Friday, October 31, 2014

My Personalized "Truthful" Halloween Message .... Don't Get "Spooked" Out of the Market ... The "Experts" Say My IRA Asset Allocation Has Been Too Risky for 40+ Years ... I Say They're Wrong

Keenan's post today is about truth telling. So here's my truthful message about how I've invested and continue to invest in 401(k) and IRA assets for more than 40 years. It's essentially an all stocks, all the time, way of saving and investing for the future. And since it's served my family well over the years, it may help you too. Helping others to achieve basic financial literacy and an understanding of the basics is the 'truth,' the 'plan,' and the central 'message' underlying all this personalized blogging of mine.

The stock market performed very well yesterday, and it looks like today will be another winner, making October as a whole a gainer and a sign that all is well for individual investors. My post yesterday predicted gains of 10% to 15% over the next 18 months or so, and that makes me a bull, I guess. In my view, however, it simply means that I believe in the improving U.S. economy and that over the long haul stocks will rise. Currently things look to me to be especially attractive for long term oriented individual investors.

My 401(k) and now IRA investments have consistently and continuously invested 90%+ in stocks for more than 40 years. That's long been my plan and I'm sticking to it even now for one simple reason: over the long haul, stocks outperform all other asset classes.

Got an IRA? Chances are it's too risky clearly disagrees with my 'risky' approach:

"The majority of retirement savers with IRAs have “extreme” asset allocations--and that could expose them to some big-time risks.

According to a report released Wednesday by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Employee Benefit Research Institute, nearly 60% of individual retirement account (IRA) owners had their savings in an “extreme” investment allocation in 2012—meaning they held less than 10%, or more than 90%, of their IRA investments in just one investment category.

Specifically, nearly one in four (23.7%) IRA owners had less than 10% of their assets in equities, while nearly one in three (35.5%) had more than 90% in equities; furthermore, almost 1 in 5 (18.5%) had more than 90% of their assets in bonds and “money” (which EBRI defined as very safe investments like certificates of deposit and money market mutual funds).

The EBRI study examined more than 25.3 million IRA accounts with total assets of $2.09 trillion.
Most of the time, having your assets so concentrated in any one asset class is a no-no, say financial advisers. “Extreme allocations are inherently riskier allocations,” says Randall R. Cooper, principal at Life Transition Planning, who notes that these extreme portfolio allocations are often created by accident when investors chase assets that historically had high returns. “In the long run, this strategy often does not work,” he says, adding that “a balanced portfolio will generally capture the best-performing assets.”

Of course, there are exceptions to the balance-is-best rule. One big one is that young people and retirement-aged people may actually want to have their assets in “extreme” allocations. “The general rule of thumb is that if we have less time to retirement…then we put more in conservative and less volatile choices,” explains Wan McCormick, a financial planner at Reliable Alliance Financial. Thus, many older people should be heavily invested in bonds and money, while many very young people should be heavily concentrated in equities.
‘Extreme’ asset allocations in IRAs:
Significant percentages of investors are either heavily concentrated or underinvested in certain assets. (The figures here include assets held in balanced mutual funds; “money” includes money-market funds and CDs.)
AgeLess than 10% in equitiesMore than 90% in equitiesLess than 10% in bonds and moneyMore than 90% in bonds and money
Under 2524.2%38.6%42.6%20.7%
85 or older29.5%29.6%37.4%22%
Source: Employee Benefit Research Institute

But, that’s often not what’s going on in IRAs. Indeed, at a time when they should be heavily invested in equities, nearly one in four Americans under 25 who had an IRA had less than 10% of their IRA portfolio in equities, while just 38.6% has more than 90% in equities . . . .

Summing Up

I've always loaded up on stocks for one simple reason.

Over time they outperform all other investment categories by a wide margin and more than offset inflation.

Today interest rates are low. A few years from now they will be markedly higher. That means bonds won't do well.

On the other hand, cash like instruments such as money market funds, gold and C.D.s are at historic lows and won't offset inflation over time, let along earn a real return.

When a long term perspective is taken, stocks aren't riskier than other investments. While their prices do fluctuate and often rise and fall violently from time to time, they also outperform both inflation and other investments by a wide margin over the long haul.

Yesterday and today both look to be strong days of outsized gains. On other days prices will fall. But it looks to me like we're setting up for a nice year end rally and not the 'correction' that most 'experts' have been predicting.

In any case, those interested in their long term financial health and well being won't become either "irrationally exuberant" or "spooked" (pun intended) by these short term moves. They instead will stay focused on the long term.

That's my truthful take this final day of October. Let's not get "spooked" and miss out on the market's gains.

Happy Halloween. Bob.

What If Politicians Couldn't Lie

Jim Carrey starred in a 1997 movie called Liar, Liar.  In the film, he was an up and coming defense attorney who often stretched the truth to win cases.  He also frequently made promises to his young son that he couldn't keep due to his work schedule.  That fact prompted his son to make a secret wish as he blew out his birthday candles.  As a result, Carrey was magically forced to tell the truth to everyone for 24 hours.  In an encounter with the police shortly after the wish had been granted, the following exchange took place:

Cop: Do you know why I pulled you over?
Carrey: It depends on how long you were following me!
Cop: Why don't we just start from the top?
Carrey: Here it goes. I sped, I followed too closely, I ran a stop sign, I almost hit a Chevy. I sped some more, I failed to yield at a crosswalk, I changed lanes at an intersection, I changed lanes without signaling while running a red light and SPEEDING!
Cop: Is that all?
Carrey: [Forced.] No. I have unpaid parking tickets

For Carrey, telling the truth to the cop was painful and costly.  I think it must be that way for people who hold elected office too.  After all, if they had been elected on a set of promises, then failed to deliver on those promises, and then had to stand up and proclaim that failure, without any external attribution, I can imagine that would be quite painful.  And I imagine it would also be very costly as they would not likely get elected again.  

But what if we could make a wish and pick one politician to have stand before us and make a speech where everything he said was true.  Who would you pick and what do you think he might say?  Well, my pick is the current president.  As for what he might say, Forbes magazine has done an excellent job with that below in an article called "If President Obama Told the Truth About the Economy":
"....First, I should admit that the recession of 2007-2009 was not clearly the worst recession since World War II. In fact, unemployment was higher at the end of the1981-1982 recession (10.8 percent versus 10.0). But telling you things were really, really bad helped build support for me to take actions that would not have been possible otherwise. Like Rahm Emanuel says, “never let a good crisis go to waste.”

Because you believed the recession was so bad, we spent more money in government stimulus than the sum total spent responding to every previous recession in U.S. history (even adjusting all the past stimulus programs for inflation). I didn’t spend that money (the famous American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, over $800 billion) to help the economy recover, but on a liberal wish list put together mostly by then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. In fact, more money went to keep public sector union members employed than was used for needed infrastructure projects. Paying them back for their hundreds of millions in campaign contributions was more important than fixing this country’s infrastructure.
That’s okay because I am more interested in redistributing wealth and income and in growing the size of government than I am in the health of the economy. Many of my policies have made the recovery slower and weaker than if I had done nothing, but it is accomplishing my goals. The auto bailout didn’t save the American auto industry (somebody would have bought the needed factories and still made enough cars to satisfy demand), but it did transfer $10 billion to the United Auto Worker union. Think about it: all the airlines and steel companies went bankrupt and yet the U.S. still has airlines and steel companies without the government having lifted a finger.
My policies are actually restricting jobs from growing faster, but I like people being dependent on government. Extending emergency unemployment benefits for four and a half years after the recession ended kept unemployment higher because people could take the government handout instead of a job. In fact, the one record this recession did set was for the number of long-term unemployed people. Obamacare penalizes companies for growing past fifty employees and makes hiring workers more expensive, but if people cannot get jobs then they will rely on government to take care of them (and vote Democrat).
In fact, while total employment is finally above its pre-recession high by 233,000 jobs, that is because of the increase in part-time jobs which are up by 2.9 million. So while I am bragging about the job gains, I may have failed to mention how many of them are part-time. I definitely didn’t tell you that the shift to part-time work has a lot to do with companies avoiding Obamacare requirements. So you may not have enough money to support your family, but I will give you subsidized health insurance.
My policies are achieving their goals. Dependency is way up and labor force participation is way down. In fact, dependency is the fastest growing sector of the economy.  We have increased the number of people on SNAP (what used to be called food stamps) by 16 million, the number on Social Security disability by 1.5 million (a 20 percent increase), and increased the number of people onMedicaid by 9 million even before the expansion of Medicaid under Obamacare (we are still trying to count up those new government dependents; the new total should be about 12 million more people on Medicaid). The more people who are dependent on the government, the better. Obamacare is building on that model. Now millions more people rely at least partially on the government to pay for their health care. Are those people every going to vote for a smaller (Republican) government? I don’t think so. We used to just be able to scare seniors into voting for us by telling them that Republicans wanted to cut their Social Security, but now we have over 160 million people getting some kind of government check. That is over half the country (about 52 percent) and means there is a potential majority of voters we can bribe into voting our way by promising them bigger benefits.
Of course, none of this was free. After calling President George W. Bush unpatriotic for running up the national debt so much during his eight years, I have made him look positively frugal. The national debt is up $7 trillion while I have been President. By the time I am done, half of the national debt will have been run up in just my eight years. That debt is now equal to $55,000 per person.
But don’t worry about the fact that you owe somebody (China) all that money, because that is small change compared to the total liabilities of all our promises. If you factor in all the unfunded future costs of Medicare and Social Security, the federal government really owes about $127 trillion. That computes to about $1.1 million per tax return filed. So every married couple or single person filing a return owes $1.1 million. Since such a sum could never actually be paid, some future president and Congress are going to have to break some of those promises.
The huge pile of debt I built up means that interest rates have to stay low or the federal budget deficit would be even bigger than it is already. Unfortunately, the record low interest rates (thanks, Federal Reserve, for the assist) make it less expensive to automate production and replace workers with machines. Sure, low interest rates are hard on people who try to be responsible and save money. But remember, I want dependency, not self-sufficiency. Making it hard to earn money on your savings works in my favor. After all, the Reagan boom happened with interest rates on ten year Treasuries of 7 to 9 percent and the Clinton boom was during a period of 5 to 7 percent interest rates. Clearly, the economy and workers can do well without the Fed pushing down interest rates, but where is the gain for big government in that?

Finally, I would like to admit that my calls for a higher minimum wage have much more to do with pleasing my union supporters and lovers of income redistribution than any desire to help poor people. To help the poor, a much more effective tool is the Earned Income Tax Credit as none of that money goes to teenager minimum wage workers living in middle class or upper-middle class families. Raising the minimum wage to the $10.10/hour I proposed willredistribute about $100 billion while raising only 900,000 people out of poverty. That is an expensive policy. In fact, more money will go to families that earn over $60,000 per year than to families in poverty. However, many union contracts contain clauses for automatic raises whenever the federal minimum wage is increased, so the big gains will be for the unions who contribute so many millions of dollars to Democrat politicians.
In conclusion, my policies have led to more part-time jobs, more people collecting government benefits, a flat median household income (adjusted for inflation), and rewards and freebies for those who do little or nothing while productive and high-achieving people are punished with higher taxes. While campaigning, I openly stated that I favored income redistribution even if it hurt economic growth. Consider that one campaign promise kept."

Now that was refreshing.  But again, it would be painful and costly to the president and his party.

To be fair, this isn't a Democratic or Republican thing.  They all deceive us for their own gain. I just thought I get the obvious one out of the way.    

I should note that, as you might expect, Jim Carrey's character, as well as everyone around him, was much better off as a result of his forced honesty.  That fact wasn't lost on Carrey's character, who made a conscious effort to continue his truthful ways after the wish had expired.

Here's to the day when politicians and their constituents get the courage to tell, hear, and act on, the truth.

Let the wishing begin in the meantime.



Thursday, October 30, 2014

My Stock Market Crystal Ball Sees Double Digit Percentage Gains Ahead ... I May Be Wrong But So What? ... It's Fun Making Predictions

After the Federal Reserve met yesterday, it confirmed its view that the U.S. economic recovery continues to strengthen, albeit at a slower than normal historical pace, and that inflation is simply not a concern. For those reasons and more, we can expect interest rates to remain low for at least another year, even though the Fed has finally decided to end its historically unique bond-buying program.

Taken as a whole, the Fed's decisions yesterday were not surprising. The U.S. economy is now growing steadily and sufficiently to provide much needed jobs and continue to reduce unemployment over time. See Fed Ends Bond Buys, Sticks to 'Considerable Time' on Rates.

While nobody, including the Fed, knows precisely what will happen to the U.S. economy and its growth rate in the future, it is highly likely that we will witness ~3% annualized growth during the rest of 2014 and 2015 as well.

With some considerable conviction, I believe that stock prices will rise over that timeframe as well.  So while many market 'experts' will continue to debate on a daily basis not if but exactly when the inevitable 'correction' and downturn in stock prices will occur, my investment strategy is not based on that outcome either for the rest of 2014 or the beginning months of 2015.

Although prices will likely remain highly volatile and may fall during the next few days or even weeks, my personal crystal ball says that stocks (including dividends) will likely rise by this year's end and by a total of 10% and perhaps as much as 15% over the next 18 months or so. But how do I know that prices will rise at all, let alone by 10% or 15%, between now and the end of 2015? I don't know, of course. But that's where I see things headed, and that's how I'm investing my own money --- not in bonds and not in cash, but in the stocks of high quality companies.

So now that I've revealed to you (with total humility, I might add) what my crystal ball says, let's look at why anyone's market predictions, including mine, should always be greeted with more than a healthy dose of skepticism.

The Timeless Allure of Stock-Market Timers is subtitled 'Many investors know better than to rely on bold market forecasts. But they can't turn away.' Here's a sampling of the insightful article's contents:

"Twelve days ago, as the broader U.S. stock market was in the midst of its first sharp decline in years, popular newsletter editor Dennis Gartman appeared on a CNBC show and advised viewers to prepare for a bear market.
“You stay in cash and you stay in short-term bonds and you don’t move out,” Gartman advised viewers before adding “this is the start of a bear market, and it could last for several more months I’m afraid.”
But stocks quickly turned around and began to move toward the heights last seen in September. A chastened Gartman admitted late last week on another CNBC show that his bear-market call was all wrong. However, he’s still not willing to go long, instead maintaining a “neutral” position on the market as a whole, according to a report on Gartman’s rapid change of heart.
Asked by CNBC what he missed about the current character of the market, he replied “I’m not sure what I missed. I really don’t know…. I’ve never seen anything like the last two weeks.”. . .
But it would be wrong to just pick on Gartman. He is just one of a long list of market pundits who attempt to do what many respected investment minds argue is impossible—predict with some degree of confidence where stocks as a whole are heading and then often recommend a sharp shift in one’s asset allocation to play a bull or bear scenario. . . .
Market timers will often use stock charts, fundamental analysis, or economic trends to divine where stocks are heading in the coming months. . . . Even Jim Cramer, a popular pundit with CNBC and TheStreet known mostly for individual stock predictions, will occasionally make broad market timing calls.
But many seasoned investors, including Warren Buffett, argue that it’s a big mistake to shift radically in and out of stocks based on nothing more than an educated guess about what the future will bring. The future, after all, is a complex beast to behold, with an incalculable number of shifting variables. . . .
And financial news organizations from CNBC to print and digital news outlets are all too happy to give viewers and readers what they seem to want. Besides, if publications, Websites, and television networks simply told investors to buy and hold, with periodic rebalancing, it would be that much harder to fill pages and airtime. . . .

Only one in four . . . market timers succeeded in turning a small profit over the last five-and-a-half years and, therefore, beat a buy-and-hold strategy. . . .  
(One sage market follower simply says ) “The knock about market timing is that you have to get out at the right time and then get back in time near the bottom. . . . Even among those few who get out at the right time, they don’t get back in at the right time.”"
Summing Up

I'm in no way a short term oriented market timer, but instead essentially a long term buy and hold investor in individual blue chip, dividend growing stocks.

That said, I'm optimistic about the direction of the stock market in the short to intermediate term for several fundamental reasons. And the most important reason by far is that in the long haul stock prices rise. Accordingly, short term market moves will simply not impact whether or how I invest.

But in addition to my long held, long term optimistic view on stocks, several short term conditions favorable to the U.S. economy also cause me to be bullish right now.

Some of those reasons for optimism are the following: (1) the U.S. economy is steadily getting stronger; (2) jobs are growing and the unemployment problem is getting better; (3) inflation is not a concern; (4) interest rates are going to remain relatively low for the foreseeable future; (5) energy prices are low and going lower; (6)  the U.S. dollar will remain strong; and (7) imports and commodity prices will be lower.

Thus, while each and all of the above seven factors will contribute to higher consumer confidence and spending  levels, there is one more reason to be optimistic --- a new U.S. Congress is about to be elected, and this one can't be any worse than the one it will replace.

And there's more. As the single best place in the world to invest, the U.S. will continue to attract foreign buyers as our relatively higher interest rates (even though they will remain very low in an absolute sense) and general prosperity will cause the U.S. to be the best and safest place for investments.

And finally, in the short run, seasonal  factors like the annual year end stock market rally should help the cause.

So while admittedly I may be very wrong about all this short to medium term stock market forecast, I'm certainly not confused. Not even a little bit.

That's my take and my very fallible human and humble stock market forecast as well.

Thanks. Bob.

Ebola Is Real


 — The two girls had nursed their mother as she died, cleaning up her vomit and curling up against her feverish body on the family’s only mattress. They braided her hair until a truck came for the corpse.
Now, as Ebola leapt from house to house in this sprawling slum, it seemed inevitable that Princess, 13, and Georgina, 12, would soon come down with the disease themselves. Unless someone intervened, they would be the next links in an endless chain of transmission that was destroying New Kru Town.
It was Bobby Pomney’s job to intervene.
Pomney is a “contact tracer” for the Liberian government. When he arrived on a sweltering morning earlier this month, Mary Nyanford’s body was being driven away. Princess was screaming for her mother. Tears were running down Georgina’s cheeks.
“These girls need to be isolated,” said Pomney, a slim, bald man, sweat beading on his forehead.
There may be only one way to halt the worst Ebola outbreak in history: find the disease’s victims, strictly quarantine them and monitor everyone with whom they interacted.
When Thomas Eric Duncan tested positive for Ebola in Dallas, U.S. authorities dispatched a team to identify everyone with whom he might have made physical contact. In a few days, they created a list of more than 120 people. Another team found 142 people who had contact with Amber Vinson, a nurse who became infected. Those measures appear to have kept Ebola from spreading in the United States.
But doing contact tracing and enforcing quarantines in a place like New Kru Town is a different story. Everything here is shared: mattresses, toilets, food, the burden of caring for the ill. Pomney, 43, was from a slum himself, and he knew the odds he would face as he kept watch over the two little girls.  Or at least, on that Monday morning, he thought he did.
New Kru Town is a maze of sheet-metal shanties built on a small peninsula, about a mile long and a half-mile wide, that juts into the Atlantic. Depending on whom you ask, the population is 20,000 or 50,000. It’s a place with open sewers and swarms of mosquitoes that seems as if it was constructed to facilitate the spread of disease. It is an overwhelmingly difficult place to do contact tracing.
“I know this is my job,” Pomney would later say. “But I don’t think it works here.”
Tracking the risks
The day after Mary Nyanford’s body was carried away, Pomney returned with a clipboard and rain boots. He started writing down the names of people who had had physical contact with her while she was sick.
First came her daughters, Princess and Georgina. Their father, a security guard, had been sent to an Ebola treatment center weeks earlier, and the girls were left to take care of their mother when she became ill and refused to go to a hospital.
Within an hour, Pomney had written the names of eight people.
“But there are really around 30,” he said, “or maybe more.”
Some people he visited wouldn’t give their names. Others denied that they had been around Nyanford, apparently to avoid being ordered into the 21-day quarantine, even though it wasn’t enforced.
“You all want to quarantine us, but how we going to eat? How we going to pee?” Cleo Tobar asked.
Perhaps there was reason, though, to be hopeful about the two girls. The disease had been raging across Liberia for seven months. The girls had heard what it could do to a person’s body. They had listened to warnings on the radio. They had seen billboards that pronounced, “Ebola is real.”
In her sixth-grade class, Princess had been taught by her teacher, Mr. Ballah, that “you can’t touch each other anymore.” A community health worker distributed latex gloves in the area. When her mother got sick, Princess slipped on a pair.“It was to be safe,” she explained later.
But the gloves eventually became dirty. And when her mother got really sick, Princess forgot about them.
The day after their mother died, the girls’ eyes were glassy. Pomney couldn’t tell if it was from crying or something else. He looked at the girls. He wondered if the symptoms were starting to show.
“You got a fever?” he asked.
Both girls offered a muffled no. But Pomney didn’t have a thermometer. No one did in New Kru Town. If the girls were infected, they would probably become contagious long before they were sent to a hospital. It made the quarantine critical.
Pomney rattled through a list of what the girls had to do.
“You guys need to stay here. You can’t play or run around for 21 days,” he said. “My aim is to get you early treatment if you’re sick.”
The girls looked at the ground and nodded.
Pomney thought he had covered everything. He never thought to ask them where they had stayed the previous night.
Rules and reality
In a health professional’s world, this is quarantine: No socializing with other people. No sharing food. No sharing a bathroom. Ebola is spread through the bodily fluids of highly infected people, and their vomit, urine and mucus can accumulate in bathrooms.
This is the world of Princess and Georgina: They share an outdoor toilet, without running water, with 25 other people. In their slum, 15 members of an extended family often sleep in one home. As for their shack, it had been locked by the body-collection team after their mother’s body was removed, a precaution to keep people away from infected items. The team had also burned the family’s mattress. So the girls had spent the previous night with their grandmother, who lives across the unpaved alleyway. She, too, had Ebola.
Pomney didn’t know this until someone pointed to the shanty and said, “They got a sick person in there.”
Pomney looked at her through the doorway. The girls’ grandmother, Miriam Nyanford, had covered her naked body with a bedsheet and was breathing heavily. On the wall someone had scrawled, “The Blood of Jesus Must Prevail.”
“You all didn’t call an ambulance?” he asked members of the family who had gathered in front of the house.
“We called one but it never came,” a man said.
Pomney called an ambulance from his cellphone. He turned to the girls, who were sitting in chairs outside their home and using sticks to draw in the dirt.
“That’s indirect contact,” he said, exasperated. “You can’t be staying with her.”
“Where else they going to sleep?” a neighbor asked.
Scientists use formulas to map Ebola’s transmission vectors and its exponential infection rate. But New Kru Town is a place where you can watch the virus’s web grow outward in real time.
Every day that Pomney returned, he was approached by someone reporting a new case: a corpse that had been left on a mattress for three days until it started to decay, the body of an 11-month-old boy, a young man with a high fever who sat zombielike in front of his house.
“This whole area is infected,” he said.
Pomney was left with hardly any contacts to trace, except for the two little girls whom everyone watched, waiting for symptoms to emerge.
‘Pampering, not hardness’
On the third day of their quarantine, the girls played hopscotch with friends on a patch of sand between homes. They played checkers until Georgina got bored. They played with a little dog. They spoke about their mother.
“My mom bought me whatever I wanted. She bought me clothes,” said Princess, who wore a pink sundress.
“She bought me food,” Georgina said, “any kind of food I liked.”
They had heard about Ebola on the radio and in school, but it remained a mysterious, alien force. The men in moon suits aren’t health-care workers, they’re ghosts, Princess said. Ebola isn’t just a virus, it’s an evil spirit that takes over your body. To the girls, quarantine wasn’t a public health precaution, it was something that might leave you alone and hungry.
And being alone was a terrifying new possibility. Since her mother died, Princess had had the same dream: She’s washing her feet in front of the family’s house when her mother suddenly appears. Her mom starts running, and Princess chases her through the sandy streets of New Kru Town. When Princess wakes up, it’s the middle of the night and she’s lying on the floor.
Princess and Georgina continued to sleep in the same rooms as their friends and relatives, and sat in large groups, sharing oranges and cookies.
“These girls are supposed to be in quarantine, but they’re running around with other children,” Pomney screamed when he arrived to check on them one morning.
“Everyone here is going to get infected,” he said.
Then, almost on cue, someone came up to him.“Bobby, we got a sick person over here,” the man said.
Pomney sighed and walked to the home pointed out by the man. Another member of the contact tracing team, John Shagbeh, joined him.
When they got to the house, a few yards from where Mary Nyanford had died, a man in his early 20s was sitting with a hoodie covering his head, staring blankly.
“This guy needs to go to the hospital,” Shagbeh said.
“We went to the doctor. He said it’s yellow fever,” the man’s mother said.
The contact tracers didn’t believe her. Many people in New Kru Town are desperate to avoid Ebola treatment centers, which they see as dangerous.
“If you don’t go to the hospital, we will call the police on you,” Shagbeh shouted. “You need to accept that this man is infected.”
A crowd had gathered. Shagbeh and the sick man’s mother continued shouting at each other while the man with either yellow fever or Ebola sat in his sweatshirt in the 100-degree heat.
Then a man from the local UNICEF team, Chris Dassen, arrived.
“These people need pampering, not hardness,” he said to Shagbeh. “We don’t need the police.”
Shagbeh walked away.
“There’s nothing the government of Liberia can do to enforce this quarantine,” he said.
An overwhelmed system
In Nigeria, where there were 20 confirmed or probable cases of Ebola in July, tracers created a list of 894 contacts of the patients, and isolated and monitored them. Health workers conducted 18,500 face-to-face visits. Last week, the country was declared Ebola-free.
Now, in New York, officials are scouring the city to find anyone who might have had contact with Craig Spencer, a doctor, since he came down with the disease.“The way to stop Ebola in its tracks is contact tracing,” Tom Frieden, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said this month.
In the United States, four people have fallen ill with Ebola.
But in Liberia, where more than 4,600 people have been diagnosed with the disease since March, improvised contact tracing teams were formed only after Ebola had spread widely. There could be tens of thousands of contacts scattered across slums like New Kru Town.
The country’s public health system was almost nonexistent even before Ebola. In the United States, many contact tracers have advanced degrees in public health. In Liberia, they are former students or shopkeepers or security guards. Until June, Pomney sold stationery.
Liberia’s contact tracers are supposed to make daily checks on victims’ friends, relatives and neighbors, beginning as soon as the cases are identified. But in New Kru Town, the tracers said, it typically takes about 10 days before the process even begins. By that time, more people have typically developed symptoms.
Some days, no one came to check on Princess and Georgina. The girls walked around the area freely. They played with a headless Barbie doll in front of their home, where a flier on the wall advertised a lottery.
“Your American dream starts here,” it said. “Win and live in the USA.”
A survivor’s struggle
Five days into their quarantine, the girls’ father suddenly returned. He was skinny and weak, wearing tattered clothes. He struggled to speak above a gravelly whisper.
“Nyanford Christopher has recovered from the Ebola Virus and is no longer infectious,” it said.He held a piece of paper bearing the letterhead of Doctors Without Borders, a nonprofit group treating Ebola victims.
But there was no celebration. Nyanford learned that his wife had died. He learned that his mother was now in the hospital and his daughters had nowhere to sleep. He sat on the stoop of his home and hung his head.
Then he looked at Princess and Georgina, sitting next to him.
“I cannot conclude if they are okay or not,” he said.
Nyanford forced open the door of his home that the body-collection team had locked. He saw the burned mattress.
“How I am supposed to take care of my family now?” he asked.
In the shack next door, the body of his sister, Alice Jallah, had been lying in a room for two days. The ambulance still hadn’t come. The family had locked the room but left the radio on inside, with the corpse.
That morning, through the thin metal walls, a public-service announcement blared into the ravaged neighborhood.
“Wash your hands with chlorine and report all cases,” the man’s voice said. “If we do these things we can prevent ourselves from getting Ebola.”
‘A matter of time’
“How are you coming on?” Pomney asked the girls, six days after their mother died.
Each morning when he showed up in New Kru Town, he expected that it would be the day they started showing symptoms. But again, the girls said they were doing fine. There were no clear signs that they had contracted the disease.
It was Sunday, and the voices of church choirs rose above New Kru Town. The sermons were all about the spread of Ebola. Some pastors blamed the government for responding so slowly. Others blamed the people for refusing to take sick relatives to the hospital.“You can’t quarantine people here. We’re all intertwined,” said Aloysius Nimely, the pastor of Garden Street Temple Bible Wheel Church.
As families attended church services, Pomney was running between houses. In three hours, he had heard about three new bodies. His job is not to remove the dead, but he was the only representative of the Liberian government in the slum, and he decided he had to do something.
He called the body-collection team. He waited with the families. He took out his clipboard and tried to diagram the web of physical contacts orbiting the deceased. Each time, he got a few names, and then he gave up. The circles were too wide. There were too many people who didn’t want to give their names or didn’t want to admit that they had had contact with the dead.
Exactly one week after Mary Nyanford’s body was driven away, Pomney walked by Princess and Georgina, who were sitting in a circle with relatives.
“It’s only a matter of time,” he said. “One day, they’re going to get it.”

There's no way to read that article and not reflect on just how good we have it here in America.  Despite some early keystone cop-like mis-steps and some continued politicizing, the response from our health officials has been stellar. But there is a warning in here for us that we should surely heed. Hubris and Ebola are both real and we would do well to act accordingly.  That means we should take every possible precaution in preventing one more case - even if it means grounding West African flights and temporarily quarantining aid workers returning from the hot zone.  Keep them comfortable but keep them isolated

The best outcome would be for the famous first six Ebola patients treated in America to be the only six.  The next best would be that there are so few additional cases that all the new patients become famous as well.  And the worst outcome would be a total loss of control, like in Liberia, where the names of the newly infected would begin to become unfamiliar to us. 

The first two outcomes reflect our recognition of Ebola's realness.  The last would reflect our failure to acknowledge the same about hubris.



Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Balancing Priorities ... Houses and Cars and 401(K)s ... The 'Seen' and the 'Unseen'

It's all too often the case that we mistakenly place a high value on some relatively insignificant 'here and now' things, while not taking the time or make the effort to deal with other and much more important 'later on' things.

And that mistaken set of priorities is the result of our very human tendency to value the 'precious present' at the expense of what we mistakenly think of as the 'far off future.' In addition, 'how things look' to peers and family may make us concerned unduly with appearances and keeping up with the Joneses, even though the Joneses probably aren't keeping up with the needs of their future selves either. In other words, our 'here and now' younger years of adulthood are often dangerous to our financial well being in the 'later on' years.

Yes, we tend to notice our neighbor's new car and perhaps envy the house in which our co-worker resides. Then we tell ourselves that we deserve to have those things too. Call it the curse of the 'seen,'  because frequently what's visible and 'owned' by others is what we want for ourselves. When we see our neighbor or co-worker with an expensive house or car, for example, we are prone to borrow the money to follow the example and that's when we make a life altering mistake. Making matters even worse, these mistakes are often invisible to all concerned, including us.

But what about 'seeing' the equally if not more important 'unseen' future stuff that we need, and which isn't visible to others --- such 'unseen' stuff as the burdensome debt associated with purchasing these 'visible' but attractive houses, cars and other big ticket items? And even more important, what about the 'unseen' 401(k) balances because we decided to buy those expensive houses and cars in lieu of saving for the future?

We need balance in our financial lives, and we need to learn to place an equal emphasis on the visible and the invisible, as well as an appropriate balance on the here and now in relation to our future needs.

Living Your True Wealth tells it like it is for too many of us, unfortunately:

"How much money do you make?

If this question immediately makes you uncomfortable, you’re not alone. . . . We’re not comfortable talking about money. We’ve been taught that it’s rude. Even more important, we may be afraid of what the numbers say about us.

This issue came to mind about the same time my teenage son started to notice cars. He’s become familiar with many of the high-end makes and models. . . . It also didn’t surprise me when I started to hear him say things like, “That guy must have a lot of money if he’s driving that car.”

We may be very uncomfortable sharing with others our wealth in numbers. We’ve gotten really good, however, at building a material world around us that implies something about our wealth, even if the reality is something else entirely. We’ve gotten so good at it that we often treat these material things as a sign of our success. In reality, they aren’t a measure, or substitute, for any sort of real success. . . .

What would happen . . . if we had to walk around with our true wealth flashing as a number above our heads? It would be the end of consumerism . . . . Why would you need to buy something to represent wealth if everyone knew exactly what you were worth already? . . .

I don’t blame anyone for valuing their privacy or seeing their income as something to keep private. But that silence comes at a cost, and I believe it’s one worth exploring. . . .

Remember my son’s comment about the drivers of expensive cars? You probably know at least a couple of people who put on a fantastic display of wealth even though they don’t have much. They are so concerned about appearing successful that they make buying decisions that get in the way of long-term financial success.

It may never happen, but our relationship with money would change considerably if our financial decisions were transparent to the world. For instance, what would change if the car we drive or the home in which we live could no longer hide that we’ve saved nothing for retirement? Would it be easier to focus on the financial choices that help us instead of hurt us?...

Do you find yourself still doing things that just look good, or are you doing things that actually are good for you? Do you find it easier to be your authentic self? And, perhaps most important of all, do you now understand the difference between buying the trappings of success and actual success?"
Summing Up

What isn't seen or visible to others, our future well being, is often what should be of utmost concern to us.

Our financial well being later in life very much depends on acting in a financially responsible manner throughout adulthood.

That responsibility requires that we embrace the habit of saving and investing while young in order that we can still enjoy life down the road.

Focusing only on the sizes of our cars and houses, while ignoring debt levels and credit card balances during our younger years, and not setting money aside in a 401(k), can never match the personal satisfaction of knowing that we are doing what's necessary and proper for our future financial comfort and well being. 

That's my take.

Thanks. Bob.

Gangster Goverment

A week out from the elections, voter suppression remains a rallying cry for many in the Democratic party. In essence, those making the voter suppression argument claim that voter identification laws disproportionately affect minorities, who are less likely to have proper ID and more likely to lack the means to obtain the required documents. These arguments have persisted despite the fact that minorities turned out in record numbers in states like Georgia where the laws are in effect.  In case you missed the story that was reported just prior to the 2012 elections, here's how The Atlanta Journal and Constitution reported what happened in the Peach State as a result of Jim Crow's supposed homecoming:
"...Georgia first adopted a voter ID law in 2005 and won court approval to implement it in 2007. The law has now been in place for two major statewide general elections: 2008, when the presidential race was on the ballot, and 2010, when voters selected a new governor. Prior to the new law, voters had been able to present one of 17 forms of identification, including a utility bill.
Elections data reviewed by the AJC show that participation among black voters rose by 44 percent from 2006 — before the law was implemented — to 2010. For Hispanics, the increase for the same period was 67 percent. Turnout among whites rose 12 percent...."
If that's what suppression yields, I say we should have more of it.  

That's said, I blogged about what I thought voter suppression really looked like a week or so ago. To find what I thought was legitimate evidence, I ended up going all the way back to the mid 1960's and the segregated South.  As it turns out, I needn't have fired up the time machine at all. George Will, writing for the Washington Post,  explains why in an article titled, "The Nastiest Political Tactic This Year":
"The early-morning paramilitary-style raids on citizens’ homes were conducted by law enforcement officers, sometimes wearing bulletproof vests and lugging battering rams, pounding on doors and issuing threats. Spouses were separated as the police seized computers, including those of children still in pajamas. Clothes drawers, including the children’s, were ransacked, cellphones were confiscated and the citizens were told that it would be a crime to tell anyone of the raids.
Some raids were precursors of, others were parts of, the nastiest episode of this unlovely political season, an episode that has occurred in an unlikely place. This attempted criminalization of politics to silence people occupying just one portion of the political spectrum has happened in Wisconsin, which often has conducted robust political arguments with Midwestern civility.From the progressivism of Robert La Follette to the conservatism of Gov. Scott Walker (R) today, Wisconsin has been fertile soil for conviction politics. Today, the state’s senators are the very conservativeRon Johnson (R) and the very liberal Tammy Baldwin (D). Now, however, Wisconsin, which to its chagrin produced Sen. Joe McCarthy (R), has been embarrassed by Milwaukee County’s Democratic district attorney, John Chisholm. He has used Wisconsin’s uniquely odious “John Doe” process to launch sweeping and virtually unsupervised investigations while imposing gag orders to prevent investigated people from defending themselves or rebutting politically motivated leaks.

According to several published reports, Chisholm told subordinates that his wife, a teachers union shop steward at her school, is anguished by her detestation of Walker’s restrictions on government employee unions, so Chisholm considers it his duty to help defeat Walker.
In collaboration with Wisconsin’s misbegotten Government Accountability Board, which exists to regulate political speech, Chisholm has misinterpreted Wisconsin campaign law in a way that looks willful. He has done so to justify a “John Doe” process that has searched for evidence of “coordination” between Walker’s campaign and conservative issue advocacy groups.
On Oct. 14, much too late in the campaign season to rescue the political-participation rights of conservative groups, a federal judge affirmed what Chisholm surely has known all along: Since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling 38 years ago, the only coordination that is forbidden is between candidates and independent groups that go beyond issue advocacy to “express advocacy” — explicitly advocating the election or defeat of a particular candidate.
But Chisholm’s aim — to have a chilling effect on conservative speech — has been achieved by bombarding Walker supporters with raids and subpoenas: Instead of raising money to disseminate their political speech, conservative individuals and groups, harassed and intimidated, have gone into a defensive crouch, raising little money and spending much money on defensive litigation. Liberal groups have not been targeted for their activities that are indistinguishable from those of their conservative counterparts.
Such misbehavior takes a toll on something that already is in short supply: belief in government’s legitimacy. The federal government’s most intrusive and potentially punitive institution, the IRS, unquestionably worked for Barack Obama’s reelection by suppressing activities by conservative groups. Would he have won if the government he heads had not impeded political participation by many opposition groups? We will never know.
Would the race between Walker and Democrat Mary Burke be as close as it is if a process susceptible to abuse had not been so flagrantly abused to silence groups on one side of Wisconsin’s debate? Surely not.
Gangster government — Michael Barone’s description of using government machinery to punish political opponents or reward supporters — has stained Wisconsin, illustrating this truth: The regulation of campaigns in the name of political hygiene (combating “corruption” or the “appearance” of it) inevitably involves bad laws and bad bureaucracies susceptible to abuse by bad people.Because of Chisholm’s recklessness, the candidate he is trying to elect, Burke, can only win a tainted victory, and if she wins she will govern with a taint of illegitimacy. No known evidence demonstrates any complicity in ­Chisholm’s scheme, but in a smarmy new ad she exploits his manufactured atmosphere of synthetic scandal in a manner best described as McCarthyite. Indeed, one probable purpose of Chisholm’s antics was to generate content for anti-Walker ads.
Wisconsin can repair its reputation by dismantling the “John Doe” process and disciplining those who have abused it. About one of them, this can be said: Having achieved political suppression by threatening criminal liability based on vague theories of “coordination,” Chisholm has inadvertently but powerfully made the case for deregulating politics."
Now that's government-sponsored voter suppression the way it should be done.  Don't even leave the opposing side anyone to vote for.  And while you're trying to have the candidate you don't like thrown in jail, threaten everyone around him with jail time as well so they won't have time to help get him elected
Surely Mr. Chisolm has broken some law and should be thrown in jail right?  In the very least, he has violated the public trust and should be removed from office right?  Where is the national outcry for the citizens whose rights have been trampled upon?  Where's the Justice Department?  Where's Reverend Al, defender of the downtrodden? 
And one last question, what if the situation were reversed and the suppression had been aimed exclusively at the other party?  My guess is there'd be an outcry, a Justice Department, and a Reverend all in the mix.
But, I could be wrong.