Living On The Card

The Wall Street Journal reports that, sometime this year, the collective credit card balances for Americans will hit $1 trillion.  That’s just shy of the all-time record — $1.02 trillion — that was reached in July 2008.

We all remember what happened after July 2008, don’t we?  Subprime mortgage defaults soared, the housing market crashed, Wall Street firms toppled, and the American economy stood on the brink on catastrophe.  Credit card debt wasn’t a primary cause of the Great Recession, but in those tough times many American families recognized that owing too much money wasn’t particularly prudent and they needed to change their ways.

antandgrasshopperOver the next few years, our collective credit card balances declined steadily, and then stayed flat for a while.  Lately, however, they’ve been moving up again, and the trend lines are unmistakable — people are using their credit cards more and are carrying larger balances on them.  Auto loan balances, too, are at record levels.  The WSJ reports that much of the growth in collective credit card balances has come because banks have been reaching out and marketing their cards to subprime borrowers.  (There’s that troubling subprime word again.)

Any financial advisor will tell you that racking up substantial, long-term credit card debt isn’t a good practice, and that people would do better to set budgets, establish personal savings to provide a cushion against unexpected costs, and live within their means rather than borrowing for nonessentials.  Americans aren’t very good at that, however, and they’ve got short memories.  When you combine the mounting credit card debt with the declining savings rate in America, and then you read stories about how almost two-thirds of American families couldn’t handle an unexpected $500 car bill or a $1,000 hospital bill, it makes you wonder whether we’re on the brink of another big economic problem.

Why are Americans like the grasshopper in the tale of the ant and the grasshopper?  One of my retired friends who enjoys light reading about behavioral economics says that discipline views it as a combination of a desire for immediate gratification and a kind of paralysis in the face of potential financial problems.  He notes that even when Americans take courses on basic personal financial concepts and thoughtful planning, the lessons just don’t sink in, and the old bad habits remain.

At some point, however, the piper needs to be paid.  People who live from hand to mouth, with maxed-out credit cards that require large monthly payments,  might avoid complete disaster and make it to retirement, but with it’s not going to be the retirement of their dreams.  Without any personal savings, and with only Social Security to fall back on, they’re looking at “golden years” that are distinctly grim.  There’s a reason the grasshopper in the tale usually ends up in a threadbare coat, begging for a handout.

Checking In On The VA

Memorial Day seems like a good day to check in on the Veterans Administration.  How is the federal agency charged with helping out veterans, and showing them that we truly appreciate their service on our behalf, doing?

Here’s an indication:  last week, the Secretary of the Veterans Administration got withering criticism from people at all points on the political spectrum when he compared the inexcusably long wait times at VA facilities to vacationers waiting in line at Disney theme parks.  At a breakfast with reporters in Washington, D.C., VA Secretary Robert McDonald said:  “When you go to Disney, do they measure the number of hours you wait in line? Or what’s important? What’s important is, what’s your satisfaction with the experience?”  Sure . . . let’s compare veterans waiting forever for medical care for life-threatening ailments and conditions to the winding lines at the Magic Kingdom.  Makes you wonder if Robert McDonald shouldn’t change his first name to Ronald.

ap-travel-trip-amusement-parks-survivalIt’s hard to believe somebody so tone deaf could become the Secretary of an important federal agency, but let’s face it — we don’t exactly have the best and brightest staffing up our public service jobs these days.  At least McDonald had the good sense to apologize for an incredibly stupid comparison.

I don’t think we should overreact to one dim-witted comment by some functionary, of course, but I do think McDonald’s statement illustrates a core issue with the VA:  unfortunately, it’s just not that high a priority.  It doesn’t attract the most talented and dedicated people, people who understand that we have an obligation to our veterans and just aren’t living up to our end of the bargain.  So we end up with administrators who, over the years, have let VA health care facilities deteriorate and veteran wait times grow.  We’ve got issues with the VA’s approach to prescribing drugs for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.  And now we’ve got a guy who makes ignorant comparisons of veterans needing medical care to families waiting in line for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

Two years after the most recent major VA scandal, has any progress really been made?  In the midst of a presidential campaign, we’ll get the speeches about needing to do a better job for our veterans, and taking care of our veterans, but we’ve been getting those speeches for years, without any noticeable success or progress.

Sometimes I think the Department of Veterans Affairs should be renamed the Department of Lip Service, because that seems to be our focus.  When will we stop talking about honoring our commitment to our veterans, and actually do right by them?

Hillary’s Real Problem

The State Department Inspector General’s report on Hillary Clinton’s establishment of a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State poses a big problem for her bid to win the presidency.  That’s because the report not only contradicts some of the Clinton talking points about the whole ill-advised email escapade, but also reveals new information that accentuates why many people are leery of Clinton in the first place.

The report is, I think, a devastating rebuke for Clinton.  It can’t be reasonably depicted as a partisan hatchet job, because it was ordered by Secretary of State John Kerry and performed by the inspector general’s office during the Obama Administration.  And it recounts, in brutal detail, Clinton’s violation of State Department policies.  The report states that, according to officials, Clinton’s server was not, and would never have been, approved.  It concludes that Clinton failed to preserve federal records in conformity with the Department of State policies under the Federal Records Act.  It reveals that there was an apparent hacking attempt on the server, and that people who asked questions about the server were told not to discuss it.  In short, it confirms the worst-case scenario that Clinton and her minions have been downplaying ever since this story first broke.

David Brooks of the New York Times recently wrote an interesting piece on why he thinks Hillary Clinton is so unpopular.  He postulates that it’s because she’s presented as a kind of workaholic and never displays the human qualities that make her tick — what her hobbies are, what her interests are, and the other pieces of intimate knowledge that our nation supposedly craves in this internet age.  I think Brooks got it precisely wrong.  It’s silly to think that public perception about Clinton would change dramatically if we learned, for example, that she makes crafts in her spare time or enjoys skiing.  I think the root problem for Hillary Clinton is a combination of general “Clinton fatigue,” because she and her husband have been in the public eye, demanding our attention seemingly forever, and the fact that, in the eyes of many people, she projects a strong sense of entitlement and being above it all.

When those people watch Hillary Clinton, they get the sense that she’s annoyed at having to go through the motions, give the speeches, and pretend she’s enjoying it, when deep down she resents the fact that people just don’t bow to her paper resume and acknowledge that she is the most qualified person to serve as President and give the job to her, already.  It’s not that she’s not displaying human qualities, it’s that the human qualities she displays are the kind that many people find totally off-putting.  She’s like the kid who rolls his eyes and smirks when other kids give wrong answers during a spelling bee or a flash card contest and just wants to be reaffirmed as the smartest kid in the class.  Those kids tended not to be the most popular kids in the grade.

And that’s where, in my view, the IG report is especially troublesome for Clinton.  It reveals that Kerry and former Secretaries of State Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, and Madeleine Albright all cooperated and answered questions as part of the Inspector General’s investigation — but Clinton didn’t.  In fact, she not only didn’t cooperate and sit for an interview, but her chief of staff and top aides didn’t either.  Really?  They got paid salaries by the taxpayers, but they won’t participate in an investigation that deals with issues of compliance with federal records laws and potential exposure of highly confidential government documents?  Who the heck do these people think they are?

As for Hillary Clinton, she’s apparently got plenty of time to give speeches to Wall Street firms and trade groups for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and pose for grip and grin photos with high rollers, but she can’t be bothered to answer questions as part of an investigation by an official in the department she once headed?  It’s the kind of high-handed behavior that we’ve come to expect from the Clinton camp, expressing irritation and exasperation at doing the things that everyone else accepts and endures.

That’s why so many people don’t care for Hillary Clinton.  If she took up knitting or skeet-shooting, their views aren’t going to change.

Emily Appleseed

One of Russell’s friends and fellow Cranbrook Academy graduates is interested in urban farming.  Emily has started a fruit farm in the middle of Detroit on some derelict property, in hopes of bringing fruit and a neighborhood resource to families in the area who don’t have ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables.  It’s an incredibly cool idea that shows that, once again, one person and a dream can really make a difference in America.

Emily’s efforts are being chronicled in a Detroit Journal video series called Emily Appleseed.  You can watch the first episode above.  Russell himself makes an appearance in the second video, below, helping to clear the property and following a tractor to turn the soil.  He looks like a natural farmer.  His grandfather, Bill Kishman, who was a farmer for many years, would be proud.  The rest of the series can be found on YouTube.

Marine Mammal Deaths At SeaWorld

On Sunday the San Antonio Express News published a terrific, but immensely sad, story by Richard about the deaths of orcas, dolphins, and other mammals at the SeaWorld parks.  What’s Killing the Orcas at SeaWorld? takes a careful look at the statistics of creatures dying at SeaWorld and quotes trainers, SeaWorld employees, research studies, and animal rights activists in an effort to address the care of marine mammals in captivity and whether they are more likely to die than members of their species in the wild.

Infections seem to be a huge problem for marine mammals in captivity.  Richard’s story reviewed reports that SeaWorld filed with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and calculated that almost 150 orcas, dolphins, sea lions, and beluga whales have died of infections at SeaWorld since 1986, and five dolphins, whales, and sea lions have died of various infections — such as fungal infections, bacterial infections, and inflammation of the brain — since May 2014.

wild-orca-alaska_siThe big point of contention is whether living in captivity contributes to those deaths, as animal rights advocates contend, or whether the creatures at Sea World are no more prone to infections than members of the species living in the wild.  As Richard’s article reports, that’s tough to assess, because there aren’t many reliable studies of the lives of these mammals in their native habitat.  Animal rights advocates argue that creatures that have evolved over millennia to range widely over large areas of ocean, hunt their own food, and form relationships in the wild simply aren’t suited to captivity.  The advocates believe the orcas become stressed (and show it by breaking their teeth chewing on concrete and metal) and the stress makes them more prone to infection.  Richard’s article quotes some former SeaWorld trainers who talk about the constant medication that some of the mammals have received.  And while we don’t know the prevalence of infection deaths in the wild, we do know this — orcas, dolphins, and sea lions have somehow survived and thrived in our oceans for centuries without have to be heavily medicated by human beings.

I should note that SeaWorld has criticized Richard’s story, saying on its blog:  “The article is unfairly critical of SeaWorld and misleads readers with incomplete sets of facts that are presented in a biased way.”  I respectfully disagree.  I think the piece is a fair treatment of an important issue that employs the tools of great investigative journalism, like review of public records, getting quotes from people on both sides of the story and experts, and then trying to piece things together.  The reality is that the death of the marine mammals in the care of SeaWorld is just an uncomfortable topic for SeaWorld.

I’ve never cared much for zoos or places like SeaWorld.  I feel sorry for the animals that are caged, and I think it reflects poorly on us that we keep creatures that are meant to be in the wild penned up for our entertainment.  It’s particularly appalling that we confine marine mammals that show clear signs of intelligence, like orcas, and then have to dope them up to try to keep them alive.  Richard’s story just heightens that view.

Sad Elvis

In the busy entertainment district of Nashville, you see them.  Large caricatures of Elvis Presley in front of storefronts, just waiting for a boozy tourist to stop and snap a photo and post it on their Facebook page.  The microphone that he apparently was singing into is gone, but Elvis is still there, chained down around his waist so he can’t be taken away.

IMG_1035We’ve had controversies about young Elvis and old Elvis.  Rebel Elvis and Las Vegas Elvis.  Thin, leather-clad Elvis and fat, jumpsuit-wearing and karate-chopping Elvis.

This, I think, is a picture of sad Elvis.

I’ve never been a huge Elvis Presley fan, but anyone who loves rock ‘n roll has got to tip their hat to The King.  There’s no doubt the Elvis Presley changed the world and revolutionized America when he started to sing blues music and swing those hips.  He inspired the Beatles and lots of other acts and left an enormous imprint on American music and culture.  His death was pathetic, but there is no denying his vast and enduring influence.

Now, on the streets of Nashville, the King is reduced to a fiberglass photo opportunity, like Ronald McDonald or a T-Rex or Paul Bunyon.  It’s disturbing, and it’s wrong.  There’s something forlorn and almost despairing about it that a few brightly colored balloons tied to his wrist won’t hide.

Poor Elvis!