Sunday, September 16, 2018

Using Social Security to Pay Off Student Loans

By early next year, if the creek don't rise and the US Congress does not mess with Social Security, I expect to have paid off loans for my daughter's university education. She started classes in 1994, so only about 25 years to retire the debt.

I am not the only one. Last year the Consumer Financial Protection Board reported that "people age 60 and older had amassed nearly $67 billion in student loan debt, with the average amount owed being $23,500 — nearly double the average a decade earlier. The bulk of the loans were used to pay for children’s or grandchildren’s education …"

I am, literally, using my monthly social security check to pay off the student loan. (Fortunately, I have other income to live on.)

I don't regret taking the loan. She received an excellent education which has been beneficial to her career.

What irritates me is the games the politicians play with student loans. For example, my interest rate, set by the federal government, according to my loan servicer Navient, is 6.625% -- at a time when the best bank savings rates don't even pay 2%. There have been proposals in Congress to halve the student loan rate, but they go nowhere.

And student loans are about the only debt that cannot be discharged in a bankruptcy. (Congress changed that in 1978.) Not that I would go that route. But there are plenty of people who could use such relief so they don't lose their homes.

I find it curious that in the online information about my loan, Navient never shows what I have paid to date nor the interest paid. They probably know how mad it would make borrowers. I had to ask for the information -- fortunately by email, not some phone call with an interminable hold. Turns out that on an original loan amount of $28,000, I've already paid $48,000 -- and I still have $9,000 to go. So when it's all done, I will have paid more in interest than the original loan.

In one respect, I was lucky. At the point in 1994 when my daughter received her acceptance letter from the university, I had just lost my job (company taken over by a corporate raider and broken into pieces). Because student aid was based in large part on "need," she was awarded multiple scholarships and grants the first year, reducing the amount I paid. Shortly after submitting the aid request, I got a new job (in fact, near where she was going to school).

I appreciate also that she took some summer classes, accelerate her schedule, and graduated a half-year early, saving me about $10,000. She also had her own loans.

In many countries in Europe, university education is free or very low cost. The quality is very high. There is a recognition that an educated, informed populace is good for the economy and especially when choosing leaders and strategic direction. In the US, university education has become a money machine for the schools and the lenders. It's time for a re-think.

https://www.mastersportal.com/articles/405/tuition-fees-at-universities-in-europe-in-2018-overview-and-comparison.html

https://www.mastersportal.com/articles/1042/tuition-free-universities-in-finland-norway-and-germany-in-2018.html

Thursday, September 13, 2018

End of the Summer Social Season (a Dueling Blog)

Read Donna-Lane Nelson's dueling blog at:
The beginning of September marks the end of the tourist season in Argèles sur Mer. In July and August, the beaches and streets are packed with, literally, a hundred thousand visitors.

Despite the teeming humanity and the heat, we like the crowds, in part because they spend money that enables the local merchants to remain in business year-round.

And moreso because a small part of those crowds includes friends we only get to see once or twice a year. Friends with vacation homes. Or who rent apartments for a week or a month. Or those passing through who stop to share a cold beverage.

We decided to list and count all the friends with whom we have socialized in recent months, and we're up to 102. Aperos, barbeques, breakfasts, lunches, dinners, coffee/tea with people-watching on the marché, dances, festivals,  a wedding, parades, fireworks, museums … there's been something interesting going on nearly every day, and wonderful people to share it with. The best, though, by far, is simply hanging out together under the mulberry tree at the café behind L'Hostalet, synching arrival and departure schedules, learning what adventures each other have been enjoying, and solving the world's problems over a pression or sangria.

Among those 100-odd people (and some of them are, but in an eclectic way), there are 20 different nationalities - alphabetically, American, Australian, British, Canadian, Catalan, Danish, Egyptian, French, German, Greek, Iraqi, Irish, Lebanese, New Zealander (Zealandian?), Norwegian, Romanian, Scottish, Swedish, Swiss, Syrian.

Their political and social views range from well left to rightish (and we still have quite civil conversations). Among our "philosophers" are PhDs, software engineers, artists, writers.  We have no idea, for the most part, whether they are wealthy or barely getting by. We do know, and empathize, as we are almost all in similar aging trajectory, of the various aches and pains and remedies.

What they all share is an authenticity. A genuineness of spirit. None of them is pretentious. Not one is out to impress the rest of the group-du-jour with the brand names on their clothes or what car (or motorcycle) they drive.

They come to ASM because they enjoy life, and they especially enjoy life in the village. And they enjoy what each of the others adds to their lives.

A la prochain.


As of 15 Sept, now 107 people

Monday, September 10, 2018

Who Wrote It? Another Mysterious "Op-Ed"

While Americans play Agatha Christie, attempting to ascertain which "senior White House official" authored the infamous Op-Ed in the New York Times, we have our own anonymous note mystery to sleuth.

A day after we had decorated our new bland-gray Renault with an array of blue butterfly stickers, we received a scrunched-up slip of paper in the driver's door. The note, reproduced above, is written in English - unusual in itself for a small Catalan French village - and read something like: "Now, that's a true frey(?) Danish Beaver(?) with blue buttaflies(?)"

As you can see, some of the words/letters are a bit difficult to discern. The a's, e's and r's seem to have two different styles. Not sure what a "Danish Beaver" would be, unless they are referring to the shape of the car, and the last word may be "sommerfugl," Danish for butterflies, or literally "summer birds."

Very few of our friends in the village even know about the butterfly stickers yet, and the most obvious couple quickly issued a public statement that, no, they did not write the anonymous note. 

Of course, we cannot assume the anonymous writer is a friend, or even an acquaintance, as they did not specifically address it to us by name.

It could have been someone who disliked the "political statement" expressed by our butterflies. Or an artist offended by the design we chose (the butterflies "flow" from the front of the car to the side, then up across the roof, and down the back on the other side - as if we were passing through a kaleidoscope of butterflies … as their groups are referred to, I discovered). 
We are turning the note over to a graphoanalysist, both to determine the accurate wording and to provide clues to the writer's character and likely heritage. We are also consulting an expert in pen manufacture and ink chromatography to narrow the list of suspected writing instruments. The paper is a cross-hatch notebook, the kind I even use myself, common in France, but we will be checking recent purchases. (The writer is obviously cheap, as they tore off only enough for the two-line message - we will be looking to match the tear-pattern as well.) No forensic stone will be left unturned.

The "Danish Beaver" could indicate a Scandinavian, as could "sommerfugl." 

Then again, it might be someone who is a butterfly aficionado, a person for example who has been to the papillon garden in nearby Elne - http://www.tropique-du-papillon.com/ (notice the subtle way I worked in that advertisement for a local attraction?).

The odd spelling of "buttaflies" might indicate someone from Boston - it's spelled the way they pronounce butter. Perhaps our Massachusetts friends who left town in a hurry this morning?

Unfortunately, the village has not yet installed the promised surveillance cameras, so there's no video of the culprit sticking the note on the car.

We have ruled out Mike Pence, who has an alibi for this past weekend, and Betsy Devos, as she does not spend money on school supplies.

So the search continues … both for the New York Times traitor and the coward who did not even have the courage to identify themselves on the Argèles sur Mer butterfly missive.

We demand that anyone who was in Argèles the past weekend issue a notarized, embossed statement if they did not write the note on the car. Those who do not issue such a statement will be subjected to a lie detector test at the next Saturday marché - in public at La Noisette (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g196598-d5804339-Reviews-La_Noisette-Argeles_sur_Mer_Pyrenees_Orientales_Occitanie.html) so everyone can see when we unmask the culprit.

What kind of society do we live in when people are free to voice their opinion to others through any "publishing medium" they choose?



Sunday, August 19, 2018

Give Me a Choice

"Pepsi Max?" "No, merci."

The American corporate monopoly disease has penetrated even small restaurants in Europe. It's outrageous.

We were in a small, Moroccan-themed restaurant in Perpignan, and I ordered a Coke Zero. The waitress suggested Pepsi Max. They carried only Pepsi products.

To me, Pepsi Max tastes like brown sugar water. There's no zing to it.

What's more irritating is the lack of consumer choice. The restaurant has opted to make a deal with Pepsi to carry their products exclusively, and in return they get a discount, ie extra profit.

I get water.

I first encountered this approach in Dallas, where Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones made a deal to carry only Pepsi products in his football stadium. That's his choice. It's my choice not to attend any games and give any money to JJ - especially the exorbitant ticket prices, which he needs to pay the numerous felons he recruited for the team. (JJ also made a deal with Papa John's pizza, whose owner recently made racist remarks and severely undercut his business.)

I am offended, too, that Terminal D, the international terminal for Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, only carries Pepsi products. Dammit, I want to take a Coke Zero on a long flight across the ocean, not be stuck with watered-down fizz.

If you have a business that serves the public, then give the public a choice. Don't just serve your own greed.

Sometimes I Shop Like a Woman

This is a dueling blog with D-L:

Well, not like some women. Not helter-skelter, checking out everything in the mall in search of another so-called sale.

But compared do Donna-Lane, we definitely reverse roles when it comes to shopping. She tends to get in, get what she wants, and get out, and hopefully no one gets in her way to the checkout.

I do that sometimes when I know just what I want and where to get it - printer ink, for example.

But when it comes to clothes, sports equipment, furniture, books, I love to browse, check out all the possibilities before making a decision. Or no decision.

Recently, we decided to buy a new car. Or rather a new used car. Something with air conditioning and four doors. We thought about looking in Switzerland, but ran out of time before heading down to Argeles sur Mer. D-L had contacted the dealer in France who sold us our current car, a 1999 Peugot 206 which has held up surprisingly well which now has 255,000 km on it. But no aircon, requiring that in the summer heat we make the drive between Geneva and ASM in the middle of the night so as not to overheat Sherlock (and us).

The dealer had something he thought we might like, so we went out to his place to check it out. Aircon, yes. Four doors, yes. But a boring gray, not a colour as we preferred. And above the price ceiling we had set. We drove it on the highway for a few minutes. "Let's take it," D-L said, surprising me.

My style of car shopping is to check out several cars, test drive them, research their reliability on the internet, haggle on price. Might take a few days, maybe a month before I decide to buy. Especially since I am unfamiliar with the European car models.

We pick up the gray Renault Modus next week. And then look for someone to paint a design on it so we can find it in a crowded parking lot.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Into Thin Air

In the past two weeks, I have played golf in the hottest temperature I have ever played in (110F in Texas) and at the highest altitude I have ever played at (2,500 metres, or more than 8,000 feet -- 1 1/2 miles up).

If I was ever going to have a heart attack, one of those would most likely have been the day (other than shoveling snow last winter in Geneva). 


I don't know what possessed someone to route a golf course at the top of a mountain in the French Alps … and down the sides. (Golf de Flaine - https://www.flaine.com/fr/ete/activites/golf-en-montagne/golf-en-montagne.htm

This is part of the road to Flaine
The 360-degree scenery was absolutely spectacular -- it's the first time I have ever used snow on distant mountains as an aiming point for a shot. But walking 18 holes, even relatively short holes, was an exercise in endurance. On some holes, I found myself stopping part way up the steep slope to hydrate and catch my breath. And it seemed as if every hole was uphill -- even the par 3s where the tee and green were about the same level required a hike down a hill then back up to the elevated green. My clubs often came in handy as walking sticks.

These were the "steps" up to the 7th tee box
The bottom of the course, the spectacular 187-metre 16th, is 1000 metres / 3000 feet below the summit.
My kilted partner nails a 6-iron on the green at the precipitous 16th.

The occasion was the annual playing of the Scottish Golf Cup, sponsored by InterNations, a group in Geneva which encourages people from different nationalities to get together for various social events. There were plenty of kilts and plaids.
$

As it happens, our group won the low gross. I think we were 2 or 3 under par. Earned each of us a can of haggis and assorted other goodies.

The highlight of the day was a bagpiper suddenly appearing at the top of the mountain, playing tunes to which some of the golfers sang the lyrics.

Memorable day.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The "United" States Isn't Anymore

United, that is.

The people in the country have become so polarized it is no longer possible to have a civil conversation with someone who disagrees with you on any given issue. Rather than an honest give-and-take discussion, people are labeled - even on the basis of a single issue or single comment - as either Conservative or Liberal. If you are in one camp, there is a genuine hatred for anyone in the other camp. Flag-wavers vs flag-burners. Patriots vs Traitors. Hannity vs Maddow.

Each side spends most of their time in their own echo-chamber and rarely hear the views from the other side, other than the spin put on opposing views by the talking heads on the favorite TV channel within the comfort-zone bubble. Or they might invite a guest from "the other side," then constantly talk over them when they try to say anything.

What's especially appalling is that people of one persuasion have become genuinely afraid to let their views be known, at least by someone they don't know all that well. There could be repercussions in the workplace or in school. I heard of one student who had gotten along well with a professor for most of the semester, until the liberal professor learned the student held conservative views and the prof's attitude immediately soured toward the kid. I heard of a young girl who started choking another girl who had expressed admiration for Trump. We are seeing more examples of in-your-face behavior in restaurants and other public places, as well as personal violence for wearing a hat or t-shirt or a comment that triggers instant rage.

The level of vulgarity also continues to descend into the sewer. How can otherwise-intelligent people think that cursing someone out is going to persuade them to listen to your views?

And given the proliferation of guns in America and open-carry states, how long before that behavior turns into shootings - simply for exercising your 1st Amendment right?

The Americans are united in one area: widespread ignorance of what things are like in the rest of the world, based on misinformation promoted by the US media, left and right. For example, the impression Homelanders are given is that terrorists have overrun Europe - since 2012, one shooting attack, two bombings, four trucks driven into crowds in Western Europe. In that same timeframe in the US, two truck attacks, 4 bombings, 15 mass shootings (not counting the daily activity in Chicago and Baltimore), a bioterror attack, and a couple of machete lunatics.

There are dark forces at work. The uber-wealthy on both sides of the fence (the Koch brothers, Adelson, Soros …) own the politicians and own the media, and they are manipulating the messages that dominate the airwaves and social media to deliberately divide the American people. The bogeyman changes with the news cycle - one day Putin, another day immigrants, another day terrorists - but there's always a constant stoking of the Us vs Them flames. Most Americans are so busy just trying to cover their mortgage, car loan, credit card debt and other bills that there's little time to even consider, to any depth, the major issues and forces at work in the country and the world. So they accept the headlines and spin from a single "trusted" source and ignore or reject all other voices.

I left the US five years ago, and have only started to discover the rest of the fascinating world beyond Etats-Unis. But since I've been gone, the America I know has all but disappeared. It's not only sad, it's become truly frightening. With no real leadership in sight anywhere, it will only get worse.