a breathtaking lack of compassion. The hurricane and aftermath made us all aware that our government was horrifically unprepared for a completely predicable event.

I’m impressed with those who lived through Katrina, those who were part of the solution, and those who continue to rebuild. And as an American citizen, I apologize for those members of our government who made promises they never intended to keep.

Forty Years Ago Tonight: Where Were You When President Nixon Resigned?

August 7th, 2014

OK, so you need to be at least as old as me, and probably older to answer this question. As for me (I was 14), my family was on vacation in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. That afternoon my father told me that President Nixon was going to speak on national television.

I had known that the noose was closing on him and I believed that he was guilty of a cover up. I asked my father if Nixon was going to resign and he said it’s hard to believe that he asked for time on national TV to do anything else. I was swimming in the hotel pool when my father peeked his head out the door and told me he was coming on TV. I got out of the pool and wrapped a towel around my shoulders; I went into the hotel room, watched him resign, and went back into the pool. The next morning I saw the headline in the New York Daily News.

Because I grew up in northern Virginia and started reading the Washington Post from the time I could read, I had a front row seat on the Watergate scandal. I know way more than anyone should about it, but I’m amazed at how badly President Nixon handled this.

On June 17, 1972 five men were caught and arrested in the Watergate office complex, more specifically, the offices of the Democratic National Headquarters. Almost everyone believes that President Nixon knew nothing about it and was caught off guard when he got word.

It was silly on several levels. President Nixon was running for re-election against Senator George McGovern and was expected to soundly defeat him (which he did). The burglars were looking for information that the McGovern campaign had on Nixon, but if they did have anything, it would have been at McGovern headquarters, not the DNC offices.

In any case President Nixon saw the arrests as an attack on him and ordered his staff to pay the burglars to make sure they didn’t testify in their trial that they had been ordered by anyone to do this. Over the next 2 years it all unraveled. We learned that while President Nixon didn’t order the break in, he tried to cover it up. We call that obstruction of justice.

Forty years ago today he was facing the real possibility that he would be impeached and removed from office. In a decision that I supported then (and now) he chose to resign, fearing that an impeachment and trial would divide the nation. The next day Gerald Ford took the oath of office and became the next President. In another decision I agreed with, President Ford pardoned Richard Nixon. It may have cost him his re election in 1976 but I think he did the right thing.

In the last 40 years I’ve come to recognize the strength of our nation. Not many nations could survive the voluntary resignation of a sitting President and the orderly transition of power to another without the fear of a military takeover. Watergate gave us an unprecedented Constitutional crisis but the next day the government opened for business and did well. Its employees showed up for work just like every other day. The national parks open for business, Social Security checks were processed and mailed, and everything was worked like it should.

August 7, 1974 was a bad day for many reasons, but a good day for the confidence we all should feel in our government.

The Justice Chronicles Volume 15: Burwell v. Hobby Lobby: This Is Going To Cost Us

July 16th, 2014

The end of June is always an interesting time for me because I get to read a small mountain of Supreme Court opinions. I’ve generally found these opinions easy to read and it gives me a leg up on those who listen to 30 seconds of a news story on the opinion.

Far and away the opinion that has interested me the most was Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Inc.. Here is my (brief) analysis: According to the terms of the Affordable Care Act, if you are an employer you are required to provide health care to your employees (you can get tax credits if you employ only a few people). As part of this you have to provide birth control.

Hobby Lobby and a few other privately owned companies objected because they oppose abortion and feel that certain forms of birth control actually abort a fetus after conception. They filed suit against the Department of Health and Human Services and the court agreed with Hobby Lobby.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the 5-4 majority. He argued that if a company is privately owned by a small number of owners and they all agree that a law (in this case the Affordable Care Act) violates their core values, they are not required to violate those values. Much of this was based on the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the dissent. She argued that this will open a door to much greater problems. If we allow these companies to exempt themselves from laws that violate their beliefs, where do we end? What if another company finds all forms of birth control? Or a company whose beliefs on homosexuality prevent them from employing gays or lesbians?

I find Justice Ginsberg’s arguements compelling. To the extent that government has no business deciding which relgious beliefs are appropriate, we rely on people of those faiths to determine what they find offensive. And while mainstream America supports gay rights and birth control, good people of different faiths oppose them. If you are an employee of a small, privately held company, you are essentially a hostage of their beliefs even if they are not your own.

I read the opinion (I downloaded it for free on my iPad) and see a disconnect with what I’ve been reading in other outlets. The most troublind disconnect I’ve found is the impression given that these will only apply to small companies. But the opinion applies to companies with only a few owners, not employees. For example, Hobby Lobby is owned by one family, but they employ 16,000 people. Koch Industries employ 60,000. Simply put, as long as these companies don’t go public they can subject their employees to anything they want.

This wasn’t prominent in the decision, but I think this is an important issues: while Hobby Lobby and other companies are privately held, they are also incorporated. This allows the family financial protection if they go bankrupt; the creditors can only go after assets in the company and not personal assets. It seems to me, though, that these companies are trying to have it both ways. If they want protection for themselves, shouldn’t there be some protection for their employees? If these families see their companies as an extension of their own values, shouldn’t they then be compelled to “go all in” and not protect themselves?

I wonder how long it will take for the Court to see that they’ve opened a bad door.

Tony Gwynn: 1960 – 2014

June 18th, 2014

Monday we received sad news (though news many of us in San Diego knew was coming): Tony Gwynn died of cancer of the salivary glands at the age of 54.

This was sad news on several levels. He was much too young. We who love San Diego, baseball, or just loved watching a man who respected the game, his family, and himself with equal ferocity, will miss him.

He was a Los Angeles boy he grew up rooting for the Dodgers. After high school he came to San Diego State University where he played basketball and baseball. In 1981 he was drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 3rd round. After a year in the minor leagues he made his major league debut with the Padres on July 19, 1982. He never left. Even though he could have made much more money by moving to another team when he became a free agent, he decided to stay in San Diego.

From 1982 to his retirement at the end of the 2001 season he put up some incredible numbers. His career batting average was .338, with 3,141 hits (it’s assumed anyone with 3,000 career hits gets into the Baseball Hall of Fame). He made the All Star team 15 times and was the National League batting champion 8 times.

But the best thing about Tony was his character. He never stopped studying the game, even drawing the respect of the often prickly Ted Williams.

After his career he continued to contribute to the game coaching the SDSU baseball team. We knew things were bad in March when he asked for a leave of absence.

I had the pleasure to meet him several years ago at a charity event. We just spoke for a minute, but he made me feel like I was the only person in the room. You can read my account of that meeting here. Though he and his wife were the keynote speakers, they carried themselves with the kind of class I’d always heard about.

One final note: He was inducted in the Hall of Fame in 2007. A few months after that San Diego experienced a fire that destroyed dozens of homes. Tony put the word out that if anyone lost an autograph of his (from a picture to a baseball to a bat) in the fire, they should let him know and the would replace them. As an added bonus, he could put “HOF” on the autograph (Hall of Fame). The fire came close to his home and his showed his character in that he was concerned so much with the fans.

He was Mr. Padres and we will miss him.

God Bless Tony, and I’m glad you’ll be reunited with your father.

D Day Plus 70 Years. A Day To Remember

June 6th, 2014

The airwaves have been filled today with remembrances of June 6, 1944. These anniversaries are becoming more poignant as the number of those who were there are dwindling. It won’t be many years before we lose our last survivor.

The numbers are staggering. By early 1944 it was clear that the allies would need to make an amphibious landing on the shores of France, but it was not clear where or when. Adolf Hitler believed it would be at Calais, the narrowest part of the English Channel. He was wrong. Around 6:30 a.m. that morning, allied troops began landing on Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword Beaches, south of Calais.

On that day 160,000 troops landed and began an inch by inch conquest of France. About 9,000 died on those beaches. We should never forget that.

D Day is also a reminder that landmark events sometimes turn on small, bizarre decisions. Hitler’s personal doctor, Theodore Morell, regularly injected Hitler with something he called “Vitamultin.” There is good reason to believe that one of the ingredients was amphetamines. On the night of June 5th, Hitler left instructions not to wake him. When reports began to come in about the invasion, Hitler was not awakened. When he finally did wake up, he believed the invasion was a trick and the real invasion was going to be at Calais. He refused to move troops to the invasion, and this eventually made the allied victory happen.

A few years ago I met a man who was part of the invasion. He told me that he was transferred to England with the understanding that he would be part of the invasion. During the day he drilled and prepared for the invasion. At night he was housed with an English family. They were not thrilled to house an American: all they knew about America was what they saw in movies about organized crime in Chicago in the 1920s. His room had only a bed; the rest of the room had been stripped of everything else. The good news is that as they got to know him, they recognized that this American was a good guy. He got home one day and found his room had the bed, and also a dresser and art on the wall. He was pleased to have dispelled their prejudice.

On the night of June 5th he remembered boarding the transport ship. He told me that some of the troops prayed the rosary. Others played cards. They were all scared.

The invasion was horrible. The sea was red with blood and the sand was littered with bodies. But he survived. Eventually the war ended because D Day achieved its purpose: it started with a beachhead and ended with the liberation of France and Germany.

My thanks to him and all those who spent the night of June 5th wondering if they would live another day.

General Shinseki: We’re Not Doing Right By Him, Our Veterans, or Our Nation

May 31st, 2014

We got word yesterday that Eric Shinseki, Secretary of the VA resigned his position. While we could all see it coming, I’m sorry that more members of Congress asked a few questions before demanding his resignation.

The story began earlier this month when it was learned that employees of the VA hospital in Phoenix were falsifying appointment records. If a veteran asked for an appointment at any VA facility, he or she was supposed to get that appointment no longer than 14 days out; this was shortened from 30 days as a way to cut down on long delays in getting appointments.

Unfortunately cutting the expected wait time by 16 days didn’t change anything else. The reason for the long delays is simple: we have too many patients and too few providers. Middle managers did what they normally do when faced with an impossible deadline: they cheated. The cooked the books to make it seem that they were hitting their numbers when they weren’t.

There are a few articles worth reading on this: The Associated Press and today’s Los Angeles Times give a much more complex picture of this scandal.

I had to do a little digging for this information. It seems the 24 hour news cycle has reduced the story to this: The VA is incompetent, we need to find a scapegoat, and it’s news to go to the top: Eric Shinseki. Congress followed suit and began clamoring for Shinseki’s resignation. It finally became clear that they could clamor (and get on TV) seemingly forever, and a good and talented man fell on his sword.

The problem with the VA is much more systemic. In the last half of the 20th century we had wars in Europe, the Pacific, Korea, Vietnam, along with countless other small actions. In the first decade of our current century we’ve already seen wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. According to the AP article, the VA has seen a 17% increase in enrollments since 2009. Right now the VA carries 9,000,000 patients with 85,000,000 appointments per year. The VA web page shows 2,962 job openings and 746 of these openings are for doctors.

Simply put they haven’t been able to provide enough staff to cover the patients they are tasked to care for. That’s the problem.

Congress needs to provide adequate funding and prevent staffers from having to do this.

And as for General Shinseki, he deserves better than this. We owe him an apology.