Facing pandemic persistence, I’ll spend where safety dictates policy

We have made it to August 2021. Sadly, the pandemic is not over, though the most vulnerable people in America have been tricked into behaving as if it is.

Decisions were made to re-open all venues while simultaneously dropping every protective precaution. Some of us believe that choice was precipitous, even reckless. I feel vindicated as my logic proves sound… but also so deeply disappointed.

I know I like redundancies more than most, but this seemed so obvious. “Better safe than sorry” may be trite, but it’s also wise where human lives are on the line.

How ’bout making one change at a time? After each change, observe the effect. It works for scientists, after all.

Oh, right, science is a tool for the liberal elite! Yet fools parroting such nonsense do it gasping through their fluid-filled lungs, crowding into our hospitals—institutions steeped in modern medical knowledge derived via the scientific method.

Some feel their lives aren’t worth living if they have to wear a mask to go shopping. Safety goggles, cloth face mask, and disposable gloves

I wonder how those precious snowflakes would hold up under conditions of true adversity. I imagine the oppressed population of Myanmar—or the people in Haiti or Tunisia, watching their fragile governments wobble under anti-democratic onslaughts—could offer lessons on what really constitutes a hardship to pampered American crybabies.

I would recognize that wearing a mask pales in comparison to being the target of genocide even had I never visited Auschwitz.

What a summer we could have had! If only we’d been cautious enough to resume access to theaters and restaurants, but with our masks in place for crowded, indoor conditions from the outset. It might have been the joyful reunion we all dreamed of during 2020’s isolation, loneliness, and despair.Woman hugs child

Hugging my grandma with a mask on didn’t lessen the joy of it. Visiting with my aunt over coffee on the patio instead of in the kitchen offered equal satisfaction. Espresso in demitasse cup on cafe table

Watching as my father’s “elective”—yet quality of life preserving—joint replacement surgery was postponed once, and then a second time, because no hospital bed was available was yet one more cost of the pandemic, but, this time, caused directly by bad actors, not a novel disease with unknown characteristics.

Now that stung.Analog wall clock showing 12:06

Frankly, I believe libertarian freedoms should be available… but only at a reasonable price. Partakers in those freedoms must give up the right to extort payment from the sensible majority.

Refusing vaccines? Fine, but wear a mask in public settings. Also, public funds—and even private insurance—should eventually cease to pay treatment costs incurred by those rejecting approved vaccines for endemic disease sufficient to be flagged by public health authorities.

The price of ignoring experts when an entire society experiences extreme events should be borne by those who choose to heed only their own counsel. That’s a fair trade off.

During outbreaks of any vaccine-preventable, endemic illness, refusniks must also give up the freedom to enjoy entertainment venues and public conveyances for all but essential purposes. Take your bus across town to work—while masked—sure, but recreational jaunts and all air travel unless, say, to receive urgent medical care out of state ought to be curtailed for those likely to spread disease.

NZ Chch bus MetroUnvaccinated kids should learn remotely unless masks are shown to be sufficient in preventing the spread of measles, chickenpox, the equally transmissible delta variant of COVID-19, and any future outbreak of similarly easily spread viruses.

If masks prove to work as well as that, I am 100% fine with unvaccinated kids—wearing masks—in schools forever. The point is to keep vaccine-preventable germs contained, not to dictate personal decisions that affect only oneself.

It should go without saying that the vaccinated should always be prioritized over the voluntarily unvaccinated when medical treatment becomes a scarce commodity that must be rationed. I hope and pray it doesn’t come to that, but, today, I fear for the people of Florida, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Mississippi and Alabama look pretty terrible, too.

Pandemic illness currently strains the pathetically insufficient “just in time” commercial hospitals in these and other states. An August 5th AP news story describes one Broward County hospital cramming beds into auditorium, cafeteria, and conference rooms to accommodate surging COVID-19 caseloads.

How pathetic that we allowed ourselves to fall back to this point more than a year after learning how and where this virus spreads!

Speaking to business owners and service providers, I reiterate that my personal spending will be concentrated in locations with high rates of vaccination. Pile of money

I will preferentially patronize restaurants and stores that demand proof of vaccination before letting anyone remove her mask.

It shouldn’t fall to commercial interests to manage a public health crisis, but dysfunctional politics brought us to that point. Re-opening—with precautions—allows for increased economic activity without excessive deaths. That’s the course I’ll vote for with my wallet.

Here’s hoping leadership by accounting departments can make up for the inadequacies of incompetent elected officials.

What if student loan forgiveness were tied to public college costs?

Some American politicians want to forgive all student loan debt. I disagree with this notion, mostly because I think many private colleges are now charging a ridiculous, inflated price, not supported by evidence of their inherent value to the individual or to society.

I am all in for learning. I want more kids to earn the benefit of a meaningful education that supports their personal and career goals. I believe that our entire society would benefit if we did a better job teaching our children, from cradle to adulthood.

I agree that our current system is dysfunctional. My opinion is that reforms should aim to correct something more fundamental than the particular loans taken by students who have already left the system. The pricing structure for a university education should be made more rational, not cloaked in additional government intervention.

I don’t want my government paying current “list prices” for private colleges for every student—already a narrow group, disproportionately representing our richest, most privileged children—and especially so when younger, more vulnerable pupils fail to learn in crumbling buildings with more attention paid to test scores than human potential in our mediocre K-12 system.school supplies - 1

That being said, I am also on the side of those who argue that our system is inherently unfair and biased against the scores of bright, motivated students often representing the first generation of their families to reach higher education. The financial aid system is byzantine; true costs of attendance are cloaked by “merit aid” and government contributions based on “need” can’t be assessed without filling out reams of paperwork.

The less experience one’s family has with American higher education as a system, the harder it is to understand any of it at a glance, or even with a great deal of study! Actual costs are opaque. It’s hard to even justify paying a $75 fee to apply to a university whose website says it charges $75,000 per year when your parents earn $7.25* per hour.

That those are real figures which just happen to look like an elegant visual numerical alliteration is the best thing that happened to me today.40 hours per week times federal minimum wage equals $290 gross take home paySure, fee waivers are available, but how many times does a poor student deserve to be reminded of his deprivation within a single application process? And high school seniors apply to around seven colleges each. math written out 7 times 75 dollars equals $525

Imagine being the 17 year old high school senior, living in poverty, who has to say:

“Hey, Mom, can I have two full weeks’ of your take home pay to buy the privilege of applying for the chance of spending more than five times your annual earnings every year for the next four years to get educated? Yup, that’s right, Mom. The webpage says the price for a college degree is 20 times what you earn per annum.”

Of course financial aid is available to those who qualify; the vast majority (86%) of American students receive some financial assistance towards paying for college. To qualify for aid requires one to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA.) That process takes about an hour… if you have ready access to recent financial records and tax returns plus social security numbers for both yourself and your parents.

Aside from the insanity of the FAFSA using a different definition of “dependent child” from the same U.S. government’s Internal Revenue Service (IRS), there is also literally no recourse for a student under age 21 whose parents won’t provide their financial records for the purpose of filling out the form.

Per the Filling Out the FAFSA® Form › Reporting Parent Information page:

“…if your parents don’t support you and refuse to provide their information on the application, you may submit your FAFSA form without their information. However, you won’t be able to get any federal student aid other than an unsubsidized loan—and even that might not happen.”

Until you are age 24—if you’re unlucky enough to have unsupportive parents—unless you can prove via written records that they are in jail, that you had “an abusive family environment” (remember: proof required!), you can’t find your folks at all, or you are over 21 and also “either homeless or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless,” it’s hard to know whether completing the FAFSA will even be worth the effort.

The travail of merely filling out the FAFSA, appears to prevent kids from under-served communities from even approaching applications to higher education.

Oh yeah, and the federal government audits a disproportionate number of financial aid applications submitted by young adults from neighborhoods where the majority of the population is comprised of people of color.

COVID-19 has increased the size of all of these hurdles, apparently. Rates of application to community colleges, for financial aid, etc., have all plummeted in 2020-21 for precisely those students who would benefit most by furthering their educations—those born under a burden of poverty, placed there by circumstance, but forced to carry it on each young back until the lucky ones access the tools required for self-liberation. Education is the most common lever used to pry that burden off.

Go ahead and add that loss to the half a million lives cut short, and tack the cost onto the pandemic’s final bill.

Pile of moneyIt is an indisputable fact that the United States has systematically de-funded public colleges and universities within the span of my lifetime, rendering even “public” universities difficult to access for all but the wealthiest students. To me, that represents an utter failure of public higher education, a human service that is so important to our nation’s civic character and economic growth that I would consider it part of our basic infrastructure.

By definition, I believe public education should be attainable** by 100% of the citizenry.

A recent Boston Globe article detailed a tug of war between the Biden administration which proposes $10,000 per student in loan forgiveness vs. a progressive position championed by Elizabeth Warren and others to forgive $50,000 per student.

Here’s my response: why not tie governmental student loan forgiveness amounts to public college tuition and fees? Whether this is a federal average, rates for institutions in the region where s/he got her education, or the price where s/he lives now, at least this figure would remain tied to some actual, real cost of higher education as it changes over time.

Yet that public tuition rate should also reflect an efficient system, one hopes, seeking to offer a good return on the state’s investment in its future taxpayers. Without the option for limitless borrowing to go elsewhere, the discretionary facilities arms race of ever grander stadiums and shinier, newer dorms to entice potential first years should slow, if not stop altogether.

Typical colleges would have an incentive to keep their published tuition rates aligned to what borrowers could reasonably find the means to pay. Elite universities might maintain higher prices, but their rich endowments would continue to make generous aid packages possible for anyone they chose to admit.

View of community college building on campusGovernment regulations tied to hard figures always end up skewed by inflation; income and prices change year by year, typically trending upwards. The Alternative Minimum Tax, for example, was designed to apply to very high income earners who were taking “too many” legitimate deductions, but now it routinely catches upper middle class, dual income families in expensive coastal cities in an indiscriminate dragnet while much richer folks pay money managers to hide and protect larger assets.

I’m imagining a scenario where a billionaire politician could pay only $750 in federal taxes while those of us earning far less pay many thousands more…

It strikes me as fundamentally fair and equitable for students electing to attend private colleges to remain entitled to their share of government help, but not necessarily more help than those who opt for public institutions. This would act as a brake on runaway tuition hikes overall while never preventing any private entity from charging whatever it wishes. That seems like common sense, and protective of the public interest.

Another idea that can only be addressed at the federal level would be to offer international skilled worker visas preferentially to companies that implement effective training programs for American workers simultaneously. Those same corporations could sponsor scholarships for domestic students—or create in house programs for local unemployed or underemployed citizens—on a some-to-one or even one-to-one basis for future hires. No reasonable person should expect businesses to hire employees incapable of filling the requirements of a particular role, but our government could ask that those allowed to important talent also take part in reducing that same need going forward.

The U.S. Government should remain involved in higher education. Without an educated populace, the chance that America remains a global superpower rapidly dwindles to near zero. Power—and the money that goes with it—flows to those who control the currency of the day. In 2021, information and technology reign supreme in that arena. The field depends upon a trained workforce to function, though, and there aren’t enough Americans with the requisite skills to fill open positions in U.S. technology firms today. I haven’t seen much evidence to suggest that those odds are improving, either.

The pandemic’s winnowing of the best and brightest poor students in the United States from the ladder of upward mobility via advanced degrees will damage our ability as a nation to compete in the global marketplace, and never mind the real, tragic human cost to those young souls. The ideal role central government can play in education is to ensure equitable access to it for the broadest possible swathe of the populace. Financial Aid is a means to that end, but the American version is a tool that requires sharpening to be used to better effect.

In the meantime, if you are trying to figure out how much college costs right now, be aware that American colleges and universities are required to offer a “net price calculator” somewhere on their websites. Search for it directly from your web browser as some institutions bury this useful tool deep under their admissions information. Also consider Googling the “common data set” for any university you are considering; this standardized form is where U.S. News & World Reports and all those other comparison sites get their college facts. Section H2 will give you a lot of information about how many students receive both need-based and merit aid at the school you are considering.

I’m fundamentally academic by nature. I left the workforce to devote many of my prime earning years toward the education of my own children. I believe in the transformative power of learning to change peoples’ lives for the better.

Finding an “average price” for college is not straightforward because of the obfuscation about which I’m complaining! Here’s an entire article going into detail about how “net price” differs from official tuition figures, and also separating out the living expenses which paid for by the same source: typically, financial aid. From that US News & World Report article, I got an average price for public colleges of $9,687 compared with $35,087 at private ones. That said, we must recognize that Harvard College’s 2020-21 undergraduate tuition may be $49,653 with fees of $4,315, while its actual, billed “cost of attendance” is $72,357. Tuition itself is almost irrelevant in this discussion, because that latter amount is what “financial aid” would cover.

Harvard hides its tuition information, by the way, not even providing a direct link on its admission page. I had to search for “tuition,” and, not coincidentally, that was the top search term on their FAQ page. Instead of making its price easy to find, Harvard inundates the admission seeking high school student with multiple pages extolling their rich and abundant financial aid offerings. That’s all well and good because such a large proportion of the student body receives aid, but it precisely underscores my point that the system as it stands is wildly complex at the expense of the well being of the student population.

* US Federal minimum wage as of 2020 is $7.25 per hour

** I specifically mean attainable financially here. I do not believe that 100% of the human population should attend traditional colleges and universities, and I think the push in that direction does a disservice to those with inclinations outside of the classroom. If it were up to me, we would have a national network of trade schools administered much like the community colleges, and with identical access to easy, straightforward financial aid for those who need it.

I would argue that it remains imperative for colleges and universities to maintain academic entrance standards. Some students will be excluded because not everyone develops the intellectual capacity for the most abstract forms of thinking, but I’ve never seen credible evidence that this kind of aptitude is distributed inequitably amongst various ethnic, racial, or social groups. Rather, most studies on this issue point to the distractions of poverty and oppression as levers operating against the success of some. I wholeheartedly support reforms that provide every schoolchild with the same opportunity to reach his or her highest potential, but I don’t believe that every one of us was cut out to be a physicist, say, or a fine artist, nor would I hold those individuals up as fundamentally superior to the plumbers and mechanics who keep the systems we rely upon working smoothly.

LunchBots stainless containers for life, even lids lost 10 years later

It can be hard to splurge on expensive items designed to last a lifetime when cheap, semi-disposable alternatives abound in our stores. Their ubiquity makes them seem like the obvious choice.

For parents preparing to pack daily lunches for school, stainless steel and glass containers are a perfect example. I can buy a week’s worth of plastic sandwich boxes for the price of a single stainless steel one.

Screen grab shows $17 for stainless sandwich box vs $8 for 3 plastic ones

Kids lose things. Kids break stuff. Kids aren’t necessarily careful with something just because Mom paid more for it.

And, after all, they are just children! While I want mine to grow up to be careful stewards of their possessions, I’d also like for them to be able to enjoy a meal without fretting about my reaction if the fancy new lunchbox gets dented or scratched.

In spite of such obstacles, the LunchBots brand proved to me this week that I was wise to invest a bit more cash in their products vs. the cheaper plastic competition in 2010. They stand behind their products, even 10 years after purchase!

LunchBots is one of a few companies I’ve personally patronized that opened for business c. 2008. That’s when plastic-as-poison was gaining mainstream steam, leading suburban moms like me to look for non-toxic alternatives to plastic food containers laced with BPA and other endocrine disrupting* compounds that may or may not leach at dangerous levels into what we eat and drink from them.

In 2020, LunchBots replaced a ten year old lid that my child lost. They didn’t charge me a cent, not even the actual cost of mailing it!

Replacement LunchBots Pico lid next to well worn 10 year old version Continue reading

Transparent pricing is literally the least we can do to improve US health care

There are very few actions or aims of the current administration of the United States Executive Branch with which I agree, but one such rare alignment won a legal victory this week when Judge Carl J. Nichols ruled against the insurance-dominated medical establishment in favor of American patients.

The U.S. District Court ruling agrees with the White House that it is reasonable to force medical service providers to publish a full accounting of negotiated prices for their services. Disclosing the price a patient would pay if s/he elects to pay cash will also be required.

Insurers say their negotiated prices are their own secret treasures to share with providers, and that we—the consumers, the patients, the worried loved ones—don’t deserve to know what they are. I say that insurers offer so little value relative to the enormous fees paid to them that their wishes are irrelevant and a distraction from the goal of almost all Americans to have better health care with fewer going bankrupt to pay for it.

I believe that the administration of the U.S. medical care system could be improved in almost every way. That said, cost transparency requires no bipartisan agreements on contentious issues such as rationing of care or how much in dollars a government owes each citizen in the provision of health care.

Price transparency will cost almost nothing save a few hours of administrative work by hospital staff. Typing up and publishing these lists will take a minuscule fraction of the labor hours currently spent on insurance billing. In exchange, and, for the first time in decades, cost-conscious consumers of health care—the ill, the injured, the infirm—will have at least a passing chance to vote with the pocketbook by taking business to more efficient providers. Continue reading

3 reasons I book domestic airline tickets in one way increments, not round trip

I keep being surprised by how many of my friends and family members still book domestic airline trips as round trips. Today, it is often smarter to book two separate tickets, one for your outbound journey, and another for the return.

Why?

Airfares within the USA* are no longer discounted for a round trip as opposed to one way. Your two one way tickets to and from wherever you’re headed will add up to exactly the same price as the round trip fare if you book the same segments.

If price is a draw, why book two separate tickets then?

1) If you need to adjust one segment of your journey, odds are your ticket these days is non refundable and costs over $100 to change. A domestic one way fare could cost less than the change fee. I’ve booked domestic legs from BOS-SEA, cross-country, for $119 in recent memory. On my favorite airline, Alaska, change fees are typically $125. Always double check fares for a new flight before paying an exorbitant change fee.

2) If there are changes to the outbound leg of your journey, your return segment won’t get screwed up when it is a separate ticket. Most leisure travelers avoid changing their airline itineraries because the costs are so high, but my husband travels for work. Due to his demanding schedule, it’s not uncommon for him to reschedule part of a trip. Changes to the outbound leg seem to have correlated with annoying, unexpected adjustments to his return flights. Usually, his seat reservation is changed. Occasionally, the entire reservation has disappeared from the system. Admittedly, DH has the worst travel luck of anyone I know, and a slew of amusing party anecdotes to show for it, but this is less likely to happen when two flights are booked as one way journeys.

3) You can book the best flight for your needs there and back, regardless of airline partnerships. This may be saving the best for last, but I suppose it needs to be stated for those who’ve never considering breaking up their domestic flights into two pieces: you aren’t beholden to one airline with this strategy. Book the combination of time, date, and airport that works best for you. This can be enormously more convenient for those who live near busy airports served by many airlines; it will matter less to those whose airport is part of a modern monopoly.

When is this strategy not a good idea?

Booking two one-way flights is good domestic strategy, but less often applicable to international flights from the USA with the big airlines, often referred to as “legacy carriers.”

The alternative, “discount carriers,” are more likely to offer one way bookings, even internationally.

NZ passport documents - 1If you are being reimbursed and your company accountants can’t accept two separate receipts for one trip, you’ll want to do what it takes to get your money back from the corporate overlord.

Some fare sales apply to “round trip fares.” You’ll need to meet whatever the stated conditions are to get the very best special fares, and that might include a round trip purchase.

Similarly, JetBlue’s frequent flyer program has gameified the mileage accrual process. There are bonuses to be earned, and a number of them depend upon “round trip” travel activity. If you are a points or miles collector, you’ll have to figure out whether one way flights will help or hurt your bottom line.

*Internationally, it’s usually old school all the way. Go compare fares for round trip as opposed to one way to Europe, and you’ll see prices thousands of dollars higher for the single leg.

That being said, you may save hundreds of dollars by booking a flight FROM Europe to the USA and back if you are considering spending cash for Business Class. You will still need to get to Europe to begin your trip, however.

This works if you have multiple trips coming up, allowing you to book your initial outbound flight TO EUROPE as a separate round trip coupled with with your ultimate return flight FROM EUROPE, leaving the Europe TO USA and FROM USA in the middle for a second ticket. It also works if you book your initial flight out using miles or points from a frequent flier program. Perhaps you’re taking a cruise, arriving in Europe by ship. Check one way and round trip fares back from Europe to the USA if you’re willing to walk away from an unused return and want the lowest possible fare, though choosing to ditch an unwanted return can have repercussions with the airline if you do it often because it is technically a violation of your contract with the airline created by buying the ticket.