Thursday, December 30, 2010

Health care flexible spending accounts need work

Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA) are great. They allow you to spend pre-tax dollars on medical expenses.
And, as co-pays get higher and more of your bills come back rejected by your insurance carrier, the debit card FSA is handy.
But why do they have to make it so complicated?
I have talked to people about FSAs and many of them do not participate in this employer-provided benefit.
The main reasons given are that it is too complicated.
And it is. To participate you must calculate what your out-of-pocket medical expenses will be for the coming year. And you must be accurate, because anything that is not spent on medical expenses during the year is not refundable.
That last part is the worst. At this time of the year people are desperately trying to spend down the last of their FSA so that they will not lose it.
Why does the FSA have this rule?
Wouldn't it be much more convenient and user-friendly to require that FSA accounts be spent down to the last $100, and anything between $100 and 1 cent would roll over into the next year?
Who do I need to talk to about making this change?

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

NY airport traffic jam

My daughter flew back to LaGuardia last night and reported no problems. She said there was no line at security and the plane left on time.
I had been worried because of all the problems that the airlines are having in New York airports.
But when I think about it, this makes perfect sense.
The New York airports must be doing everything in their power to make sure all the incoming flights arrive without delay. They need those seats when those planes turn around and leave.
The problem is that the incoming seats and the outgoing seats are so closely matched, that there are few empty seats to take out all those stranded passengers whose flights were canceled.
But I would say that if you are flying to New York, and it is your final destination, you should have no problems.
If you are flying there and continuing on, I would expect the airlines would like it very much if you rebooked to another transit point. That way they would pick up your outgoing seat for one of the stranded passengers.

The risks of clemency

Is granting clemency worth the controversy? I suppose that is the point of it -- one last shot of publicity for outgoing governors.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm has stirred things up over the last week by granting clemency to Matthew Makowski, convicted of first-degree murder in the robbery Makowski set up of a friend.
After the announcement, the family of the victim protested and raised some damning points about Makowski, and Granholm reversed her decision.
Now Makowski's lawyer is promising a lawsuit to get the commutation reinstated. He raises an interesting legal point: If a prisoner is pardoned, can he be unpardoned?
This was followed by Granholm's announcement this week that another convicted murderer, Thomas Cress, will be released. He was convicted of killing a teen-age girl. And while there are those who believe Cress did not commit the crime, there are others who believe he did.
Both of the commutations are controversial, so why do them?
Bridget McCormack, co-director of the Innocence Clinic at the University of Michigan law school calls the Cress commutation "a brave decision on the part of the governor.”
And it is, if you believe as McCormack does that the man is innocent.
But I still wonder why governor's do it.
Florida's outgoing Gov. Charlie Crist pardoned Jim Morrison for an indecent exposure at a Miami concert in 1969. But that is understandable, Morrison has many fans, and even if he did expose himself at a concert, was anyone harmed? And, it really does not matter because he is dead.
More controversial is the request that outgoing New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson issue a pardon for Billy the Kid. The Kid is equally famous and perhaps has some fans, but he did kill people. Why does he need a pardon? He also is very dead.
I suppose that for all of these governors, it comes down to the fact that they can pardon people convicted of crimes.
That is a mighty attractive power to have, particularly as you are stepping down from all the other powers of being a governor.
And pardons certainly do draw the spotlight.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Airlines: What is an act of God?

The recent snowstorms that hit Europe, and now the US northeast, are noteworthy not just for the severity of the storms, but even more for the length of time it took for the airlines to move stranded passengers to their destinations.
It is getting to be a new standard that if a bunch of flights get canceled because of a storm, it takes almost a week to take care of the backlog of passengers. It is becoming commonplace for those passengers to spend days and days in airports.
In addition to being unacceptable, those kind of delays are sure to prompt corrective action from governments.
It would seem to me that it would be in the airlines' best interests to fix the problem before Congress comes up with a solution. They might also consider that if the problem is not fixed, potential passengers may think twice about flying at all if it involves the risk of a long delay in an airport.
All of these delays at moving large numbers of stranded passengers are the direct result of the airlines' recent efforts to get profitable by reducing the number of planes, flights and seats.
It used to be that if your flight got canceled because of a storm, you could catch another flight out the next morning -- but that was because there were always empty seats on those flights.
Now that there are no empty seats, it is difficult to catch a later flight. That trend has made flying more difficult for passengers in a number of ways, but the storm backups are the worst.
And this problem raises a question. The airlines do not have to pay for hotel accommodations or refund ticket prices if flights are delayed due to an "act of God."
But is it an "act of God" if those delays drag on for a week because the airlines have reduced the overall number of flights?
The airlines can blame God for the snowstorm, but it seems to me that after a day or two, the problem has moved out of "act of God" and squarely into "act of airline."
At that point, I think the airlines should spring for hotels for all these stranded passengers. It is unthinkable that all these people should be camping out in airports for a week.

Monday, December 27, 2010

States' rights and pot

The US Attorney's office is trying to force the state of Michigan to turn over the records on those arrested in the ongoing controversy over medical marijuana.
It is bad enough that the state cannot seem to define what is legal and what is not under the law approved by state voters.
Now the feds are coming in and telling us that it does not matter what voters here want, pot is illegal by federal law and they are going after anyone involved in marijuana -- medical or otherwise.
Hmmm. Now where does it say in the Constitution that the federal government is granted the power to regulate drugs and that power supercedes states right to regulate drugs? Actually, the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution holds that any powers not specifically granted to the federal government by the Constitution are retained by the individual state governments, or the people.
The argument that the feds control it is based on an interpretation of the interstate commerce clause. Pretty loose.
OK, so there is no sound Constitutional foundation for this approach, now, how about a practical approach. The federal government should be trying to save money, not spend it pursuing "lawbreakers."
I would have to agree with Pat Robertson on this one, the government spends too much time and money chasing people who smoke pot. Our federal employees have better things to do.
And for all those who says that government spending has been cut to the bone, this would be a pretty good example of where additional spending reductions would make sense.
It is also a matter of priorities. There is a full-blown drug war going on right across the border from Texas. That war actually affects the safety of Americans and it is getting worse. If the feds have personnel to spare on fighting drugs, shouldn't they be going to Texas?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Chrysler Financial suddenly looking good

Another Canadian bank has swooped in and purchased an American financial institution for a garage sale price.
Today it Was Toronto Dominion buying Farmington Hills-based Chrysler Financial for $6.3 billion. Last week it was Bank of Montreal buying Milwaukee-based bank Marshall & Ilsley Corp. for $4.1 billion.
How quickly perceptions change. Last year, it appeared that between the domestic auto industry bankruptcies and the new deal with the former GMAC, now Ally Bank, Chrysler Financial was all but dead.
This year, with bankruptcies behind them, suddenly Chrysler Financial is worth almost what Cerberus paid for the original Chrysler.
The other side of that coin, of course, is that Canadian banks acted a lot more sensibly during the time when American banks were incorrectly betting the farm on derivatives.
Some 300 American banks have since been closed. No Canadian banks have shut their doors.
One more lesson for bankers. This is not Vegas -- Stick to banking and you may be able to buy the competition.
One more lesson for Americans, stick to business or your conservative neighbors will reap the profits.

Its the tax code, stupid

The great Obama/Republican tax cut is passed, much to the relief of most taxpayers, and much to the annoyance of those who would have preferred to cut the deficit.
And in between there are many others who can find things to criticize in the tax cut plan -- usually in the nature of who won and who lost.
What did not get criticized, however, is the tax code itself.
The code, which takes lawyers and accountants to unravel -- and is the product of decades of lobbying and back-scratching -- is the reason we need a tax cut.
It is easier to cut taxes than to fix all the things in the code that will gouge one unintended taxpayer or another.
Just to name a few -- the alternative minimum tax, the marriage penalty.
And that whole argument about who is rich -- now that is a can of worms.
Taxes are like the weather -- everybody talks about them, but nobody ever fixes them.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Do it better for less

This is the challenge that most of us in SE Michigan face on a daily basis.
We are all asked to do it better for less. Doing less for less is not acceptable. Nor is doing the same for less.
We all have shrinking budgets and yet are required to improve our work output and the quality of our work.
The alternative in this global economy, is that there are workers and businesses both in the US and abroad that are willing to do our jobs or produce our goods and services better for less money.
So the complaint by the Oakland County Road Commission that they are getting less money and the implication that that tight budgets prevent them from clearing the roads, well, quite frankly that does not cut much slack among taxpayers who are asked every day to do better with less.
And, although Road Commission jobs cannot be outsourced, the services of the Road Commission can be privatized. And a private company charged with competitively bidding on the job of clearing the county roads would be asking their managers and workers to do it better for less.
I would say that judging from the condition of the roads after the last storm, Macomb County's Road Commission members get this. They are doing it better for less.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Learn from what works

Here is an observation than mine on the difference in road clearing between Oakland and Macomb counties, The following letter was sent to the editor of The Macomb Daily:

Subject: icy roads

I just read the article "Brine not to blame for icy roads" in Macomb
County and reports of many people complaining about the condition of the
roads during this recent snow storm. I am not a person who enjoys
driving in the snow and ice, but was able to get out around Macomb
County at 2pm on Monday without difficulty. Then on Tuesday, I was all
over the roads in Macomb County with work and Christmas preparations.
But on Wednesday, I had to travel to West Bloomfield at 7:30am. I never
imagined having any trouble in my travels across county from Shelby Twp
but did leave 20 minutes early for the morning work rush. Boy, was I
wrong!!! As soon as I crossed Dequindre on 18 Mile/Long Lake, there was
considerable difference with speed travels dropped to 15 mph because of
the snow, slush and mainly ice all over the road. Maple Road was as bad
with dangerous intersections and icy stops on the hills. A typical 60
minute trip took me two hours!!I love Macomb County and thought their
snow removal and road work for this snow storm was impeccable. Kudos to
the Road Commission.

Mary Jo Kurily
Shelby Twp.

Now, how about a possible solution for Oakland County.

I suspect many of you have heard of the idea of "positive deviance." That sounds deliciously evil, but in fact, is just a way of solving seemingly impossible problems by studying the isolated cases that work and then applying those procedures to the larger problem.
I suggest that this might be a solution to the problem of snow removal in Oakland.
It is pretty obvious that Macomb is doing something right. And following the concept of positive deviance, Oakland should study how Macomb does their road clearing and look for something different.
Oakland County's road commission should stop pretending that everything is OK here (except for the lack of money) and take the time to study what does work in other places.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Response to criticism of Oakland road clearing

I thought I should share the following response to my Monday blog about the poor condition of Oakland County roads following the storm.
My answer follows Craig Bryson's note to me:

Hi Roger.

Just read your blog. Yes, some roads were better in Macomb than Oakland, no question. But in other cases, it was just the opposite. In fact, I spoke with an official at the Macomb road commission who confirmed my suspicians. Every time it snows, when we hear comments about the roads being better in Macomb, their residents are asking them why the roads are always better in Oakland. Bottom line: There's nothing they are doing dramatically differently than we are. In the case of the roads you cite, they may have been able to plow them earlier in the day, thus getting the snow off the roads before the temps drop and it started to freeze and turn to ice. It wasn't for lack of effort on our part, though, as we have had every available truck out on the roads from 2:30 a.m. Sunday through right now.


Craig Bryson, APR
Public Information Officer
Road Commission for Oakland County
31001 Lahser Road
Beverly Hills MI 48025
(248) 645-2000, ext. 2302
Follow RCOC on Twitter at


Thanks Craig for taking the time to respond to my blog.

However, I am afraid that you did not change my opinion. I will be the first to admit that I have not driven all the roads in Oakland and Macomb counties.

But I have experienced the same difference in clearing on the roads I do drive for the last 15 years. It is very consistent. The roads in Oakland will be snow covered. The roads in Macomb will be cleared.

After your note, I asked around the office and talked to other people who drive both counties and they all agree that Macomb roads are kept clearer.

I also called my counterpart editor at the Macomb Daily and he said that his personal experience going to work was not bad on Monday and the newspaper did not get a lot of calls or social media comments about how bad the roads were in Macomb County. He said it was about normal for after a snowfall.

So I would love to talk to some Macomb County residents who believe that their roads are worse than Oakland County roads. I couldn't find any. I would particularly like to ask them which roads in Macomb County are not being cleared.

But all of that aside, I have to admit that what happened Sunday and into Monday and Tuesday is unusual.

And I did observe the condition of the roads in and around Pontiac on Monday, and they were the worst I have ever seen. One of my night people, commuting up on Woodward Monday evening took 3.5 hours to get to work.

I also would like to throw out my theory about why the roads were so bad Monday in Oakland County.

I was out on Sunday evening when the snow was heavy and the roads were slushy, and the weather reports were predicting a steady drop in temperatures. I told my wife that if the plows did not get that slush off the roads by midnight, it would be days until they were cleared. I suspect that the Macomb County roads were cleared Sunday night and those are the roads I drove on Monday, without much difficulty.

I also suspect that the Oakland County roads which still had a thick coating of ice on Monday were not cleared Sunday night, and the slush just hardened onto the pavement.

So I do not believe it is a matter of money because both counties face similar economic hardships with road revenue. I think it is "a stitch in time, saves nine."

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Oakland County needs Macomb Road Commission

I live in Macomb County and I work in Oakland County.
I have commuted to and from work for many winters.
Macomb County roads are always better cleared of snow and ice compared to Oakland County roads.
In this last storm, Macomb got a lot of snow. I had to clear my driveway twice on Sunday.
Oakland also got lots of snow.
So why are the roads in such different shape on Monday?
Last night going home, I was driving slow on ice until I got to Rochester Hills. After that the highways -- 59 and 53 were not only clear, but dry. I could drive the posted speed limit in all of Macomb County.
Why is that?
Macomb gets the same snow, but has less overall wealth than Oakland, how can they afford to maintain winter roads and Oakland cannot.
I think the answer is that Macomb cleared all that slush off the roads early Sunday evening before the temperature dropped so low. Those counties that waited until Monday morning could not remove the ice.
I think Oakland should hire whoever is in charge in Macomb.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Welcome to Christmas in winter

Sunday we drove 15 miles to see a performance of Handel's Messiah. I was convinced that as bad as the roads were -- covered with slushy snow -- that it would be canceled.
However, the show went on despite the fact that the tenor and the bass soloists did not arrive.
The conductor did not mention this and I have to say that just skipping over those solos shortened up the program considerably. I thought it was an improvement, but my wife complained that we had been deprived of the full experience.
When we got out, the temperature had dropped and the roads were much worse. The slush had frozen and turned to ice. We drove home at 20 miles per hour.
Despite all of these difficulties, I have to say that this is the true Christmas and winter experience. It should be cold. It should be snowing. And you should feel very grateful when you get home to the blazing hearth.
Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 10, 2010

Spending as usual

The extension of the Bush-era tax cuts is just one more chapter of "spend what we don't have to try to win votes today and let our children pay the bill."
The original deal between the Republicans and Obama was bad enough, but then the Congressional Democrats realized they had been cut out, and headed directly to the pork barrel.
Ironically, the Dems' objection was supposedly that these tax cuts were not paid for with spending reductions. Those objections are being eased by spending even more?
I thought that was the point of the last election, that voters were sick of Congress spending with not a care about the future.
Didn't anybody listen? Is anybody paying attention to what is happening in Europe?
And how much of this damage can be undone after the lame ducks leave?

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Stocks, mutual funds by request

The Oakland Press has made a decision to limit our print listings of stocks and mutual funds to exclusively those requested by our readers.

There are a number of reasons for this policy:

1. There are too many to list in the space available and the availability of live quotes online for free make print listings largely obsolete.

2. By limiting the number of stocks and funds that we print, we can print them larger which makes the list easier to read.

3. Those who do like to read their listings in the paper are a relatively small audience made up of people who do not have a computer or Internet access, or who are in the habit of following their stocks in print.

4. Readers like to see their stocks and funds in the paper. And they like the personal service of calling up a real human being and getting a real response.

As I am that person, I can also make a number of observations.

I get the most calls to add stocks and funds when the market is up. When it is going down, I get few calls. I suspect that these readers like good news.

Most of those who call are senior citizens, and quite often I talk to them about getting live time quotes online for free. They generally do not like computers, and are unwilling to make the change.

While it is a great thing that we have loyal readers, I also think that these people are missing out. I think the Internet is a great tool for seniors and they are missing out on an important and useful device for communicating, discovering, and sharing their feelings and thoughts. And many of them have the time to indulge in this activity.

So, we will continue to print your stocks and funds, but please do yourself a favor and go to the local library and see what you are missing online.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Big gamble on tax cuts

So much at stake and Congressional Democrats still pretend that the election did not happen and they are still in control.

But are they willing to give up unemployment extension and a payroll boost and a tax cut for the middle class, just so they can soak the rich. Not to mention pushing President Obama even closer to the middle?

Wow, that is high rolling. Maybe they figure they have nothing to lose.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Obama says I'm in

What a refreshing change from the usual endless fight without accomplishment in Washington.

President Obama seems to have gotten the message from the last election. The Democrats in Congress, however, are still catching up.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The power of Sarah Palin and Ayaan Hirsi Ali

There are some people who are lightning rods for strong feelings. I knew Sarah Palin was one of them, but I had never experienced how deep those feeling run.

At the Romeo Public Library on Saturday I saw Palin's book "America by Heart" on the new arrival shelf and I thought I might as well see what she is saying that gets people all riled up.

Imagine my shock as I checked out the book and the librarian made a crack about it. "What are you going to do, read about her seeing Russia from her backyard?"

I am a lifelong user of libraries, and I have to say that was the first disparaging remark that a librarian has ever made about my choice of books. (And I have checked out some very strange books.)

But when I read the book I could not find any parts that could foster the resentment that seems to be aimed at Palin.

My wife, for example, cannot speak of Palin without her voice and color rising. She has made a point of totally ignoring the Palin book since I brought it home, even though it is in plain view,

The odd thing about these reactions to a book is that it is the second time in less than a month when I felt nervous just because I was reading a book.

The other happened in the Mumbai airport when I picked up a copy of "Infidel, My Life" by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She is the Somali/Dutch woman who inspired such radical Muslim hatred that she had to go into hiding.

I was reading the book as the passengers began to gather at the gate, and I frankly felt I was being looked at because of the book I was reading. It suddenly dawned on me that I was about to board a flight that would change planes in the heart of the Arab world and I would have to go through security there. I thought briefly about discarding the book at the airport, and then compromised by stuffing it in the bottom of my carry-on bag.

Perhaps all this is paranoia, but I could not lose myself in reading the book when I thought my fellow passengers might recognize the book and harbor ill feelings toward me. I have never felt that before.

So, twice in the span of a month, I have feel paranoia about reading a book. Two very different authors. Two very different subjects. Two very different cultures. But in both cases, the mere act of possessing them and reading them seemed to define me as the enemy -- at least to some people.

I put it down to the power of the written word. It still lives.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Qatar for World Cup 2022

I have actually been to Qatar, albeit just on the ground in the Doha airport and just to change planes going somewhere else.

If you fly Qatar Airlines to Asia, you stop at Doha.

I recommend Qatar Airlines. The service is good, they fly on time, and the seats have more leg room than many airlines these days.

However, having seen the area around Doha from the air as the planes were coming in for a landing or taking off, I would have to say there is not much available for visitors to the place. Doha does have a downtown with skyscrapers. And the country is a peninsula in the Persian Gulf, but I could not see much in the way of beach resorts or much greenery, for that matter. When I last flew through in mid-November, it was 90 degrees at 10 in the morning. From what I can tell, at the season of the 2022 World Cup, it likely will be quite hot.

Qatar struck me as a shipping transit station in the Gulf, not a tourist destination.

However, if you go to the Qatar tourism site on the web, they do display photos of some beach resort destinations in the country. They also show romantic photos of desert dunes.

Keep in mind that this country is immediately east of Saudi Arabia and you will get a pretty good picture of the climate and available water.

It is also sparsely populated. According to a source on the Web, three times more people attended the World Cup in the USA in 1994 than currently live in Qatar.

I should also point out that Qatar has rather restrictive policies on alcohol. The last I saw was that it could be sold legally, but consuming it might result in prosecution. That will be interesting -- considering the level of alcohol consumption by the average soccer fan. It should also be of interest to the alcoholic beverage sponsors of the FIFA.

Alcohol is offered free on Qatar Airlines international flights.

I say all this because the World Cup also came to Pontiac in 1994. I would say that SE Michigan had and still has more to offer the fans when they are not watching the matches. And, during that time, street vendors in Pontiac sold alcohol to the fans and some bars opened specifically to accommodate the thirsty fans.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Driving like a Grinch

Three separate incidents of motorists pointing guns at other motorists were reported over the weekend in Macomb County, according to the Macomb Daily.

These three gentlemen may face prison time for waving their guns about.

Police blame rash of incidents on the holiday shopping season.

Wait a minute. Isn't this supposed to be the "hap, hap, happiest time of the year?"

I have to agree with the police. This is the time of the year when I feel the most threatened while driving. And no one is pointing guns at me, at least not yet.

They just act even crazier than usual with their vehicles. Cutting off cars they think are not going fast enough. Blinking their brights to tell other drivers to get out of their way. Weaving in and out of the drivers who are merely going the speed limit.

And I can't say how scary it is in the mall parking lots. I don't dare check those out.

Are they all racing to get their shopping completed and make it to their holiday parties on time?

The experts talk about holiday depression and anxiety -- and they blame it on feelings of inadequacy because everyone is supposed to feel the joy of the season, and many do not. How about blaming at least some of it on those who spread fear on the holidays by driving like Grinches.

Then just imagine if the Grinch was armed.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Tax delinquent properties

In the Thursday edition of The Oakland Press, Oakland County will publish a 60-page list of properties that are three years overdue on their taxes.

The county has 10,000 properties that are significantly past due on taxes. The parcels that are still overdue by next August will be put up for public auction. According to Oakland County Treasurer Andy Meisner, the list will drop to some 2,000 properties by then.

However, the list is still unusually large and is the direct result of the bad economy.

And, as there are many people buying foreclosed properties right now trying to get a bargain, there will also be many people lured by this auction of thousands of properties. Some 300 bidders showed up at the last auction. There may be twice that number at this one.

Keep in mind that if you do want to participate, you should do your homework and check out properties you wish to bid on. And you will have to have a certain amount of cash to participate.

It is not a quick process, nor is it easy. But the chances of getting a real deal on property probably have never been better.