Archive for the ‘Economics’ Category

Your Money at Work

October 19, 2018

How do you help cope  with the devastation of Hurricane Michael in the Southeastern United States?  Lots of ways come to mind.  You could volunteer your time.  You could send money.  You could rally others to do these things as a group.

Or you could fly 15 dogs to Santa Barbara from Florida.

Something you might want to consider the next time you’re hit up to donate to the Humane Society.

I can’t honestly believe that this was the most cost effective solution to the situation.  Surely there were shelters closer that could have accommodated these animals at a fraction of the cost?  But to fly them across the country?!  Are they going to be flown back at some point once the influx of storm-related loose animals abates?

I speak as a dog owner and dog lover.  This just sounds like a ridiculous waste of money, and yet is being promoted as somehow wonderful.  I’m glad these dogs are safe and that other animals can be safe because of relocating existing shelter animals.  It’s one of those logistics that I wouldn’t naturally think of.  But I also wouldn’t naturally think of relocating them to the entire other side of the continent.

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More Doomsday

October 17, 2018

If death from nuclear war or a massive decline in bug population wasn’t enough to make you jittery, perhaps this little article will.  One in ten people is more than 90 days in default on their student loans.  Student loan debt has grown by 157% in just over a decade.   What does that mean?  Over $1.5 trillion dollars in existing student loan debt.  Interest rates on student loans have topped 5% for undergraduate loans and are nearly 7% for advanced degrees.

Yet one cited expert in the article posits the student loan debt rise isn’t nearly a crisis on the scale of the housing collapse a decade ago.  He claims the difference is that student loan debt isn’t systemic.  I’m not sure what he means by that, considering earlier in the article another expert described the situation as systemic.  Elsewhere the article reported a further increase in the number of people living at home with their parents still by age 35.  Generations of people are unable to do the things their parents did by their late 20’s and 30’s because they’re saddled with massive student loan debt and, surprise surprise, aren’t able to find jobs that enable them to continue paying it off.

Meanwhile, tuition rates are basically at all-time highs and continue  to climb.  Why not?  If people are being groomed to see college education as an absolute necessity for future financial security, of course people are going to keep taking out loans to pursue that education.

Those most likely to default on their loans?  People who attended for-profit schools, minorities, and those who started on their education but didn’t finish.  Also, as a whole it’s the smaller loans that are defaulted on, rather than the big, six-figure loans.  Those who spend a lot of money to get advanced schooling for careers in law and medicine tend to be better able to repay their loans.

Meanwhile, the government just keeps handing out loans.  After all, it’s not  the government’s money.  It’s yours.  And mine.

I don’t know how any financially sensible person could see this situation as anything but a massive bubble waiting to burst, and burst it eventually will.  At which point I’m sure the effects will be very systemic.  And pervasive.  Destruction by nukes, bugs, or financial meltdown.  At least we have options to place our bets on.

 

Charity & Taxes

December 17, 2017

As we move closer to a major (or allegedly major) overhaul of our tax code, some are raising red flags that this might have a significant impact on the Church, namely in the realm of charitable giving.

Currently donations given to churches and other non-profit entities are tax-deductible if you itemize deductions.  But the new tax code may reduce the overall benefit of itemizing by increasing the standard deduction.  The net result could be lower incentive to give to charities for a tax benefit, and overall lower donation levels.

So would you give even if you weren’t getting a tax write-off for it?

 

More Tax Fun

December 11, 2017

Just in case the Congressional tax plan hasn’t been interesting enough for you, you might be interested to learn that in October a judge (for a second time) ruled that the clergy tax exemption on income designated for housing is unConstitutional.  This has enormous repercussions for religious organizations of every kind, as all are blessed to have the income their religious leaders spend directly on housing-related expenses excluded from taxes, saving religious groups a considerable (though probably not outrageous) amount of money.

The judge ruled that the clergy housing allowance is unfair in that it essentially is an endorsement of religious organizations (while not an endorsement of a particular religion), and as such is unfair as secular organizations and individuals do not receive a similar or equal benefit.  The ruling has been appealed, and defendants will argue that this is more an issue of preventing complicated and unnecessary entanglement of the State with religious organizations, which could lead to a breach of the separation of Church and State.

Certainly there are plenty of folks who think the status quo is Constitutional and should withstand this legal challenge.  Recommendations are that congregations continue to designate housing allowance for 2018 onwards until the case is finally resolved by an appeals court or the Supreme Court, recognizing that if the appeal is unsuccessful, it is possible (if not likely) that housing income will become taxable retroactively to the October ruling, as opposed to being implemented effective of the final court outcome.  This would place ministers of religion in a painful financial situation in having to pay back taxes on perhaps multiple years of housing allowance.

This ruling – at least thus far – applies only to housing allowances, cash given to ministers of religion to secure and maintain housing arrangements.  It does not affect a church that owns a home which it allows the minister to use (a parsonage).  Should the revocation of ministerial housing allowances stand, I’m sure there will be a massive upswing in the number of congregations that provide parsonages rather than housing allowances to their ministers.

All of which would spell the end of many small religious groups unable to cope with the additional burden of needing to pay their ministers enough additional income to offset the negative tax impact.  None of this is surprising given our cultural climate and the sudden reduction in the perceived benefit of religious organizations to society and culture as a whole.

Yay, Insurance!

November 3, 2017

So, if you’re wondering some of the upshots of mandatory health insurance coverage, consider all of the possibilities waiting to be added to the list of covered procedures.  Your still-rapidly-increasing-premiums could one day – soon apparently – be funding things such as uterus implants and pregnancy care for people born male but who have decided they want to be female instead.

It’s really great that as increasingly controversial treatments and procedures are innovated, we are being given less and less freedom to reject these things personally in terms of our finances.  I strongly suspect that if we had the freedom to pick and choose, these sorts of procedures wouldn’t find a whole lot of support in the free market system.

Waste Not Want

October 20, 2017

I didn’t see much report about this in the news over the summer, but it seems like a pretty big deal.  China has been a major importer of the world’s recyclable materials, but is making changes that will place major restrictions on the type and amount of material it accepts in the future.  I haven’t been able to confirm it, but I’ve heard anecdotally that China – until these changes take effect – has imported up to 40% of America’s recyclable material.

That should have a major impact on our country, seeing the massive amount of plastics we use.  It’s going to get more expensive, at least in the short term, to find alternate ways of dealing with losing a major market for our recyclables.  It hopefully will drive us to find better ways of handling them in the first place.  Oversees, it was routine to see multiple bins in the places we stayed.  The expectation was that the household would clean and divide up the types of waste.  Organic waste/table scraps in one bin, paper waste in another, plastics in another, aluminum in another, etc.  It was a little excessive compared to our policy where we live that we just throw all the recyclables into a single bin for weekly pick up.

Much of what we do and how we do it is driven by convenience.  But convenience has a price, a price we’ve been able to deflect somewhat, but which may get harder and therefore more expensive to mitigate.  Hopefully that will spur our American creativity and ingenuity to find better solutions than we have so far.  It would be nice to see us dealing with our own issues and consequences rather than just off-loading them to other countries.

Aquaponics 2

October 19, 2017

We’ve taken one step forward and two steps back this week in our aquaponics venture.  I procured three large 55-gallon drums for starter tanks.  But I also discovered this week that the most popular and common form of fish for aquaponics – tilapia – is not permitted in the county we live in (gotta loooooovvvveeee California!).

I had suspected this to be the case for a few weeks now after scouring the Internet.  But I held out hope that exceptions might be made if the system was completely self-contained (as opposed to privately stocking tilapia in a pond on your property or something).  I referred to the California game and fish web site to begin with.  I called the contact number listed there.  But the number was actually some sort of nation-wide contact, so they had to transfer me to a California person.  That person had to transfer me to someone else, and that person transferred me to someone else, who gave me the name and number of the person she was transferring me to, and I left a voice mail with this person.  She responded within an hour or so to give me another name and  number where I left a voice mail.  This woman called back in a couple of hours and was extremely pleasant but confirmed there were no exceptions to the tilapia ban.  She e-mailed me a variety of resources that will be very helpful as we progress, and gave me the name of  a guy down in San Diego that I have e-mailed, asking for his next best recommendation for an aquaponics fish.

In the meantime I’ve started researching other options for fish.  Catfish seems to be the next-best option in terms of growing quickly.  But it’s a less popular fish to eat.  We’ll see what the San Diego guy recommends.

Challenging Vocations

September 27, 2017

As a ‘bonus’ for now being a vice-president, I got to hang around for an extra morning of meetings today!  Truth be told, I would probably have had to stay anyways, but still.  It’s a painful sort of gratitude, if you ask me.

Our District President was welcoming and providing some training to the Circuit Visitors (which was another of my titles – along with Grand Poobah – until very recently).  These pastors serve as the most local representation of the larger District and ultimately the District President, and are his go-to guys for helping out with situations good and bad that happen throughout the District.

He shared that currently there are 19 congregations in our District that are in the process of Calling a pastor.  Normally that number is higher but there were a lot of Calls and installations that occurred over the summer so the number is momentarily lower.  There are also another 40+ congregations who can’t afford to Call a full-time pastor.  He discussed how, due to the very high cost of living in coastal Southern and Central California, it is increasingly difficult to find pastors able to come here because they’re afraid they aren’t going to be able to afford to live here.  While our District provides guidelines to congregations to assist them in paying their pastors a living wage, some estimate that at least half of the congregations in the District are paying below the District recommendations, either out of necessity or ignorance.  He then commented that his word to guys considering Calls to this area is to advise them that they need to expect that their wives will have to work outside of the home to generate additional income so their family can survive.

And that reality sticks in my craw.

Culturally, of course, the idea of women working outside the home has been championed not as a choice that a woman might avail herself of based on her interests and abilities, but rather a necessary demonstration of the equality of women.  Because feminism quickly jumped the rails ideologically, it defines equality between men and women as women doing everything that men do.  This assumption is remarkably misogynistic, ironically – that what a man does should be the basis for generating respect and therefore is the definition of equality.  Rather than demanding equality for women as women – in whatever vocational direction they prefer to go – feminism insists that only by working outside the home does a woman have any real worth, and that opting to work at home as a mother and spouse is demeaning and a betrayal of women everywhere.

How is the Church to respond to this redefinition of equality?  Rather than being created equal, we are only equal in terms of what we do.  I don’t have an issue with a woman or a wife working outside the home.  I don’t view them as inferior to men in their productive capacities in the workplace at all.  Nor do I espouse the mentality of men who assume or assert that a woman’s place must be in the home.  But I do have an issue with an ideological assumption in our culture that women will or even must work outside the home – whether for ideological reasons or economic reasons.  And I worry about a Church culture that goes along with this because it’s economically advantageous.

I’m blessed to serve a congregation that pays me enough to live on so that my wife can work in the home – raising our children, educating our children, and being a partner par excellence.   I say regularly that she has the harder job of the two of us, and I’m mostly serious.  And just like a man working by the sweat of his brow in a field or an office, the burden of responsibility she bears in her work takes its toll on her.  Only an idiot presumes that a wife not working outside the home isn’t working.   And only an equally ignorant person would assume that just because there isn’t a paycheck made out in her name every two weeks that the work she provides is worth any less than her husband earning a paycheck.  My paycheck is also hers.  Only by working together can we earn it.  We support one another.  This is our equality, that we support one another in complementary and different ways – not that we do exactly the same sorts of things.

This is the Biblical understanding of the relationship between men and women, a relationship that was damaged significantly in the Fall (Genesis 3), but is being restored in Christ, to the point where Paul can cryptically share that marriage is actually a representation of the relationship between Christ and his Church (Ephesians 5:32).  It is an equality that celebrates our differences and complementary natures that express themselves physiologically, psychologically, theologically, and in all sorts of other -allies that I’m too lazy to list.

So for the Church to say to a husband and wife we want you, but we want to force you both to work outside the home rather than honoring and supporting the roles that you have found work well for you and your family is dangerous to me.  We lament the demise of the family but are unwilling because of fear of cultural backlash to look at how the redefinition of family and gender roles has contributed to this.  We marvel that our kids and grandkids aren’t in church, yet we entrust their intellectual and social formation primarily to an institution that is now actively working against encouraging or even just respecting a life lived in faith.  We presume that the constant mantra of buy, buy, buy must be answered with dual incomes.

Again, this is not a diatribe against women working outside the home!  But it is intended as an alarm to a church that demands this.   The work of the Church should not come at the expense of the family.  The family is the original and first Church, and the Church would do well to remember this and promote and support the family in every possible way, rather than seeking to put the family in service to the Church.  I would far rather, if I had a congregation of young parents, that instead of spending all their time at congregational functions and events they would spend time together at home intentionally as a couple and a family.  That they would take on the major responsibility for raising their children in the faith and nurturing faith in one another.  The Church should stand ready to assist in this, but it is a dangerous turn when the Church ends up putting programs ahead of the relationships those programs should serve.

I will be having conversations with our District leadership in my new capacity to explore and discuss this issue further.  There isn’t much to be done about it officially since our congregations are self-governing.  But we certainly can and should, I believe, adopt an attitude that challenges congregations who make these sorts of assumptions and place these sorts of expectations on the families they wish to serve them.  Sacrifices for the Gospel shouldn’t surprise us.  But it ought to surprise and dismay us when the Church is the one demanding the sacrifice.

 

Aquaponics 1

September 26, 2017

We try to eat healthy, and more and more we have developed concerns about the things that are in the food we eat, and most particularly in the meat.  We’ve considered various options for doing some self-sustainable food production.  Gardens were of limited success as people lost interest in them and would forget to water them.  Chickens seemed challenging given that we have two medium-sized dogs.  I suggested raising rabbits for meat but my wife has firmly nixed this idea.

What if we did aquaponics, I suggested.  Aquaponics creates a self-sustaining ecosystem based on fish and plants.  Fish are raised (sometimes for food, which is our intention, and sometimes not to eat) and their water is cleaned and filtered by pumping it through growing beds where the ammonia and nitrogen of the fish waste is filtered out through growing medium, which in turn allows plant roots to access these nutrients.  The only ongoing input into the system is food for the fish and additional water to offset evaporation.  Even with evaporation the total water usage is supposed to be far less than growing a vegetable garden in a piece of land (unless you get a lot of rain and don’t need to water the plants on your own, I suppose).

The family loved the idea.  We like the idea of growing more of our own food and thus ensuring that it is free of pesticides and herbicides and hormones and antibiotics and whatever else gets into our food these days.  We also like the idea of learning together how to build the system.  It could be a business opportunity for the kids as they get older, consulting and building systems for other people as well as potentially – if our system grows large enough – sustaining a business to local restaurants eager for local, healthy fish.

There’s a lot of information on the Internet about how to do this.  It isn’t complicated, beyond getting the system created and connected with PVC piping, pumps, drains, etc.  I’ve decided to chronicle our journey in case it’s helpful to others.

Step number one was to ensure that our water was as healthy as possible.  We’re on city water, which provides a certain level of filtering and treatment, but which results in chlorinated and fluoridated water.  While the fluoridation may not be a big deal, the chlorine is.  So last week we had a plumber remove the salt-based water softening system that came with the house when we bought it, and installed a two-stage water filtering system instead.

Just that step alone has taken nearly a year of research!

There are so many options out there!  Some systems – like the one in the house when we bought it – can cost thousands of dollars.  Or you can go online or to Home Depot’s web site and find filtering systems for under $100.  How do you make a decision?

Mainly, it seems to depend on where you’re getting your water – and thus how much sediment filtering you need – and what you specifically hope to filter out of the water.  We examined filtering systems, not water softening systems.  Some options combine the two or allow you to custom-design systems that do both.  We decided we didn’t want the softening, just the filtering.

Because we’re on city water, the particulates and sediment in the water have already been filtered out to certain standards.  Municipal water sources should publish annual water quality reports available online or by direct request from your water supplier.  Had we been on well water, I would have opted for a three-stage filtering system to filter out more of the sediment, but a two stage option seemed to be fine for a city water connection.

I investigated a system that would filter out fluoride as well as chlorine, but it was significantly more expensive.  There’s plenty of debate about the role of fluoride in our drinking water, with very little consensus or evidence to back up the various perspectives.  I decided we could buy a counter-top filter specifically designed to filter fluoride to replace the Britta filter we currently use, which doesn’t filter fluoride.

Finally, I decided on the i-Spring whole home two stage filter, sometimes referred to as Big Blue.  More specifically, it’s model WGB22B.  Rationale:

  • Reasonably priced
  • Reasonably priced filters
  • Large filters that will hopefully last a bit longer than some smaller models (hopefully 6 months considering the size of our household and the hardness of the city water)
  • Filters chlorine
  • 5 micron filtering
  • Good water flow rate (up to 15 gpm)
  • Certified to NSF/ANSI standards
  • Includes a sediment filter as well as a carbon block filter that handles the organic filtering as well as chlorine filtering
  • Good ratings on Amazon

Now that we have this in place, we have improved water which will be healthier for the fish.  Chlorine is an unhealthy thing for them that would need to be removed.  While it can be removed to some degree with time and agitation, we decided we wanted to benefit from chlorine filtering for ourselves, not just for our fish!

The next step will be to purchase the tank that will hold our fish.  I’m planning on either a 55-gallon drum-style, food grade plastic barrel that we might cut in half to create two tanks, or a larger, 275-gallon food grade IBC tank.  I’ll keep you posted as we take our next step!

Eat & Run

July 21, 2017

I thought this was an interesting article about how recipients of food stamps tend to run out of money for food within a week or two, meaning that for at least half the month, they don’t have any of these funds to purchase food with.  The article purports to explore how and why this is, and emphasizes that because funds are dispersed in a single installment, people have trouble budgeting properly and therefore spend too much immediately and run out of funds.

What it doesn’t explore is what people are buying with this assistance.

For three years, as part of a Christian communal living experiment, my family lived in one of the poorest neighborhoods in St. Louis.  My observations are anecdotal rather than deliberate, but have stuck with me all the same.  What we saw the neighborhood children eating constantly was junk food.  Sodas, hot fries, Cheetos.  Constantly.  We never saw them with fresh fruit or vegetables or any other sort of food (unless we shared ours with them).  We know that these children lived in households that depended on food stamps – the vast majority of our neighborhood did.

Certainly the issue of telling people how to spend their assistance is a tricky one at best, but if the issue of running out of money is due not just to budgeting problems but also spending that assistance on low-nutrition snack food instead of food that can actually improve your health and last more than a few minutes, then doesn’t our government (who created and funds the food stamp program using taxpayer dollars) have a duty to at least help people know how to spend their assistance wisely?

When I looked into our state’s web site for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program I didn’t see any information about good ways to spend the assistance wisely.  Perhaps that information is provided in another format beyond the web site, but perhaps it’s not being provided at all.

I’m sure that there is money used to lobby against any type of restriction on how food assistance is spent (beyond current limitations on alcohol, cigarettes, etc.).  I’m sure that companies that manufacture potato chips and soda would take issue with having their products declared off-limits for food stamp monies.  But if the issue is actually how to help people and make sure they’re getting the food they need, does it make sense to ignore the issue completely?