Monday, January 28, 2013

Teaching important life lessons

Saturday was supposed to be a pretty mellow evening...The Boy and I had a dinner date with Smoking Hot Roommate and The Rocket Scientist. Munchkin was going to stay home and babysit. Pretty simple, huh?

Well, The Boy woke up on Saturday with what has since turned into the flu. And since it was about 3 degrees outside all day (I'm lying, the high temperature was at least 14) he really didn't want to go out. When I called SHR to discuss this, she acknowledged that The Rocket Scientist wasn't all that fired up, either...he had a 6:00am plane to catch on Sunday.

She did, however, remind me that several of our most fabulous friends were planning to do some pretty serious clubbing, and that we could always leave the boys at home and go out with them. Our brainstorming also gave us one more great idea...bringing Munchkin. Winner.

Anyone who has read here for a long time knows that Munchkin used to come out with us all the time. To the point that she had favorite bars by about age 12. I'm sure that is far from the best parenting that anyone has ever done, but it was largely a result of us making do with our bizarre little sense of family. I was in my mid-20's, all of my friends were the same age, and that is what we did for fun...I didn't really have a lot of sense for what the parents of kids that age did to entertain their children, so I just did what worked.  So, she came out with us a lot...but it was always early and a little quieter, and she was generally around a lot of people that she knew and that knew her.

That stopped for two reasons. First, I don't spend as much time out as I used to, for pretty obvious reasons. But even with that, she reached an age where it was going to be impossible to bring her with us. It seems weird, but it is a lot easier to bring a 13-year old to a bar than a 17-year old (who looks 25...more on that later). To the proprietors, having someone in a bar when it is early and quieter is acceptable if it is clear that said patron is not trying to drink underage. No one could mistake my 11 or 12 year old sister for a 19 year old trying to sneak there was no likelihood that any liquor laws be violated.

That is no longer the she looks like someone who may be trying to sneak in and drink despite being underage. So, while we haven't done it in a while, my guess is that the owners might be a little bit less accepting of her presence now.

This, however, would be different. In this case, we had no intention of sitting quietly off to the side before the place got busy...we were going out. The plan was to hit a couple of different places, do a lot of dancing, a good bit of drinking and cause some trouble. Which absolutely meant sneaking her in with us...or, more specifically, showing up a a group of nine girls, many of whom are unquestionably hot, all of whom were dressed and very clearly in a party mood.

One short black dress, some heels and a ton of eye makeup later, we had ourselves one very tall, ridiculously hot club-goer who would never, ever be mistaken for anyone under the age of 25. We also gave her some talking points...if anyone asked for an ID, tell them you forgot it, and then we would just leave with her and that would be that; if anyone offers you a drink, just tell them you are driving; if you meet anyone new, you are a senior at Northwestern, visiting your older sister for the weekend. And we that, we set out.

We had an alarmingly easy time getting her into the three places we went. Basically, we just sandwiched her between a handful of really hot, flirty, fast talking girls who kind of negotiated with the bouncers to let us skip the line, and then just waved us all in. Sure, it's bad security, but on a busy night, when nine girls show up, three of whom are married, and 8 of whom are between 27 and 32, I can see where you wouldn't stop to notice that just one of them doesn't quite match the others.

From there, we had a ton of fun. There was a lot of dancing and the single girls did a lot of boy-teasing, and just maybe taught their new protegee a couple of tricks, as well. Munchkin was definitely overwhelmed at first by the noise and the energy, but the whole bunch of girls (all of whom have known her for six or seven years at this point) took really good care of her, kept her on the dance floor and made sure she was having fun. It was loud enough that she didn't have to talk to anyone she didn't know;-) and there was always someone to steal her away anytime she seemed to be drawing the attention of someone she shouldn't have (read: boys).

She also learned some valuable life lessons from her wise elders...things that you can't learn in school: like "If a boy buys you a drink, only accept it if you watch the bartender make it, and he/she hands it directly to you," and "be wary of men with tie clips".

So we stayed out way too late, and some of us had too much to drink, but it was really fun, and it's going to be a night I remember for a long time. When I woke up four hours later with the girls (if I had known how sick The Boy was going to be on Sunday, I would have treated this differently) I was maybe not thrilled at all of the decisions I made, but the whole thing still make me smile.

One other thing that made me smile...seeing Munchkin roll out of bed later in the morning, clearly having fallen into bed before she took her makeup off. And I am not kidding, we put A LOT of makeup on her. The girls found that hilarious, and I can best describe the look as "a very, very angry clown." So, add to the list of lessons "No matter how tired you are, wash your face before you go to bed. Otherwise, your pillow will look like a pen exploded on it."

And mostly, "Always remember, you have the best big sister ever.":-)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Solo Parenting

I was home yesterday with the girls, because day care was closed for MLK day. The Boy was working, and Munchkin was out all day...which meant a kind-of rare entire day with the girls by myself. When they were younger, that thought was actually a little bit scary...but now it is just kind of exhausting.

They are easy in the sense that they play together, they don't have huge tantrums, are completely potty trained and ask when they need stuff. They are difficult in the sense that they never, ever stop moving, or talking, and can make a mess roughly equivalent to a small tornado moving through the living room. I would estimate that something like 45% of the actual time spent with them is consumed by picking up toys, asking them to picking up toys, cleaning up spills, wiping noses, putting dishes in the dishwasher, vacuuming and other kinds of cleaning. They are a pair of walking messes.

One thing that was true when they were newborns, and true when they were infants and is still true now...getting them out of the house is much easier than keeping them in the house. Unfortunately, yesterday was really, really cold. Much to cold to take them to the park, which is basically my go-to parenting move.

A more ambitious mother would have filled the day with a variety of arts and crafts projects intended to engage and entertain the children. I decided that I should take the to the mall and let them walk around for a while to wear themselves out.

I will say, it worked like a charm...we drove to Cambridge, rode the escalators, visited a toy store, ate some lunch and headed home, all within about an hour and a half, and by the time we got home they were so tired that they crawled into bed and fell asleep in about 10 minutes, and slept for over two hours (normal naps these days are about an hour).

Best mother ever? Yea, probably...

Friday, January 18, 2013


I'm feeling very tired, all the time tired. I don't think I am sick at all, I just think I am sort of run down. I have been trying to go to bed earlier, but that never seems to work out. By the time we get the girls home, fed, bathed, settled down and asleep, it seems like it is 9:30 every night. It doesn't help that they are in a phase where they only want me to sit in their room and read books to them at night before they fall asleep...and they won't fall asleep if I am not in the room with them.

Really, though, I think I get plenty of sleep, and I am not super stressed over anything. The girls are great and tons of fun. Munchkin is awesome...playing basketball and remaining generally perfect. The Boy is in a bit of a quiet period after a truly frantic end of the year, and I am busy but not swamped at work. Things are basically good.

It's a tough time of year, and that always gets me a little bit...the days are short and the weather is cold (it's really cold today). This is, absolutely, the worst time of year around here...Spring is a LONG way away, and there is very little to look forward to for the next several months. I am hoping that we can get away to someplace warm in February or March, and maybe planning that will help me...but babysitting arrangements will be an issue. And, call me a terrible mother if you want, but if I am taking some time to sit on a beach and relax, I want to sit on a beach and relax, not chase toddlers.

I'm sure I will get out of it, but I feel like I am in a funk right now. Maybe I need a new hobby...suggestions?

Friday, January 11, 2013

Unusual Praise

Obviously, I tend to be pretty negative about our policy-makers. Frankly, I think their priorities are wrong, their motivations are skewed and the result is that they make bad decisions. They are not stupid, in fact they are quite smart and act in a perfectly rational, expected manner. They do exactly the things that are most likely to get them re-elected...

So, amongst all of the Fiscal Cliff mess, I do think it is worth highlighting what I consider to be the admirable actions of two different people who didn't get universal praise. I don't want to gloss over their lead roles in creating this mess, but I do think they acted like adults and made legitimate efforts to reach a significant deal.

The first, and more obvious of the two, is President Obama. He won a pretty resounding victory in November, and he rightfully took that to be an endorsement of his basic position that income taxes should rise on the wealthiest taxpayers. Sure, his definition changes from time to time...but the overall message was pretty clear: any deficit reduction done through tax increases should come disproportionately out of the pockets of the highest earners.

He did not, however, stick obstinately to that as an exclusive solution. He certainly argued for a lower threshold of "wealthy", but he was flexible on that, and was flexible on using at least some combination of increased rates and fewer deductions (although they spent way too much time fighting over that, which is a completely useless fight.) He also took an admirably open approach to entitlement reform, offering to accept significant cuts to current and future benefits.

The other, who has gotten nothing but grief over the whole thing, is John Boehner. Like the President, I really feel like he approached this with an open mind and a willingness to make a deal. Right off the bat he openly acknowledged and accepted tax increases targeted at the wealthy...basically a Republican sacrilege. He wanted a heavier emphasis on spending cuts as opposed to tax increases...but he and the President basically agreed that they would increase revenues and cut spending, and were just kind of arguing over the mix of those.

In other words, they did something really unexpected, recognized that each served a constituency, and decided to meet somewhere in the middle. Crazy, I know...

Even more importantly, they gave each of their own parties the political cover necessary to disappoint their followers. Obama was willing to be the Democratic fall guy on entitlement cuts, and Boehner was willing to take the Republican arrows on tax increases...they were doing (or at least trying to do) what leaders should do: making it easier for their followers to do the right thing. Giving everyone who followed them the ability to tell their supporters "I didn't love the bill, but it was the best that he could get, so I had to reluctantly support it."

The problem seemed to arise because House Republicans didn't take Boehner up on that offer. They are all so tied into their "No tax increase" pledges that they wouldn't vote for a single, relatively small tax increase in exchange for some real spending cuts, even after the Speaker gave them as much cover to do so as possible. Partly, I have to recognize that it is a lot easier for Democrats to blame entitlement cuts on the very visible leader of the free world, and somewhat harder for Republicans to blame their broken pledge on a much-less-well-known Congressman from Ohio. But there is another part that was just their own desire to not have to actually articulate why they changed their mind on their absurd pledge. It was easier to let rates rise by going over the cliff, and then vote to roll back the ones they wanted to keep (therefore maintaining their ability to say that they never voted to raise taxes, get it?)

So, ultimately, Boehner couldn't get the House GOP to follow him and the whole plan collapsed. Ironically, they GOP would have gotten a much better deal had they gone along with him, but that was never going to work for them, I guess. But, in a fair analysis, I think his intentions were good, and I do think he tried to be the reasonable one.

It's rare that they act like adults, but I feel like both the Speaker and the President were at least trying.

Thursday, January 10, 2013


Nilsa asked a question via comment yesterday, which Steffi re-iterated and one other person asked via email. In a classic case of my overly-ambitious writing, I sent the following response to Nilsa, and to save time I will just re-post it here. 
The question was: "Was the budget truly balanced when Clinton was in office? And if so, what the hell has happened since then that we've basically screwed ourselves out of ever balancing the budget again?"
Here was my email:
And to answer your, we have not balanced a budget "for real" since 1957.
The confusion is in the way that the Feds account for social security taxes. When the designated SS tax was instituted in the 1980's, it was done so for the purpose of building up a Trust Fund with which to pay future benefits. I'll use fake numbers for the example...
Imagine that they collect $1,000 in social security taxes (which are a tax on everyone's income, but are not called "Income taxes"). Now, imagine that the benefits paid out this year to Social Security recipients are $400. The extra $600 (the "surplus") is supposed to go into the Trust Fund for the purpose of paying out the benefits that it will eventually owe to the people who are paying that $1,000 in taxes. In this sense, it works very much like a normal pension.
Here is where it gets tricky. What happens to the extra $600? It gets invested by buying Treasury Securities. In other words, it gets loaned to the General Fund and used to pay the regular expenses of the Federal Government. The accounting problem is that the General Fund doesn't count that as a counts it as regular income. In essence, the $600 has been double revenue to SS used to fund the Trust Fund, and also as regular revenue to the general fund.
To keep going with the example, pretend that regular income taxes generated $1,200, and non-Social Security government expenses were $1,800. According to the Federal Government, there are $1,800 in expenses, and $1,800 in revenues ($1,200 in income taxes and $600 in social security surplus) and voila! the budget is balanced.
However, it isn't that easy...because the SS Trust Fund needs to show some assets, which means that it needs a Treasury Security in exchange for its $600. So the Treasury Department has to issue a $600 bond, promising to pay back the $600 that it borrowed from the Trust Fund. Therefore, even though the budget was "balanced", the Federal Debt went up by $600.
{What's worse...the $600 is almost certainly a lot less than the real value of the liability, which is the social security benefits that were accrued that year and payable in the future...whole other subject}
So the real measure of the Federal deficit is not the balance in the General Fund, but rather the change in the size of the Federal Debt. If you spend more than you take in, then the debt rises. If you spend less than you take in, the debt falls. During the Clinton "surplus" years, we still had to borrow money every single year in order to really balance the budget. The closest we ever got to being really in balance was in 2000, when the debt rose by only about $19 billion ($5.656T in 1999, $5.674T in 2000).
This also highlights why the deficit is getting worse. At it's peak, the annual surplus was like $400 billion...which had the effect of lowering the annual deficit by that much. But more people retired and lived longer as compared to those working, so that surplus fell and fell, until it disappeared entirely a couple of years ago and is now an annual deficit (which is paid for out of the General Fund). So, even if taxes and expenses stayed totally flat otherwise, the deficit would have grown on an annual basis by $400 billion just because of the way the accounting is done.
Add to that a new Medicare drug benefit ($90 billion per year), a couple of wars (as much as $100 billion per year) and slower growth, and you get a super-explosion of debt. Basic problem...since 2000, Federal spending has more than doubled, while revenues are up just 15%.

Simple, right? :-)

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

The Fiscal Cliff

I know I am late to this, but I have a reputation for political ranting to hold up around here, and I can't let that slide;-) And, since Congress didn't really do anything other than push the fight off until March, I am actually kind of early on that front.

To recap, in the summer of 2011, during negotiations over raising the debt ceiling, Congress and the President made a deal that automatic tax increases and spending cuts would be implemented on January 1, 2013, unless they reached a longer-term deficit reduction agreement. Not surprisingly, they reached no such agreement, and the cuts and tax increases...which inexplicably developed the nickname "The Fiscal Cliff" hit on January 1. At the last moment, they made an agreement to avert this...basically doing nothing more than moving the deadline to March where we can have the same fight all over again.

Honestly, my thoughts on this are long and complex, and won't fit in one blog post, so it will likely stretch into several. And you will probably lose interest long before then;-) But as usual, I understand these things pretty well, I am good at asking people who really know to explain them to me, and I can generally translate them from technical speak to real-people speak pretty well, too. So that's what I will try and do here.

First of all, what we should never lose sight of is that the Congress (and the President to a lesser degree) made a very conscious, very deliberate decision to create the fiscal cliff. This wasn't just something that "happened"...18 months ago, they took pro-active actions that were entirely intended to do just what they did: create this kind of panic.

I really can't say that enough...this "crisis" came about because our 435 Congresspeople and 100 Senators, with their 9% approval rating and 85% re-election rate decided that it would be in the best interest of their constituents to create a completely phony deadline with very real consequences.

And to go even further than that, they whole thing is around managing our completely inexcusable deficit spending, which is also the result of very conscious, very deliberate decisions made with very well-understood consequences. And before I blame this entirely on the people in Congress, I'd lack to throw some blame on the people that elect them...because we are in this mess because our elected officials did precisely what we elected them to do, and precisely what they promised. This is our own fault.

Party-wise, they are both wrong. Intensely wrong. Democrats (as articulated by the President) espouse the basic opinion that we can maintain our level of spending and solve our fiscal problems by very slightly raising taxes on only a very small number of people and cutting some defense spending. Whether it's the wealthiest 1%, 2%, 5%, whatever...basically, the message to most voters is "You can get everything you want, and someone else can pay for it." The problem with that is that mathematically, it simply doesn't work. There are not enough rich people that earn enough money to close a trillion dollar (and growing) annual deficit.

Further, their basic premise that entitlement programs are above reproach is absolutely indefensibly stupid. You can't promise a pension and lifetime healthcare to someone from age 62 until death and not recognize that simple demographics make that completely unaffordable in very short order. At least not while you also preserve their right to get as many pills, as many tests and as many procedures as they want while being as fat and unhealthy as they want with no repercussions.

Republicans are no less wrong, and they are probably even more obstinate. They seem to be living by the credo that raising anyone's marginal tax rate by even 1% represents an affront to the sensibilities of Washington and Jefferson. And that only allowing a married couple to pass $2.5 Million to their children at death before anyone pays a nickel of tax on it is basically as unpatriotic as firebombing the White House.

Their magical solution to fixing the budget is to cut out "government waste", although they preface that by noting that there is absolutely no government waste in the $800 billion defense budget. They are a little bit more willing to make changes to entitlements, but that willingness is limited...they want to make sure that those changes don't impact anyone over about age 30 (in other words, people who don't currently vote...)

There is, indisputably, a lot of wasteful spending, and government is terrible at holding itself accountable for the effectiveness of its programs. We have entire Departments (Energy and Education come to mind) that were created with very specific, very identifiable goals...goals towards which they have made zero, or in some cases negative, progress. Yet we throw more and more money at them every year as if that will solve the problem.

But what, really, is the scope of that? If you exclude Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and Defense, the entire Federal Budget last year was $1.3 Trillion...which means you would need to cut everything in order to balance the budget.

So, to give you some idea of the scope of the problem. For Democrats to reach their goal of closing the budget gap exclusively by cutting defense and raising taxes, they would need to cut Defense in half and then raise everyone's taxes by 40%. Not just the richest 1% or 5%...EVERYONE. Whatever you paid in Federal taxes last year (income tax and other Federal withholding taxes), add 40% to it and ask yourself if you think that is a fair price to pay for the government you get.

For Republicans to reach the goal of balancing the budget without touching current entitlements, without raising taxes and without cutting Defense, they would need to eliminate every other part of the Federal Government. No Veterans Affairs, no justice system, no Treasury Department, no foreign aid, no NASA, no nothing. Oh, and no Congressional salaries, while we are at it;-)

So, in conclusion...Congress manufactured a crisis out of thin air, and then refused to have a discussion to solve their own crisis. Oh, and they gave themselves a raise.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Oh Thirteen

Happy New Year, everyone:-)

I have never really been one for grand, dramatic resolutions, and this year won't be any different. I definitely make them, but they tend to be pretty small and relatively insignificant...if something is that important, I like to think I will have already addressed it some other time rather than waiting for an arbitrary day in January to start.

2012 was a very good, and seemingly very busy, year.  I blogged less than I ever have, which I am sad about. Part of that was due to the available subject matter, and part was a lack of time. I got two new nieces:-) There was some heartbreak as well. But overall, I'm happy with where I am.

[Special note: I had two people ask me, randomly at basically the same time, whether or not my alluded-to bad news last month involved Munchkin's friend. Very thankfully, it does not. She is doing very well, is done with her treatments and is working to regain her strength. She now has curly hair:-)]

2013 will, I think, probably be a pretty big year. The girls will obviously continue to grow and change at a rapid rate. Munchkin is going to graduate from High School and move (two miles) away to college...if you don't think THAT is gonna make me a blubbering disaster, then you haven't been paying attention. We may (hopefully?) move. I have a new, wonderful and rewarding non-work task to undertake.

I'm also not really one for inspirational quotes, so I will keep those on the sidelines, too. Mostly, I just hope that you all have a safe, happy, healthy and prosperous 2013. I hope that you feel like you are in a better place in 2014 than you are today, as measured by however you choose to measure that.

And I hope that you are ready for my cutting witticisms on The Fiscal Cliff, because that is probably coming soon:-)