I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

We've dropped!

For the last couple of months, the stock market has climbed almost as fast as it fell around the end of last year. A lot of people were wondering if this was a sign that the recession was over. I've read some predictions that the stock market could get back to its former highs before the end of Obama's first term. I'm not an economist; the fact that I've tried to make money writing fiction should reveal a lot about my lack of wisdom in all things financial. But, in my own admittedly limited corner of the world, I just don't see the recession ending soon. In fact, I think there's still a lot of gloom and doom ahead, and wonder if the current stock market rise isn't just a bubble following a bubble, filling up more with hope and hot air than with any actual money.

My main argument lies in the familiar phrase, "Shop til you drop!" As near as I can figure out, we, the American consumer, have dropped. And, we aren't going to be able to get back up until we shed all the debt that's weighing us down. A lot of people I know, myself included, made liberal use of the easy, inexpensive credit that was available for much of the last ten years. It was easy to borrow money when you felt confident that the day would come when you'd just blast away all your debt in one big lump. After all, incomes kept rising, the economy was good, and the money in your 401k completely dwarfed your total credit card debt. Also, there was all that home equity to draw on. And, if you did get into trouble with one credit card, no big deal. You had a dozen other offers waiting in your mailbox, waiting to carry your balance at 0% interest for a year.

Now, all these assumptions have been shattered. Credit cards I've carried have arbitrarily bumped my rates even though I've never missed a payment. The offers I get for new credit cards still have intriguing teaser rates, but the rates that follow look worse and worse. I can't count on my income rising; I can name a dozen employers who've frozen salaries, including my own. I also can't look at my 401k as this magical pile of money that only gets bigger; I had a year to watch it bubble down to almost half its high. And, while I have a comfortable margin of equity on my house, I do worry that, if I had to sell it, I couldn't get what I think it's worth.

After a year like this, any sane, rational person has to think twice about borrowing more money. Rather than carrying debt cheaply until the day when you can blast it all away, I think many people have made the same choice I have: Stop buying stuff on credit, double up on payments, and develop a multi-year plan to wipe out debt. Maybe once all my current debt is paid off, I'll consider taking on some new debt, but I doubt it. I think it's going to be five years, maybe ten, before I forget the lessons I've learned this year.

Maybe I'm a rare individual to feel this way. Maybe only, say, 10% of people have been scared enough by this recession to swear off credit. For our consumer driven economy to suddenly lose 10% of its shoppers is a scenario that has to keep economists awake at night, sweating feverishly. If retail stores see sales drop by 10%, then they'll wind up cutting employees. Factories will get 10% fewer orders, so they'll cut employees. And, as unemployment keeps rising, more and more people who still have jobs are going to cut back on expenses as the possibility that they might lose a job becomes ever more real. Or, if they feel secure in their job, perhaps they'll worry about stagnant wages. Or, if they have money in 401ks, perhaps they'll be saving extra to make up for employers cutting matching funds, or just to build a buffer in case the stock market plunges again. All these things argue for subdued sales for months and years to come.

Again, I don't have hard data to back this up. I mainly have conversations with friends and coworkers; the number of people I know who are underwater on their mortgages is pretty amazing. And, the number of people I know who are going to make less money this year than last year is also pretty high.

So, after this little economic bump from cash for clunkers and the reliable retail boost of back to school sales, I think we're going to be in for a really tough fall and an absolutely Scroogish Christmas.

Of course, there are few counter arguments, ones I don't lightly dismiss. The most obvious one is that retailers are really good at figuring out how to pry cash out of our pockets. I used to never eat at McDonald's, but this summer they've been pricing all soft drinks at $1, and now I can barely drive past a golden arch without feeling thirsty. A lot of the restaurants I used to eat lunch at charge $1.95 for a soda these days. McDonald's has figured out a way to make me give them money I wouldn't have a year ago, and make me feel like I'm getting a bargain out of it, even though their actual cost on a large soda is probably mere pennies.

And, it wasn't long ago I bought a new pair of jeans at Walmart. The price was $8. It caught my attention; I'm not someone who ever went to the mall and paid $80 for a pair of jeans, but $8 looked like a typo. Instead, it was real, and the jeans were good ones. Honestly, you just can't mess up denim too badly. And, now, when I go to walmart, I find myself wandering into the clothing section to see if there are any other bargains.

Also, I can't help but notice all the $300 laptops these days. I don't need a laptop. My current one is barely two years old. But, gee whiz, $300 is, like, a tenth of what I paid for my first computer. I can't help but look.

Admittedly, I'm not going into debt buying my dollar sodas and eight dollar jeans. But, every time I go into a store and come out satisfied I've gotten a good deal, I find myself happy to go back into that store at a later time. So, perhaps the retailers of America have my number, and my five year plans toward fiscal independence from debt are going to be cracked by offers too good to refuse. Maybe a year from now, I'll be looking at a $200 laptop and thinking, "You know, that's really a steal," and I'll have the cash in the bank to buy it... then whip out a credit card to buy another couple of hundred bucks of new software to get the most out of the new machine. I mean, I don't play a lot of video games, but it seems like a waste not to test out a new computer with a really graphic heavy game. And, in this slow, step by step way, irrationality will again seep into my personal economics, and the economy will roar again.

But by December? I just wouldn't bet on it.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Health Care Reform

I'm more than a little conflicted on the issue of health care reform. Seldom has an issue presented such a contradiction between my philosophical principles and my actual practical needs.

Philosophically, I'm a free-market kind of guy. I view most government intervention with a fair amount of skepticism. On my purely libertarian principles, I'm rooting for the failure of the health care bills now winding their way through congress. I can't help but think that the bills are going to increase costs for everyone by slapping on new layers of regulations, beaurocracy, and taxes, and actually decrease the amount of health care that gets delivered by creating new paperwork. I don't even need to know that actual details of the bills (since, right now, no one knows the actual details of the bills) to have a gut level instinct that this is going to be a disaster.

Practically, however, I'm keenly aware of how badly the status quo sucks. I would love to quit my job and make a go at living off writing alone. That might seem insane to some; after all, right now, I don't have any future books under contract. But, I have confidence that, when I write books, I can sell them. And, I also think I'd write a LOT more books if I didn't have my current job. And, I've lived my life with at least a modest amount of financial responsibility. When I add up my assets of savings and property, they exceed my debts by a respectable margin. If I add in all future moneys contractually owed from writing (at least seven more checks still owed from foreign sales, plus an open-ended amount from earning out on Bitterwood) I think I could manage most normal expenses, keeping a roof over my head, food in my belly, and clothes on my back.

And then there's health insurance. This is where the dream smacks into a brick wall of reality. I was very, very happy two weeks ago to discover I don't have diabetes. I hadn't had blood work done in a couple of years, and I was worried; both grandfathers were diabetic, my father is diabetic, a younger sister is diabetic, and it just felt certain that the blood work was going to come back with bad news, even though I don't have any symptoms.

Now, as bad as actually having the disease might be, I'm pretty sure I'd have the discipline to manage it. My real fear comes not from the disease, but from the financial consequences: I have friends with diabetes, and those who can get health insurance privately pay dearly for it: $2000 on month for one guy I know. $2000 a month is more than I currently pay for all my bills combined, including my mortgage. If this amount were tax deductible, it would still probably wreck my dream of leaving my job, but at least I'd have a shot. But, of course, private insurance isn't tax deductible--but if your employer provides insurance, they do get a tax deduction, and you pay no taxes on the benefit itself. The system is weighted to provide a strong incentive for people to remain employed by corporations, and a disincentive to work for yourself.

Of course, I do have the choice of not buying health insurance. In an ordinary year, I doubt my health expenses total $1000. My lifetime total medical expenses probably don't exceed $20,000. But, I'm 45. Every year that passes brings the looming promise that one day I will develop something that blows this figure out of the water. Cancer, heart disease, or some severe traumatic accident could wipe out everything I own and then some in a matter of weeks.

It feels fundamentally unfair that an essentially random event like cancer or getting t-boned in my car would would incur a debt greater than the value of my house. It feels equally unfair that the system is rigged so that, if I stay at a job I don't enjoy, I'm protected from this danger for only a few hundred dollars a month, tax free, but if I go it alone, the cost is suddenly ten times greater.

One could argue, accurately, that government regulation has helped create this unfairness. They've designed the tax incentives for employers to provide health care, and have imposed regulations that prevent insurance companies from charging different rates for employer based health care based on risk. If you're a 25 year old vegetarian marathon runner who works for Fedex, you pay the same rates as a 55 year old chain smoking couch potato in the same job. Since they can't legally charge the chain smoking couch potato more under current law regulating employer health care, they wind up charging their customers who aren't protected by regulations; i.e., me, should I choose to live off writing alone.

The reality is, as much as I dread government meddling in the free market, they've already meddled, and the current existing system is a Kafkaesque nightmare. It works for some people; for others its nothing but a drain of finances and energy. It's bad enough to get cancer. But to expect someone on chemo to try to understand the labyrinthine hospital bills that arrive side by side with insurance statements is just cruel.

How do we fix this? Those who tell you there is no problem with our current system are living in a different reality than I am. Those who tell you that the phone book sized bills floating around in various government committees right now are the fix are dreaming.

I think I could reform health care with a series of laws that could be written on 3x5 cards. Vote on each individually, rather than lumping everything together to pass or fall in unison. Target specific problems rather than trying to grab 1/7th of the US economy and attempt to rework it from the ground up.

1. Make private insurance tax deductable. If my employer gets a tax break for providing me coverage, I can't figure out what the argument is that justifies that I shouldn't get the same tax break if I'm self employed.

2. End the practice of rescission of health insurance for unrelated conditions. If you saw the Micheal Moore film "Sicko," you'll know what I'm talking about. It's probably the single most loathesome practice of the insurance industry. You go along for years, believing you have insurance, paying your premiums, and then one day you get cancer. The bills roll in. And, suddenly, your insurance company drops you. It seems they recently reviewed your application and discovered that you didn't report acne treatments you recieved when you were 19 in your medical history, so, sorry, but we're revoking your policy. The insurance company recently pointed out that only about 1% of their customers experience rescission. This is still tens of thousands of people each year, I'm betting that there are no healthy customers among this 1%. Now, I don't think that insurance companies should be open to fraud; there are people who will hide actual expensive conditions, and they should have the right to somehow penalize people who fraudulently apply for care. But, the simple solution here would be that all rescission decisions would have to be made within 90 days of applying for a policy. Let them check you out when you first apply. What's unfair is to keep you as a customer for years, even decades, then drop you the first time you get sick.

3. End the billing disparities between the insured and the uninsured for medical care. I once had a blood test for allergies. I got the bill afterward and discover the test cost SIX THOUSAND DOLLARS! It seems like something a doctor might mention when he orders the test. "We might be able to figure out the source of your sniffles with this simple test," says the doctor. "Great!" says the patient. "Oh, and the test cost six thousand dollars." "You know, my sniffles aren't all that bad," says the patient. However, the test didn't really cost $6000. Since I had insurance, there was a "negotiate rate," and the test actually only cost $1200. Insurance would pay 900, I'd pay 300. I did so, but couldn't help but wonder why a poor guy without insurance was going to be charged 5 times as much. But, this isn't some wierd anomoly: Look at your own bills. There's one rate for the uninsured, and a different one for the insured, and the insured rate is less. The logic baffles me. Why should the same service cost different people different prices? If the test can be provided for $1200 to the insured, it should be provided for $1200 to the uninsured. Am I crazy in thinking this? What am I missing?

Okay, I could probably go on to list at least ten more things that are unfair in our current system, but it's time for me to do some work on an actual novel now. But I know that at least some of my readers consider themselves libertarians, while others are conservatives. Can anyone tell me why the government should do absolutely nothing to reform our current system? Can you explain why these things I'm griping about aren't unfair?