Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Weekly Bystander Top 10

On Vacation
The Weekly Bystander will be on vacation for the month of February but hopefully will reappear in March. To tide readers and fans over, I post below a list of the top ten viewed posts since the blog first appeared on 12/16/2011 with an obituary of the deceased atheist Christopher Hitchens. Just click on the link provided to view a post. I will list them in reverse order.

Number 10. Florida Vacation. This 2013 post is about a winter vacation in the Sarasota, Florida area that includes a description of a visit to Sarasota's lovely Ringling Museum of Art.

Number 9. Roberto Benign's Pinocchio. This post is a review of Benigni's charming version of the Italian classic story of a puppet boy who won't be tamed. It is in the Masterpiece section of the WB.

Number 8. Year End Top Films. This post briefly reviews eight excellent foreign films. If you missed any, they are well worth viewing. I suspect it gained a number of hits because of the image of the beautiful Fanny Ardant as opera diva Maria Callas.

Number 7. Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition. This 2015 post was a review of Benzion Netanyahu's magnum opus on the Spanish Inquisition. Netanyahu, the father of Israel's current Prime Minister, overthrew all of the traditional notions of the dreaded Inquisition.

Number 6. Pedophile Priests. This 2017 post examined this controversial subject and tried to put it into perspective.

Number 5. The Leopard. This post is a review of Luchino Visconti's epic telling of the Italian Risorgimento as it impacted the lives of a Sicilian aristocratic family. The film starred Burt Lancaster in his greatest role, and the young and beautiful Claudia Cardinale.

Number 4.  U.S. Health Care System. This post examined the effectiveness of the health care system in the United States back in 2013. I don't think much has changed since then.

Number 3. Scientific Consensus. This 2017 post questioned the consensus among scientists about the subject of global warming, as well as the validity of consensus in general.

Number 2. The Filibuster. This 2017 post examined the controversy over President Trump's nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and included a discussion of the very concept of filibuster.

Number 1. Titian, "Sacred and Profane Love". This post is far and away the most viewed on The Weekly Bystander. It is a concise version of my own interpretation of Titian's famous masterpiece. Is it #1 because of my expertise, or because of the beautiful woman in the painting?

Titian: Sacred and Profane Love

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Home Expenses 2017

Since I retired from my financial planning practice in 2007, I have continued to monitor the finances of one retired couple. They live in a modest ranch home in a nice neighborhood in Fairfield, Connecticut. They provide a good case study for the millions of Americans in similar circumstances. Let’s just focus on their expenses related to the maintenance of their home. The total annual housing cost in 2017 was $37482.
Principal and interest payments on a mortgage came to $20750, 55% of the total. This figure also included home insurance. Payments on a home equity credit line, used for home improvements, came to $1075. Real estate taxes came to $8650, 23% of the total. The real estate tax has been deductible from Federal income for tax purposes, but that deduction will go away in 2018 due to the tax reform bill.
Electricity costs $1499 for the year or only 4% of the total. People complain about electric bills but they seem like an incredible bargain to me given the importance of reliable electricity in every aspect of our lives. Just remember how everything shuts down in a blackout. No heat, no light, no refrigerator. You can’t even open your garage door, much less charge up your electric car or your indispensable mobile phone or device. 
The water bill was even more of a bargain. It was only $486, about 1% of the total. Not only is it clean and reliable—we only have to turn on the tap and there it is-- but it is also a vital necessity. We cannot live more than 4 days without water to drink. Moreover, we use it to wash, clean, flush our toilets, and water our lawns.
The total phone and cable bill includes TV, Internet, Mobile phone service, and a landline. It was a little under $2900 and represented 8% of the total. Yes, a landline is included for old time’s sake. In today’s world these services seem almost as indispensable as electricity and water.
The home is heated with oil and last year’s bill was $2130, or about $5.80 per day. The burner is new and very efficient but the weather and the price of oil can vary each year. Frigid weather after Christmas will probably drive up next year’s bill unless the rest of the winter is mild.  
So, for a little over $3000 per month this couple can live in a modest ranch home in a lovely neighborhood in Fairfield, one of Connecticut’s nicest towns. Of course, this figure does not include food, clothing, transportation, medical, or entertainment expenses. It also does not include Federal, and State income taxes.
Speaking of taxes, starting in 2018, the loss of the deductions for State and Local income taxes, as well as the limited deductibility of home mortgage interest, will increase the cost of housing for this couple. However, the increase in the standard deduction, and lower rates will limit the damage somewhat.
What are the housing prospects for this elderly couple going forward? Like many people over the past few years, they have refinanced their home mortgage to lock in a lower interest rate for what likely be the rest of their lives. That is a big plus to owning with a fixed rate mortgage. The lowering of mortgage rates has resulted in more savings for homeowners than any tax deduction.
Property taxes are beyond their control as they will likely continue to increase every year. At first glance it might seem that this is an advantage for renters, but increased property taxes are inevitably passed along by landlords to renters in the form of increased rent.
Their utility bills are subject to increases despite the fact that public utilities are regulated. However, looking at the past it would appear that competition is a more effective way to keep prices down than government regulation. Just look at the way the phone companies are battling one another for customers. Or look at the way the cable companies are being hard pressed to maintain their monopolies.
Other factors like old age, sickness, and medical costs might drive them and others in the same boat out of their homes. Until then, they will probably be able to maintain a comfortable, if not extravagant lifestyle. I believe that millions of other Americans are in similar circumstances. They live on a combination of Social Security, pensions, and income from savings and investments.
They will be little effected by the tax reform law. However, if the promise of tax reform comes true, the prospects for their children and grandchildren will be better. More than just keeping their jobs, they might find that higher employment will increase their income and provide them with greater job freedom and mobility. 


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Homophobia, Racism, Sexism (HRS)

Homophobia, Racism, and Sexism were all in the news this past week. The Connecticut Post, for example, never tires of bemoaning the existence of these three terrible scourges in our society. Recently, it ran a large banner editorial complaining that someone had dared to criticize the nomination by Dannell Malloy, the lame-duck Democrat Governor, of Andrew McDonald, a State Supreme Court justice, to the position of Chief Justice.

In its editorial the Post characterized McDonald as “openly gay” and sharply blamed a politician who dared to object to the nomination. The politician had claimed that Mc Donald’s past indicated that he would be a highly partisan Chief Justice. After all, Mc Donald has been mired in Democrat politics all of his political life. His career began in the city of Stamford where he was a close associate of then Mayor Malloy. When Malloy was subsequently elected Governor, practically his first political act was to take Mc Donald out of the State Legislature and appoint him as his chief attorney with a nice six-figure salary. Not long after, Malloy raised Mc Donald to his current position on the State Supreme court.

Nevertheless, the Post was shocked that anyone would question Mc Donald’s impartiality, and raised the dreaded issue of homophobia. Apparently, any criticism of an “openly gay” person had to be motivated by homophobia. Moreover, implicit in the Post editorial was the belief that anyone who is “openly gay” may not be criticized for anything or for any reason.

In fact, anyone with their eyes and ears open these days must be aware that “openly gay” has become a badge of honor and that members of the LGBT community are not just equal to everyone else, but superior. I am not a follower of popular TV programs, but I suspect that gays are rarely portrayed in a bad light. How many criminals or offenders on Law and Order are gay? How many villains on Masterpiece theater are gay?

Racism is a much a weapon as homophobia in the hands of progressives. In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, black scholar Shelby Steele, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institute, wrote that complaints about racism in America have grown despite the substantial progress blacks have made in the past few decades.

“The oppression of black people is over with. This is politically incorrect news, but it is true nonetheless. We blacks are, today, a free people. It is as if freedom sneaked up on us and caught us by surprise.”

He argued that this freedom has difficult consequences. Freedom “meant we had to look at ourselves without the excuse of oppression.” The fact that “more than 4000 people were shot in Chicago in 2016 embarrasses us because this level of largely black-on-black crime cannot be blamed simply on white racism.” Those who cannot bear the responsibility of freedom, he argued, fall back on charges of structural or systemic racism.

Steele also noticed a potential backlash to NFL and Black Lives Matter protests:

“We blacks have lived in a bubble since the 1960s because whites have been deferential for fear of being seen as racist. The NFL protests reveal the fundamental obsolescence—for blacks and whites—of a victim-focused approach to racial equality. It causes whites to retreat into deference and blacks to become nothing more than victims. It makes engaging as human beings and as citizens impermissible, a betrayal of the sacred group identity.”

What Steele wrote about Racism could also apply to Sexism especially with all the charges emanating from the entertainment world. Women have also arrived and found unprecedented freedom and opportunity in American society, but now it is impossible to criticize any woman without being branded a sexist. Even liberal darling Matt Damon was practically tarred and feathered for daring to suggest that there might be different levels of sexual abuse.

Billionaire Oprah Winfrey has been virtually canonized as an American saint. Would anyone dare question her qualifications for the office of President in the same way that Donald Trump was lambasted during and after his run for the Presidency? Where are the insulting cartoons or blog posts?

During my lifetime homosexuals have come out of the closet, blacks have come out of the ghetto, and women have come out of the kitchen. They all sought equality but now activists among them cannot stop at equality but must gain superiority. In George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, a classic study of revolution, the animals overthrew the oppressive farmer and raised the flag proclaiming that “ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL.” It didn’t take long for the crafty and strong among them to become leaders and proclaim that “ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL BUT SOME ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS.”