Thursday, July 28, 2011

Posts less often for next 2 weeks.

Posts will be less often for the next two weeks. We're in the Adirondacks, and the nearest WiFi hotspot is reached by a boat trip to the mainland (we're on an island) and then a 12-mile drive.

Since we're on an island, there is no cable TV and the tall pines keep us from getting a satellite TV signal, so we rely on a rooftop antenna which gets us NBC and PBS. That's it, only 2 channels! (We're keeping up on the news via satellite radio.)

Teenagers visiting the island are devastated to learn that there is no internet access, and cell phone coverage is super-spotty. "Hey, I can get one bar if I climb the tall pine tree!"

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Is Congress trying to break up with us?

An editorial in this morning's NY Times points out that, in his speech last evening, the president "...embraced the proposal made over the weekend by the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, which gave Republicans virtually everything they said they wanted when they ignited this artificial crisis: $2.7 trillion from government spending over the next decade, with no revenue increases. It is, in fact, an awful plan, which cuts spending far too deeply at a time when the government should be summoning all its resources to solve the real economic problem of unemployment. It asks for absolutely no sacrifice from those who have prospered immensely as economic inequality has grown."

"Mr. Reid’s proposal does at least protect Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. And about half of its savings comes from the winding down of two wars, which naturally has drawn Republican opposition. (Though Republicans counted the same savings in their budgets.)"

"We agreed strongly when Mr. Obama said Americans should be “offended” by this display and that they “may have voted for divided government but they didn’t vote for a dysfunctional government.” "

Also last evening, Jon Stewart pointed out the absurdity of the situation, and asked, "Is Congress trying to break up with us?"

Monday, July 25, 2011

Those "hair-on-fire" emails.

I received an email this morning from one of our WNY retired teachers. It contained an email that had been sent to her by someone else. In fact, she said she had received it twice in recent days from other retired teachers. She wondered if I could check it out.

The basis of the email was that:"
President Obama's finance team is recommending a transaction tax. His plan is  to sneak it in after the November election to keep it under the radar. This is a 1% tax on all transactions at any financial institution i. e. Banks, Credit Unions, etc.. Any deposit you make, or move around within your account, i. e. transfer to, will have a 1% tax charged. If your pay check or your social Security or whatever is direct deposit, 1% tax charged. If you hand carry a check in to deposit, 1% tax charged, If you take cash in to deposit, 1% tax charged. This is from the man who promised that if you make under $250,000 per year, you will not see one penny of new tax. Keep your eyes and ears open, you will be amazed at what you learn. 

It also claimed:

I checked this out on Truth or Fiction and it is true.  The bill is HR-4646 introduced by US Rep Peter DeFazio D-Oregon and US Senator Tom Harkin D-Iowa.  It is now in committee and will probably not be brought out until after the Nov. elections.
And went on to claim:

His plan is to sneak it in after the November election to keep it under the radar.
See what Nancy has to say about this wonderful idea!
Whenever I receive one of these "hair-on-fire" emails asking me to play Paul Revere by "passing it on to everyone I know," I immediately ask myself whether I have heard anything about this in the newspapers or the electronic media. Surely something as important as this would be covered by the media. ("Well, " the originator of this email might say, "the left-wing, liberal lamestream media is hiding this from us." OK, can you find confirmation of this on the Fox News website. Oops, no you can't!)

By the way, you may have noticed that most newspapers and TV networks are now owned by large corporations, which have anything but a "liberal" point of view. Here's an interesting research project: Count the number of conservatives appearing on the Sunday morning talk shows in the last 6 months, then compare it with the number of "liberals" appearing. 

My "goto" site for the real scoop on things like this is is a well-known site whose purpose is to separate truth from "urban legend" on the web. The April 2009 edition of Readers' Digest had this article about You can go to their site at to check out the latest "pass it on" email you received. Chance are if you got it, so did lots of other folks, and it will be listed under the "Hot 25" tag. They will explain what is true, partially true and downright untrue.

I looked for it on the "Hot 25," but couldn't find it so I searched the site for "financial transaction tax" and it took under a minute to locate the real story on this piece of junk email. Click here to go to the full story. (Turns out it was #3 on the "Hot 25" but it was listed as "Debt-Free America Act" so I didn't recognize it. That term did not appear in the email.

For those of you who don't want to bother to click the link to the Snopes site, here's a rundown of the misstatements in the email:

1) This is a bill that has been introduced every year since 2004 (well before President Obama) by Rep. Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania. It's his pet idea to reduce the national debt. HR-4646 has no co-sponsors. Neither Rep. DeFazio nor Sen. Harkin are co-sponsors of the bill, nor have they ever supported it. This bill annually dies in committee. It has never had any support from the White House or Nancy Pelosi.

2) Snopes goes on:" The included link that supposedly shows Nancy Pelosi endorsing the Debt Free America Act antedates the introduction of that bill to Congress; her comments actually refer to a different, earlier transaction tax proposed in December 2009 by Rep. Peter DeFazio. That bill, known as the "Let Wall Street Pay for the Restoration of Main Street" Act (HR 4191) called for the funding of investment in middle class jobs by levying small percentage value taxes on the buying and selling of stocks, futures, swaps, options and securities. (Although Rep. DeFazio's bill had 31 co-sponsors, it too has since languished in committee without being brought to a vote.)"

Oh, and that reference to "I checked it out on Truth or Fiction and it is true"? Only if you cannot understand English. Click here to go to that site and read for yourself. 

What is most depressing about this is that teachers could send out such drivel with their name attached. We would be ashamed of seventh-grade students who could not determine within minutes that this email was full of errors. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Will the markets drop tonight?

We've been paying attention to the debt-ceiling debate in Washington because not only is market performance important to our individual savings, it's also critical to the ability of the NYSTRS to fund our pensions. Sure, if the markets tank taxpayers will make up the difference. If that happens and employer contributions rates show a drastic jump, we'd be almost certain to see a constitutional convention which would likely remove the protections from our pensions.

The Washington Post's Ezra Klein is my goto person for an understanding of the mechanics and meaning of what's happening in Washington. His post Saturday evening is well worth reading:

Here's his concluding paragraph:

"....It’s more likely that what we’re really doing now is wasting time until the markets plummet and Boehner’s members decide that a deal is better than no deal. And there’s a very good chance that the first major show of market concern could come [Sunday] night, when the Asian markets open. Boehner is hoping to present a plan by then, but a plan is very different from a deal. A plan is something politicians can come up with. A deal, we’re increasingly finding, is something that we need the markets to force."

Saturday, July 23, 2011

I'll bet you didn't know this about buying a car!

Steve Lehto. a practicing attorney, says that the most important thing you should know when buying a car is this:

"Car sales are controlled by the purchase agreement you will be asked to sign once a deal has been struck. Most of these are pre-printed forms smothered in boilerplate legalese. Among the gibberish they ask you to sign is a sentence or two confirming that "verbal statements made by the sales person are not binding on the seller." Yes, that means the salesman can tell you anything he wants; it won't mean a thing legally. "This car is brand new." "This is a one-owner car." "This car has never been wrecked." "This car was not pulled from the bottom of a canal and refurbished after we pulled out all the dead alligators." 

Lehto's column. "The most important car buying tip" explains ways to deal with this little wrinkle in the sales process. Here's the link:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The scariest video I have ever seen.

The opening of last night's Rachel Maddow Show was the scariest 15 minutes of TV I think I have ever seen. It concerns the GROWING belief by Republicans in the House that defaulting will be no big deal. Apparently even Ronald Reagan saying that default would be terrible isn't enough to convince them.

Here's the video. I found the most troubling part to be the interview at the end with the prof. of constitutional law from Yale who indicates that even if the president were to invoke emergency powers, he could not act until damage had already been done to the country.

If default were to happen, it most likely would  have a devastating effect on the finances of all retirees, including teachers.

The grand coalition against teachers - part 2

In part 1, we were looking at an op-ed by Joanne Barkin originally published in Dissent Magazine, and passed along as worthy of a read by NYSUT. It's a long article, so I was hitting the high points. The first two were:

1) Research shows that teachers are the most important in-school factor in student achievement. Research also shows that out-of-school factors weigh twice as much as in-school factors.

2) Education reformers have used international test results to stampede Americans toward school changes, with most of these changes centered on getting rid of "bad teachers." Do this, they say, and all will be well with our schools. Our schools, however, have a much greater level of poverty (e.g. 20.7% vs 3.4% for Finland). When you correct for poverty, our students are right up there with the best in the world.

Let's look at some additional points:

3) Reformers want to use VAM "value-added modeling" to measure the quality of a teacher's work. This produces a numerical score based on the performance of students on standardized tests. (NY State will use this number as 40% of a teacher's evaluation.) It sounds simple: every teacher gets a number generated by a complex formula.

How do the researchers--the people who use numbers on a daily basis in their work--feel about this? " So far, the consensus judgment of the research community is not positive. Experts at the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Education, RAND, and the Education Testing Service have repeatedly warned policy makers against using test scores to measure teacher effectiveness.... In a 2009 report to the U.S. Department of Education, the Board on Testing and Assessment of the National Research Council wrote, “Even in pilot projects, VAM estimates of teacher effectiveness that are based on data for a single class of students should not be used to make operational decisions because such estimates are far too unstable to be considered fair or reliable.” Oops!

"Yet reformers have not only made this approach the cornerstone of their project, they’ve successfully sold the idea to politicians across the country who are rushing to write it into state laws. And the public is going along....VAM has the appeal of being mathematical, complex, and data based. It’s the kind of technical fix that sounds convincing; it readily wins hearts, not minds."

For those of you who would like to "look under the hood" of VAM, Barkin provides an "Optional Introduction to VAM," explaining just how it works. Here's just a tiny bit:

"In education, “growth models” typically compare a student’s test score one year to previous test scores in the same subject. Value-added models are a type of growth model that statisticians use in education to estimate how much Teacher X added to the learning of her or his students over the course of a school year in one subject."

"The most commonly used variant of VAM compares the average score of a teacher’s students (in, say, fourth-grade math) at the end of the school year to the average score of the same students at the end of the previous year in the same subject. The difference between the two scores is the “actual growth” of the teacher’s students. Their actual growth is then compared to what is called their “expected growth,” which is the average growth of a comparison group....The difference between the actual growth and expected growth of a teacher’s students is the teacher’s value-added score. "

"VAM has serious flaws. First of all, the tests don’t account for the fact that the specific content in a subject changes from year to year....Year-to-year scaling is extremely complicated even in a subject like elementary school reading. It’s impossible when the skill set changes from something like algebra to an entirely different skill set like geometry....VAM has still other shortcomings. How do you calculate the value-added score in team teaching? How do you account for the effects of outside tutoring that only some students receive or (depending on when the tests are given) the widely differing gains and losses in learning over the summer? How should students who transfer into a class midyear be counted?"

"As an accurate and therefore useful tool to measure teacher effectiveness, VAM fails. Regrettably, this gives reformers no pause."

Florida has a new law (SB 736) which will require that a VAM score will be used as 50% of a teacher's evaluation. Even those who once thought this a good idea are beginning to have second thoughts: "On April 4, 2011, Frederick Hess, director of Education Policy Studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and a tireless ed-reform advocate, wrote this about Florida’s law in his Education Week blog:

"I’ll bet right now that SB 736 is going to be a train wreck. Mandatory terminations will force some good teachers out of good schools because of predictable statistical fluctuations, and parents will be livid. Questions about cheating will rear their ugly head. A thrown-together growth model and rapidly generated tests, pursued with scarce resources and under a new Commissioner, are going to be predictably half-baked and prone to problems."

We'll take a look at additional point in the Barkin piece in future posts. Here is the link to the full article:

Feel free to post your thoughts.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Do we ALL want to be like California?

The second part of the "Grand coalition against teachers" needs to wait for another day. Since we've been following the debt-ceiling argument in Washington--which has the potential to do great damage to the financial well-being of retirees--there is late-breaking news on the quantum-leap in the craziness. It's called "cut, cap and balance." Ezra Klein of the Washington Post explains:

"We're four days away from July 22nd, the date that some believe should be our deadline for passing a debt-ceiling deal. We're less than two weeks away from August 2nd, which almost everyone believes is our deadline for passing a debt-ceiling deal. And yet we're wasting our time with this Cut, Cap and Balance nonsense? Really?"

"As policy, Cut, Cap and Balance is an effort to take the lessons of the past 10 years and then pass a constitutional amendment preventing us from learning them. For instance: if you're worried about deficits today, you're partly worried about them because we passed about $2 trillion in unpaid-for tax cuts over the past decade or so, and then we had a financial crisis that jammed revenues further. CC&B's answer? Editing the Constitution so it includes a brand-new, two-thirds supermajority in both houses of congress to raise taxes. It takes our problem and makes it worse. More specifically, it takes the United States Constitution and rewrites it to ape California's budget process. I'm a Californian. The state's got great weather, waves and food. But you don't want their budget process. Trust me." [Emphasis mine.]
"....Ultimately, though, the real sin here isn't that bad policy will pass. It's that we're wasting precious time on bad policy that won't. Everyone involved knows this will never pass the Senate or the White House. Perhaps that would be okay if we didn't have anything better to do. But we have two weeks before we crash the economy into the rocks of the debt ceiling. It's not a good sign that instead of moving towards compromises and tough choices, the House GOP is daydreaming and sloganeering."
Here's the link to Klein's complete post:
A balanced budget amendment certainly sounds like a good idea, but you know just how bad an idea it is when you see conservative economists writing columns calling it a terrible idea.
The American Enterprise Institute is a conservative thinktank. Norman J. Ornstein is a resident scholar at AEI. His column in today's Washington Post is titled "Why a balanced-budget amendment is too risky." According to Ornstein: "...a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget would be disastrous." Here is the link to his complete column:
Robert J. Samuelson writes an economics column--with a definite conservative bent-- for Newsweek. Today's Washington Post carries his column titled "A balanced budget amendment: bad idea for many reasons." According to Samuelson:
"The BBA is another example of congressional evasion. “It’s showcasing. It plays to the public,” says political scientist Allen Schick of the University of Maryland. What it does not do is balance the budget, now or ever. Only unpopular decisions to cut spending, including Social Security and Medicare, and raise taxes can do that. The BBA distracts from this and, if ever adopted, would undermine the Constitution. Could this really be a “conservative” idea?"
Here's the link to Samuelson's column:
One final, scary item from Ezra Klein's blog this morning titled "The Scariest Debt-Ceiling Poll I've Seen:"

"So a third of Democrats, a plurality of independents and a majority of Republicans think everything will be just dandy if we blow through Aug. 2 without raising the debt ceiling. Terrific."
"Just as a reminder, here’s what will happen if we don't raise the debt ceiling and begin choosing which bills we do and don’t pay. If you don’t feel like clicking the link, the short version is “recession.” And here’s what will happen if we actually default on the debt. If you don’t feel like clicking that link, either, the short version is “global financial panic that makes 2008 look like a warm-up.”
Here's the link to his post:
Remember, your comments are always welcome. Feel free to add your opinions!

Monday, July 18, 2011

The grand coalition against teachers.

An op-ed by Joanne Barkin comes highly recommended by NYSUT. It's a long piece, so let me give you the highlights, beginning with the opening paragraph:

"In a nation as politically and ideologically riven as ours, it’s remarkable to see so broad an agreement on what ails public schools. It’s the teachers. Democrats from various wings of the party, virtually all Republicans, most think tanks that deal with education, progressive and conservative foundations, a proliferation of nonprofit advocacy organizations, right-wing anti-union groups, hedge fund managers, writers from right leftward, and editorialists in most mainstream media—all concur that teachers, protected by their unions, deserve primary blame for the failure of 15.6 million poor children to excel academically. They also bear much responsibility for the decline of K-12 education overall (about 85 percent of all children attend public schools), to the point that the United States is floundering in the global economy."

Barkin goes on to mention a few points you might want to keep in mind the next time that know-it-all neighbor or relative declares open season on teachers:

1) "...research shows that teachers are the most important in-school factor determining students’ academic performance. But they are not the only in-school factor: class size and the quality of the school principal, for example, matter a great deal. Most crucially, out-of-school factors—family characteristics such as income and parents’ education, neighborhood environment, health care, housing stability, and so on—count for twice as much as all in-school factors. [Emphasis mine.] In 1966, a groundbreaking government study—the “Coleman Report”—first identified a “one-third in-school factors, two-thirds family characteristics” ratio to explain variations in student achievement. Since then researchers have endlessly tried to refine or refute the findings. Education scholar Richard Rothstein described their results: “No analyst has been able to attribute less than two-thirds of the variation in achievement among schools to the family characteristics of their students” (Class and Schools, 2004). Factors such as neighborhood environment give still more weight to what goes on outside school."

"Ed reformers have only one response to this reality: anyone who brings up out-of-school factors such as poverty is both defending the status quo of public education and claiming that schools can do nothing to overcome the life circumstances of poor children. The response is silly and, by now, tiresome. Some teachers will certainly be able to help compensate for the family backgrounds and out-of-school environments of some students. But the majority of poor children will not get all the help they need: their numbers are too great, their circumstances too severe, and resources too limited. Imagine teachers from excellent suburban public schools transferring en masse to low-performing, inner-city public schools. Would these teachers have as much success as they did in the suburbs? Would they be able to overcome the backgrounds of 15.6 million poor children? Even with bonus pay, would they stay with the job for more than a few years? Common sense and experience say no, and yet the reformers insist they can fix public schools by fixing the teachers." [Emphasis mine.]

2) "... in order to mobilize broad support for their program, ed reformers from Obama on down have pumped up a sense of crisis about the international standing of the entire education system. In reality, however, students in American public schools serving middle-class and affluent children surpass students in other nations in standardized test scores (which ed reformers use obsessively to define success)."
"The most recent data come from the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, released in December 2010. PISA tested fifteen-year-olds in sixty countries (plus five non-state entities such as Hong Kong) in reading, math, and science. Consider the results in reading, the subject assessed in depth in 2009: U.S. students in public schools with a poverty rate of less than 10 percent (measured by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunches) scored 551, second only to the 556 score of the city of Shanghai, which doesn’t release poverty data. The U.S. students outperformed students in all eight participating nations whose reported poverty rates fall below 10 percent. Finland, with a poverty rate of just 3.4 percent, came in second with a score of 536. As the level of student poverty in U.S. public schools increased, scores fell. Because of the high overall child-poverty rate (20.7 percent), the average reading score for all U.S. students was 500 (fourteenth place). In short, poverty drags down our international standing (see this Department of Education site)."
As I said earlier, it's a long article, so I'll share additional points in the next post. If you're in a hurry to read the rest, here's the link to Barkin's article:

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Hey, Washington! We've already got plenty of skin in the game!

Forget salt, it's reading that raises my blood pressure! This morning I ran across an article from yesterday's (July 15) McClatchy newspapers titled, "Debt talks--What could happen to medigap policies?"

Traditional Medicare doesn't begin paying from the first dollar spent on doctor/hospital bills each year. There's a deductible for doctor's visits ($162/year) and hospital stays ($1132/admission). After the deductibles, Medicare pays 80% of covered charges, with the patient responsible for the other 20%. If your hospital stay is more than 60 days, the patient may be responsible for hundreds of dollars per day in additional expenses.

That's why people purchase "medigap" coverage from private insurance companies. The most popular policy covers the Medicare deductibles and the 20% that Medicare does not pay. It seems that a possible outcome of the debt-ceiling talks may include changes to these policies.

"One proposal would bar supplemental insurance from completely eliminating out-of-pocket costs — or charge enrollees a $530-a-year extra if they want to keep such protection. That change could save up to $53 billion over 10 years, according to a chart used during the bipartisan talks led by Vice President Joe Biden."

The thinking behind this is that Medicare users "overuse" Medicare-covered services unless they "have some skin in the game." In other words, they should bear some of the costs.

OK, let's get real here. People don't get a hip replacement because they don't have an out-of-pocket cost and they don't have anything exciting on their social calendar for a month of so. They do it because their current hip hurts like hell.

Let's talk about that "skin in the game." A little arithmetic goes a long way here. Every Traditional Medicare participant pays $96.40/month for Medicare part B (doctor) coverage. Part A coverage (hospital) is free. For a retired couple that's $192.80/month or $2313.60/year.

If each spouse purchases the medigap policy covering the Medicare deductibles and the 20% not paid by Medicare, that $355/month or $4260/year.

Let's not forget about drugs. An average Medicare part D drug policy might run $100/month or $1200/year for the retired couple.

Let's see...we're up to $647.80/month or $7773.60/year. Did we miss anything?

Don't forget that there are co-pays with the part D drug coverages. Let's say they amount to $50/month or $600/year for the couple. Bringing our totals to $697.80/month or $8373.60/year.

I's say that this couple has a LOT of "skin in the game." Medicare is most certainly NOT "free medical care for the elderly."

Oh, and we're not done yet. Medicare does not cover glasses or dental care. Toss in a pair of glasses or a root canal and a crown and our retired couple might reasonably have $10,000 in healthcare costs per year. These costs are sure as hell "out-of-pocket."

If our hypothetical retired couple is living on Social Security payments of $2500/month ($30,000/year), they're spending 1/3 of their total income on healthcare expenses. 

Remember, there are no poor people in Congress. If you're a member of Congress and are "merely" a millionaire, you live in the poor section of town. Most members of Congress are much better off. In their world, that $10,000/year may not be "skin," but to our retired couple, it's probably skin plus some other organs as well!

The article concludes with this question and answer:

"Q: What are the chances that these ideas will be adopted by lawmakers?

A: Because making any change that could be seen as a cut in Medicare benefits carries huge political risk, previous calls for changing the traditional Medicare program or limiting first-dollar coverage through supplemental insurance have not picked up support. But now, when failure to lift the debt ceiling could result in widespread economic problems, a middle-of-the night compromise between warring factions in Congress could put it back on the table.

"Normally, this would be dead on arrival. But this is such a dicey environment that these guys are going to cut some kind of deal at midnight either before or after August 2nd in such a hurry that they won't be worried about the kinds of things people normally worry about when they cut senior benefits," says Robert Laszewski, an Alexandria, Va.-based consultant to the health care industry."

You might want to drop an email--no time for snail-mail--to your folks in Congress and the president, and let them know your views.  

Read more:

Friday, July 15, 2011

Protect your investments in case of default.

You know that match is getting closer to the gas tank when USA Today runs a personal finance article about protecting your investments in case of a U.S. default. Their advice: " The overwhelming likelihood is that Congress will eventually act and the U.S. won't default. Until it does, you can expect increasing volatility in the stock, bond and commodity markets. If you're tired of the roller coaster, consider moving some — not all — of your portfolio into short-term money market securities or bank accounts. You should have enough cash available for your short-term living expenses, anyway." There are other options, and they explain more fully here:

If U.S. defaults on debt: How to protect your investments

I've run across some other fascinating information about our debt. Quick quiz: Who owns a majority of the U.S. debt?

As Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post points out in his column yesterday: "Contrary to popular impression, going into default would not be just a matter of stiffing the autocrats in Beijing. Less than a third of the $14.3 trillion national debt is owed to foreigners — roughly 10 percent of the total to China. The biggest chunk, about 40 percent, is owed to U.S. individuals and institutions. Another 25 percent or so is owed to the Social Security trust fund, the U.S. Civil Service Retirement Fund and the U.S. Military Retirement Fund. In a sense, we would primarily be stiffing American retirees, including veterans." 

What about those who say that it's no big deal if we default? The problem is that many of them actually believe this to be true. Here are two columns which should put this to rest:

1) Jonathan Capehart opened his Washington Post column yesterday with this paragraph:
"Please ignore the nonsense coming from Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and a certain celebrity who served two years as governor of Alaska before becoming a best-selling author and reality television star. And please pay attention to how the bond ratings agencies are reacting to the inability of “leaders” in Washington to come to an agreement on lifting the nation’s debt ceiling. This is not a game, folks. Yesterday, Moody’s put the United States on notice. Our credit rating is under review. A downgrade from AAA to AA is possible. I pointed out the scariness of this possibility earlier in the day yesterday. The CliffsNotes version: the potential loss of 1 million jobs." Here's the link to the complete column:

2) Sarah Palin appeared on the Sean Hannity Show Wednesday evening and said" If I were in Congress, I would not vote to incur more debt,” she asserted. But she also said, “We cannot default.” But then she also said: “We cannot afford to retreat right now." 

She went on to say: "There are departments that can be revamped and some bills that can wait. And, again, it's our president's job, as the leader of the executive branch, to prioritize and administer those dollars that Congress has allocated. And our president obviously isn't capable of doing that, because he has no plan that he can even put forward to say here are my priorities."

The Washington Post sent this to their fact-checker, and he came up with a column that does a masterful job of explaining what the debt ceiling is, where it came from, how making an analogy to your family budget and your credit cards doesn't work when talking about the debt ceiling. Not surprisingly, they wound up awarding Ms Palin 3 Pinocchios on a scale of 0-4. Here's the link to the column:

3) The "in-the-know" folks on Wall St. are saying that any downgrade in our credit rating (even from AAA to AA) could raise the interest on our debt by anywhere from 0.25% to 1%. Well, that doesn't seem like much, right?

A 0.25% increase in our interest rate adds $40 billion/year to our deficit. If we eventually go with the $1.7 trillion in spending cuts--with no revenue increase--that has been proposed, a 1% increase in the interest rate we pay on our debt will wipe out virtually every dollar of those spending cuts. Less for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid with absolutely no decrease in our deficit. That's playing with fire.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Do you hate paying big bucks for glasses?

I recently visited my ophthalmologist for my semi-annual checkup. I had cataract surgery last September and my right eye has been slowly undergoing a slight reshaping since the surgery. My left eye hadn't changed, but the eyeglass prescription for my right eye wasn't quite right anymore.

The optometrist put me through the usual "which is better, number one...or number two?" routine and I walked out with a copy of my new prescription. As I left, he said that the new prescription wasn't a lot different from the old, so I needed to think about whether the slight change justified the expense of a new pair of glasses.

I got my last pair of glasses a couple of years ago at Wal-Mart, figuring that they'd be less expensive than the optician who rented space from my ophthalmologist. They probably were, but a set of progressive lenses still set me back $380.

I'd like to see what kind of difference this new prescription makes, but I'm not interested in paying several hundred bucks for the privilege. Then I remembered a column I had seen in the Buffalo News at the end of May. The columnist had purchased her new glasses online, and loved them! She had "...picked out a middle-of-the-road pair, with sturdy polycarbonate lenses, anti-reflective and anti-scratch coatings and ultraviolet protection. I even splurged on clip-on sunshades. The grand total with shipping? $24.95!"

Well, she had my attention. Before continuing, here's the link to her column:

This seemed like a way to try out my new prescription, and not break the bank account so I created an account for myself at

One might wonder just how difficult it is to order your own glasses having your prescription in your hands. Turns out it's not hard at all.

All optical prescriptions are written exactly the same way. They are like little spreadsheets. The columns are headed "Sphere," "Cylinder," "Axis," "Add," and "Prism."

There are two rows of numbers with the first being for the right eye and the one under it the left eye. There will be numbers in most (but not necessarily all) cells of the spreadsheet. Ordering glasses simply involves copying these numbers into the online form.

Well, there is one complication. The "pupillary distance," which is the distance from the center of one pupil to the other--measured in millimeters--is required when ordering glasses. The nice folks where you have your eyes examined probably won't tell you what that number is. This is the "hook" they use to try to coerce you to purchase glasses through them.

Then I remembered what the technician at Wal-Mart did when I brought in my prescription. He took out a ruler, told me to look straight ahead and used the ruler to measure the distance between my pupils. Here is the perfect opportunity for a spouse to be really useful. It took my wife all of 5 minutes to come up with this measurement.

When I went online to order my new glasses, I had to begin with the frames. They begin at $6.95 and go up to $39.95. I opted for a nice aviator-style frame for $12.95.

Next come the lenses. Turns out progressive (no-line) lenses add $21.95 to the price. (That's a total of $21.95, not for each lens.) The anti-scratch coating is free, so I threw caution to the winds and added the anti-reflection coating for a whopping $4.95.

Adding in a set of clip-on polarized sunshades for $3.95 and shipping for $4.95 my total had grown to $48.75. (They throw in a hard case and microfiber cleaning cloth for free.) I could live with this.

They estimate most orders are delivered (via US mail) in about 2 weeks. I've been tracking mine, and at the one week mark they have been manufactured. I should get them in about a week.

If they're just "OK," I'll have an extra pair of glasses for less than $50. If I see a marked difference, I may go ahead and splurge on a pair with fancier frames and polycarbonate lenses. That might set me back a whopping $85. Suddenly Wal-Mart is looking pretty pricey!

As you read in the column, she was very happy with her glasses. I'll let you know how I feel when they arrive.

UPDATE (July 18): My new glasses arrived today, exactly 2 weeks after I ordered them online. The verdict: They're great!

The right lens is different enough from my old prescription that I see a definite improvement. The frames are nice and sturdy and feel good. In addition, the sides of the frames are able to adjust by about a quarter of an inch to put the earpieces right where they need to be. (My $100 frames from Wal-mart don't have this feature.) I'm giving Zenni Optical two "thumbs up!"