Counting Blessings

After writing yesterday’s blog post about our diminished prosperity, I was quite upset.  I am an emotional sort, given my brooding artistic temperament, and I should know by now that complaining about money and the state of the world will only work me up—or, perhaps, down—into a blue funk (or, occasionally, a purple rage).

So today’s post is meant to be a yellow counterpoint.  It’s easy for me to fixate on negatives.  That’s pretty much the nature of blogging and commentating about politics and culture.  And while I am optimistic for the future, I am a declinist:  I can’t help but notice that much of culture is, at best, a stagnant swamp (hiding away the occasional orchid); at worst, it’s swamp draining into a desert.

But enough that.  Today’s post is about counting blessings.

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Phone it in Friday V: Ode to Friday Evenings (and Weekends)

I don’t know what it is about Fridays that seem to delay my daily posts.  It happens on Saturdays, too, especially if I’m out of town, but it seems I keep getting behind on Fridays.

It’s likely because my Thursdays are usually slammed.  Not only am I teaching a heavy course load at my day job, I also have three private music students about twice a month on Thursdays.  I then head to a local coffee shop for their weekly open mic, an institution for musicians and music-lovers in my region’s scene.  By the time I got home last night, I was worn out, and didn’t have two spare neurons to rub together.

Thus the profusion of “Phone it in Friday” pheatures—er, uh, features—I’ve been writing of late (here’s the original, and II, III, and IV).  But this edition will take on whole new dimensions of self-reference:  it’s a “Phone it in Friday” about Friday itself.

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Lazy Sunday XV: Work

It’s a bit of an oxymoron, but today’s Lazy Sunday is all about work.  I’m writing it amid a very lazy weekend full of loafing and pizza (and scrolling through Milo Yiannopoulos’s exquisite Telegram feed).

The weekend is so lazy because I’ve been working my butt off the past couple of weeks.  My pastor recently wrapped up our Wednesday night study of Nehemiah, and a major point of our last lesson (on Nehemiah 13) was the importance of keeping the Sabbath, for both spiritual and physical reasons.  He pointed out that God designed us to take a day once a week to rest, not out of legalistic adherence to the Law, but for spiritual and physical refreshment.

I’ve definitely been living up to that restful ideal, but I do love to work (namely, I enjoy earning money).  Work is therapeutic in its own way—it can distract from the follies of life—and while it is stressful at times, good work instills one with virtue.

I firmly believe that work is ennobling, and provides a sense of purpose and meaning beyond the obvious financial reasons people work.  Simply giving people money in lieu of work, then, may satisfy material needs, but it creates and encourages dependency, and robs one of an opportunity to grow and learn.

My main goal in working is to retire—I want to have enough squirreled away that I don’t have to work, which would free me up to enjoy work maximally (and to have the flexibility to take time for other pursuits when needed).  That’s why I teach full-time, teach part-time as an adjunct, teach private lessons, play gigs, write songs, and paint classrooms in the summer.  But I don’t think I’ll ever stop working at this point; I’ll just write more and sleep in later.

Of course, if you want to help me reach my retirement goals slightly faster, feel free to subscribe to my SubscribeStar page.  It’s just a buck a month to support my work and gain access to exclusive weekly content.  Consider that a year’s subscription ($12) is about the price of one large pizza, and you won’t get meat sweats from reading my material.

So, all panhandling aside, here are some past works on… work!

  • Meetings are (Usually) a Waste of Time” – This piece looked at a Rasmussen Number of the Day that claimed that Americans spend 11.5 hours a week in meetings.  What a waste.  I have way too much important stuff to do without some petty tyrant showing off his or her power to make me sit in a crowded room.

    My ironclad rules for meetings:

    • A regularly-scheduled meeting should be no more than 30 minutes
    • A less frequent meeting should an hour, tops, and that’s pushing it
    • If it can be done via e-mail, do it that way (just be prepared to send the e-mail several times to make sure people read it)
  • April Fool’s Day: A Retrospective” – This post was about my getting laid off (well, technically, about finding out my contract was not being renewed) during the height of the Great Recession.  That was probably one of the most formative moments in my adult life, and explains why I fastidiously budget every penny for the day when the economy turns sour again.
  • Painting” – Another self-indulgent post, this one about the subtle joys of painting—no, not the fun, Bob Ross kind of painting, but the painting of rooms.  I spend most of my summers at school, often alone, painting classrooms.  It’s a great way to clear your head (and to listen to podcasts).
  • Hustlin’: Minecraft Camp 2019” – I run a little summer camp every June that involves playing Minecraft with rambunctious young’uns.  It’s surprisingly lucrative:  in four half-days, I earned about double what I will in fifty hours of summer painting and maintenance work (depending on the number of students enrolled).  It’s also a blast, and kids create some amazing stuff in this little sandbox game.

What do you do to earn some extra bucks?  Leave a comment below, then head to my SubscribeStar page to sign up for a monthly subscription.

Other Lazy Sunday Installments:

HSAs are A-Okay

My Congressman, Tom Rice, sends out little e-mail updates on a regular basis.  In his latest newsletter, the South Carolina US-7 representative included a link to a video (below) of his statements before Congress about expanding Health Savings Accounts, or HSAs.

The gist of the proposal is to expand health-savings accounts to allow account holders to contribute more to them.  The current legal annual contribution (in FY2018) for a single individual is $3450, up from $3400 last year and $3350 the year before.  That comes out to $287.50 a month, which can be contributed pre-tax directly from an account holder’s paycheck.

The way the law is currently written, HSAs are excellent both to cover medical expenses before reaching your deductible (and, naturally, most HSA-compliant plans are high deductible ones) and to save and invest for retirement.  You can accrue a qualified medical expense today—say, a visit to the emergency room—and you can submit that receipt in a decade (or longer—there’s no apparent time-limit) to take out that amount.

To give a hypothetical:  let’s say you have a medical bill for $3000.  Yes, your annual contribution to your HSA could cover that.  But, let’s say you’ve built up a good emergency fund, and elect to pay the bill out-of-pocket through that fund.  In, say, five years, you need to tap your HSA funds for some reason.  If you’ve kept the receipt (and credit card statements help, too), you can file that with your HSA and withdraw the $3000.

Why go through the trouble?  Because many HSA administrators—including my own, HealthSavings Administrators—allow you to invest in mutual funds with your HSA contributions.  If you’re making an 8% annual return on those contributions, that $3000 today will be worth around $4100 in five years (investment math folks, please check my numbers; regardless, you get the point—money grows).

Alternatively, if you don’t tap that money for decades—and keep contributing—you’ll have a very nice retirement account growing tax-free for all those years.

My current health insurance carries a $6550 deductible—which I didn’t even come close to hitting in 2017 when I broke my left wrist, although it was still expensive—but I’ve accrued enough of an emergency fund that I could meet that expense should the need arise (I pray it doesn’t).  If my emergency fund were sunk into something else—say, a new car, or a less flood-prone house—then I could tap into my HSA contributions from the past few years.

And here is the other benefit of HSAs, the one that I’m sure Congressman Rice as in mind:  they help you reach your deductible, and bring some market forces to bear on healthcare costs.

I suspect that one of the culprits of high healthcare costs is the lack of transparency—no one knows how much anything costs, and everything is fungible.  When I broke my wrist, I received a hefty ER bill (about $3000) about four months after the fall (I don’t understand the delay on that; it seems like they could just tally it all up and print it out at the time of the accident).  I called the hospital, and they told they were “running a special”—if I paid in full that day, they’d knock HALF of the cost off the bill.  Because I’m an extreme budgeter and have an emergency fund, I could do it, and leaped at the “special.”

Most people don’t have enough money saved up to even meet a $500 emergency, but an HSA makes it more doable.  Even without an emergency fund, if an account holder were making monthly contributions, he’d be able to take advantage of such price reductions.

HSAs aren’t a magic bullet to bringing down healthcare costs, but they would go a long way to addressing the problem.  If we lived in a pre-Obamacare age, you’d be able to get a high-deductible, HSA-compliant plan for probably $50-100 a month, depending on age and health.  Even if you didn’t want to manage the money in various investments, the incentives to save—namely, the pre-tax benefit—are enough that many Americans would likely take contribute to their HSA.

When Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson was running for president in 2015-2016, he proposed transferable, minimally-funded ($5000 at birth, I believe) HSAs be issued for all Americans.  The ability to transfer funds between family members and to grow that wealth over time would be huge.

Similarly, President George W. Bush proposed giving Americans the option to contribute their Social Security contributions into personally-managed investment accounts.  That would reduce the astronomical costs of that federal boondoggle and give Americans much greater returns on their investments.  Naturally, Democrats rejected that plan out of hand, and accused Bush of hating old people.  Yeesh.

The takeaway is this:  whether it’s in healthcare or retirement savings, the American people know best.  Yes, we’d need some additional financial education—which we desperately need anyway—but, c’mon, are you going to continue running the same inefficient, wasteful systems just because a small percentage of people won’t adequately manage their money?

Liberty works in nearly every arena, and it would work in healthcare and health insurance, too.  HSAs are the wave of the future, and I’m glad to see Tom Rice is championing them.

Breaking: Justice Anthony Kennedy Retires

The past few weeks have been chock-a-block with major developments.  The Supreme Court, in particular, has been in the news quite a bit, including striking down compulsory dues payments for non-union members.

Now that the current session of SCOTUS is in recess, Justice Anthony Kennedy, the infamous “swing” justice, has announced his retirement, which is effective 1 July 2018.

This gives President Trump his second opportunity to appoint a justice to the highest court in the land.  The Neil Gorsuch nomination was a slam-dunk, as recent Supreme Court rulings have demonstrated.  Now Trump has the opportunity to appoint a true, consistent, constitutional conservative to the bench.

Justice Kennedy was nominated thirty years ago, after the railroading of Robert Bork.  Bork, a hard-nosed conservative and constitutional originalist—indeed, Bork made originalism cool again—was slandered by the execrable Senator Edward “Teddy” Kennedy, the so-called “Lion of the Senate,” in his melodramatic “Robert Bork’s America” speech against Bork’s appointment.

The speech—a classic misunderstanding of constitutional originalism, and a classic example of fearmongering—argued that women would be forced to have back alley abortions, that black Americans would have to sit at segregated lunch counters, and that Americans would face “midnight raids” on their homes.  Critics of originalists ignore that constitutional originalists recognize the amendment clause of the Constitution—they wouldn’t very “originalist” if they didn’t—and so falsely claim that anyone who supports a literal reading of the document supports slavery (or some such nonsense).

Regardless, President Trump’s potential nominee—who will be chosen from a list of twenty-five—will no-doubt face a proper Borking of his own.  Here’s hoping the Republican-controlled Senate can avoid cucking out on this rare opportunity, and put someone who actually understands and believes in the Constitution on the bench.