Teachers Losing Ground

I think many of us have the sense that teachers are losing ground. My older sister and her husband were both teachers, then administrators, during what now look like the glory years of public education. One of the friends I most admire was a teacher, administrator, and finally a superintendent of schools in Massachusetts. Florence wanted to be a lawyer but bright young girls from 1930’s Flatbush mostly weren’t, Brooklyn neighbor RBG notwithstanding. My friend Ada taught both of my kids in elementary school. My friend Sally was a teacher and a building administrator. These are all exceptionally bright women who, had they come of age today, could have been anything.

A good teacher can make a world of difference in a child’s life. One that is unkind or inept can cause inestimable damage.

Teachers may not have made what others with comparable education did, but they had three months off in the summer and generous health care and pension benefits in addition to compensation. No more. Now, those benefits come in lieu of salary — and with the rickety state of public employee pensions in many states, that future bet hardly looks so secure.

If we say that teaching isn’t important enough to justify a professional salary package, then we’re saying our kids and their futures are not important either.

This drive to diminish public education isn’t coming from Congress as a whole; it’s a core belief of the Republican party, who want their children in charter schools whose ethnic makeup they can control. Betsy DeVos, our remarkably ignorant Secretary of Education, is the poster girl for their position — part of Trump’s Make America White Again agenda.

Think about that when you vote.


Climate Change: Bad for the Panama Canal

Panama is a small country, with few natural advantages other than location. Panama has a robust banking and finance industry, but other than that, what keeps the country afloat is revenue from the Panama Canal.

According to the Washington Post’s Energy 202, the daily newsletter about energy-related issues, the Venta Maersk, a Danish container ship, is about to attempt to sail through the Northern Sea Route. Enough ice has melted, apparently more or less permanently, to make the passage possible from July to October.

This is good news for the profitability of shipping companies. The news is very bad for the global climate, for the Panama Canal and for Egypt’s Suez Canal.

Wealthy Panamanians, like the wealthy anywhere, will likely be largely untouched. But the poor, the people I visit in the city and the village, Minga’s large extended family, will see their lives get harder and harder.

Light-Fingered Lunch Ladies

Nobody pays attention to the lunch ladies in the school cafeteria, a low skilled job with fewer hours offered than most people need to make a living. Lunch ladies, who tend to be older women, are more or less invisible. Ah, the opportunity…

Enter the lunch ladies of New Canaan, Connecticut — 61 and 67 year old sisters, who are accused of having spirited away nearly half a million dollars  over four years from lunch money handed over by the kids. The ladies were unmasked when a new software program was installed to track daily cash receipts in the middle school and high school. To be fair, at this point the sisters are merely accused of wrongdoing. They haven’t been tried and convicted yet.

The New Canaan lunch ladies join a long list of successful scammers that nobody thought important enough to watch, or were assumed to be people who’d never steal. In 1996 the treasurer for the national Episcopal Church stole 1.5M right out from under everyone’s eyes, and it apparently wasn’t all that hard. Since then, a long list of clergy, administrative people, and ordinary churchgoers involved in the Sunday collection have been nailed as a result of greater scrutiny. “But who would steal from the church?”, people sometimes ask. Turns out a lot of people, if given the opportunity. Ditto for stealing children’s lunch money.

The half million bucks is apparently gone, and all because nobody was looking.


Dollar General: A Devil’s Bargain

Dollar General stores, which sell items as diverse as food and clothing and household cleaners and tools at rock bottom prices are moving like a juggernaut into rural American and into devastated inner cities. Dollar General, says its CEO, goes where even Walmart doesn’t.

The problem is that Dollar General wipes out what local businesses might remain in these economically challenged communities. And, they offer a different kind of product, one that has a long shelf life and can be bought in bulk. Heirloom tomatoes, fresh sweet corn, meat from locally grown animals … things like that don’t make the cut.

Not everything is to be had for a dollar, but rarely is anything priced above $10. But there is a cost. Dollar General’s aggressive pricing drives locally owned grocery stores out of business, replacing shelves stocked with fresh fruit, vegetables and meat with the kinds of processed foods underpinning the country’s obesity and diabetes crisis.”


Occasionally a town, like Buhler, Kansas, turns down the subsidies required to bring a Dollar General store to town, and the local grocery gets a reprieve. But Dollar General is steamrolling ahead, constantly finding welcoming  communities.

I think of Bloomfield, Iowa, where my father went to high school. He actually lived in Mark, which is a tiny crossroads so small he had to rent a room in town for high school because the walk from the farm would have taken too long. Bloomfield is the county seat for Davis County. In the early years when we went to visit family in Iowa, “Saturday night” was a big deal. All the farmers came into town to buy supplies for the week. The men stood chatting and smoking on street corners while their wives went in and out of local merchants, stocking up. We kids played on the grass in the town square and ate ice cream. Years later, my Aunt Colleen mourned that “Saturday night no longer happens.” Most people were shopping at big box stores outside of town, and the local merchants failed. People stayed home to watch TV.

The last time I was in Bloomfield, some years ago, most of the store fronts were open. But it was arts and crafts shops, small galleries… things that would appeal to tourists. The Royal Cafe where my father worked his way through high school was long gone. So was Colleen and Louis’ “Graves the Great Barber Shop and Beauty Salon”, where Louis and Colleen Graves made their modest living. There were two chairs in the shop, one for men’s haircuts and one where Colleen gave tight perms using acrid chemicals that made my eyes water just being in the shop.

I’m sure there were once stores selling groceries, too, but no longer.

Walmart and Dollar General are a devil’s bargain for these rural communities, but we all know the old days when farmers gathered for Saturday night and bought from local merchants aren’t coming back.

Paid Family Leave

Republicans, some of them at least, have finally come into the current century and stopped proposing that mothers stay home to raise children and care for ailing family members as the solution to the need for paid family leave. But the plan proposed by Sen. Marco Rubio, that people take an early draw down of their Social Security benefits to fund a period of family leave, is a terrible idea. Republicans are eager, always, to bend the system in favor of the rich, whom they call “job creators”. When it comes to families of lesser means, the mantra of “personal responsibility” takes over. People are pretty much on their own.

My late husband and I had a financial planning firm in Rochester, NY, for 20 years. Over that time we saw firsthand how many Americans, even those with good jobs, have no savings and very little by way of assets to support them in retirement. There are lots of statistics around to add to that observation, like these from an article on CNN Money: 40% of Americans don’t have $400 to cover and emergency expense without needing to borrow. And 25% have no retirement savings at all.


For many Americans, especially women who entered the work force later and earned less than their male counterparts, Social Security forms the bulk of retirement income. We’re also living longer, which means that whatever savings we might have need to stretch even farther. If Republicans remain in power in Congress, the “security” of Social Security and Medicare is likely to be reduced even more. Taking Social Security at a young age to fund family leave, even a small part of future benefits, is a perilous idea.

Most developed countries recognize the need for paid family leave and provide it. The U.S. is an outlier in resisting, or in saying, as Republicans do, “it’s all on you.”



Oprah and Weight Watchers: the Celebrity Effect

We have a celebrity presidency, the Republican base so dazzled by Trump’s ultimate reality TV rendition of Life in the Oval Office that they are willing to cast aside any and all traditional Republican positions re trade, immigration, and balanced budgets just to be part of the Trump train.

Oprah has had a similar, although more salutary, effect on the fortunes of Weight Watchers. Membership in the longstanding weight loss program had lagged, as people become more cynical about the dieting leading to sustainable weight loss. Enter Oprah, who has made the ups and downs of her weight part of her captivating life story. She agreed to become a spokesperson, and bought a big chunk of WW stock. Voila! Her advocacy, combined with Weight Watchers’ adopting a broader focus on overall wellness, has revived the fortunes of the company and added to Oprah’s considerable fortune as well.


So are we in a celebrity driven world, and do we need a celebrity to rival Trump in 2020? God I hope not. If so, it’s apparently not going to be Oprah. After a flurry of interest after her well-received Golden Globes speech earlier in 2018, there was a push for her to be the nominee of the Democratic party. Seems she’s decided that getting down into the weeds with a nasty piece of work like Trump is not what she needs. I’d have to agree. She, unlike Trump, is a genuinely successful entrepreneur worth almost 3B dollars. Her net worth is real assets, not the inflated brand value that Trump assigns to himself and his money grubbing offspring. And her name and advocacy are clearly magic with a large swathe of the buying public.

I like Oprah. She’s a multi-talented woman, smart about business. She seems a decent human being. Why would she need to add political stripes to her profile, given what U.S. politics has become?

Older Americans and Bankruptcy

Here’s what’s wrong with the Republican philosophy of massive tax cuts to starve the federal government of the money it needs to provide the safety net built around Social Security and Medicare: Americans don’t save nearly enough for retirement, and are ill-prepared to provide for themselves.

The working class Trump supporters who are thrilled about getting an extra $300 a year from the recent tax cut missed the other half of the sentence: “giving you back the money you paid in taxes…. so that you can provide for your own retirement and health care.” It’s that second part, the “so that you can provide for your own retirement and health care” that Trump voters are simply not getting.

According to this piece in the New York Times, older Americans are filing for bankruptcy in increasing numbers already, never mind when the wave of tax cuts really begins to bite.


You may believe, philosophically, that it’s not government’s role to provide for people as they age. That would take you back to a time before FDR’s presidency, when people truly were on their own. The rich got richer, and the poor jumped out of buildings or stood on street corners with printed signs begging for help or set off in jalopies with their few possessions tied to the roof of the car after their farms had turned to dust.

Is that really where we want to be as a nation?

Getting to Know Seattle: Too Expensive to Live Here

A second friend has just told me that she and her longtime partner are leaving Seattle because it’s too expensive to live here. K. owns her condo and her partner contributes to expenses, but rising condo fees and unpredictable assessments have made staying there untenable. They are moving to Walla Walla, a college town about four hours southeast of Seattle. Walla Walla is much less expensive, the pace of living is slower, and as a college town, there are a lot of cultural and educational events to make life interesting.

My former hometown of Rochester, NY, was struggling to revitalize a pretty dead downtown after the demise of Kodak and the loss of most of Xerox, Gannett, Bausch and Lomb, French’s Mustard to other iconic companies. Seattle is at the opposite extreme, struggling to control the bad effects of rapid growth: constant traffic, rising prices, and a surge in homelessness.

This wonderful city can’t become a place where only the young, the rich, and the tech-savvy can afford to live.

Conscious Aging: Giving Money to Adult Kids, Part 2

The last part of the conversation with Ada’s lunch group, a piece that I didn’t address, is whether you should talk with your adult family members about gifting, or just tell them what you are going to do.

I think money is a fascinating topic, and I don’t know why anyone would choose not to talk among family members about how resources are distributed. Like all other aspects of life, our experience of money is highly individual. Some of us use money as a measure of self worth — and society tends to do that too. Some of us profess not to care about money, yet we resent not being paid well enough for the work we do. Some of us are by nature frugal. My late husband Jerry had an LLBean blue blazer that he loved. When he got a moth hole in the sleeve, he darkened the lining with blue ink and insisted that the jacket was fine. When he wasn’t looking, the jacket went to the Good Will. Some of us are spendthrift; money flows through our fingers. The notion that providing for ourselves in retirement takes decades of patient saving and investing is a discipline too hard to bear.

The important point is “talk among” — not dictate. We can’t dictate the choices of other adults, even those who are family.

For me, money has multiple symbolic as well as practical meanings. But in the simplest sense, it’s a piece of the puzzle — an essential piece at that. My dear friend Minga is coming to terms with living with dialysis. Having choices is important to her. She wanted the choice of being able to go home after each treatment, even though it involved a 90 minute chiva ride into the interior. She has to do the hard physical work of getting from the hospital to the bus terminal to the actual vehicle that will take her home, after a full day of grueling dialysis. She has to get a family member to accompany her. The missing piece was money — taxi fare from hospital to bus terminal, and chiva fare to Rio Hato, which is $3 per person. In many ways that’s the easiest piece, and I was happy to give it to her.

What is money to you? That’s a really great place to start a family conversation about money. I recommend it.