Sunday, March 8, 2009

45 - Answers

Q: Lisa Jeffers - Can I go on disability until this baby decides to come out?
A: I believe that if you have a medical need you can go on disability prior to giving birth to your daughter. What exactly "medical need" means is unclear to me, though. If your doctor said that you needed full bed rest then I'm sure that qualifies. General discomfort? That's probably pushing it a bit. I've never been pregnant so I can't speak to how much discomfort it causes, and thus what the line between normal discomfort and disability-level discomfort isn't something I can speak to. I suppose that if you said that you were having trouble doing your job then you could probably go on disability until your daughter is born.

Another answer to the problem is to negotiate with your employer for more time for maternity leave. You could negotiate it such that you get, for example, two weeks prior to your due date plus the time after the birth, which according to is 12 weeks in the state of New York. As an unmarried childless male I admit that this isn't something I think about. I know that my employer has a policy about parental leave but I have no idea what it is. I could learn with a simple phone call to HR, and that's something I'll do in time.

Q: Bill Jeffers - Do you know any doctors who will sign off on me going on disbility forever? I think I want to start milking the system like half the rest of the country.
A: Other than Dr. Nick, no, I don't.

Further, I don't believe that "half the rest of the country" is "milking the system". It does seem that way from the amount of noise we hear from the media about bailouts and foreclosures and the rest of it. But I think that most of the country is playing by the rules and doing the right things. The question is should they? I don't have a good answer right now. If only someone would ask me...

Q: Lisa Jeffers - Only half of the country, Bill?

Okay a real question: Why do we (as in the middle class) continue to respect a financial system that obviously favors the people that make morally and financially stupid choices? Am I naive/uninformed, or does it make more sense right now to buy a house that is way out of your price range, don't make payments on it, and get bailed out?

A: Well look at that, someone asked! Thanks, Lisa!

The cynical answer is that yes, you should absolutely just take advantage of the system. When you and Bill were house shopping you should have gone for something that was at least twice as expensive as you could afford. Then when you started to fall behind on your payments you should have just stopped paying. After all, it's your right to have a house, right? (Notice that I said "have", not "own".) And by a strange coincidence, your decision to stop paying your mortgage would have coincided with the government's decision to bail out people exactly like you. So you would have successfully milked the system. Congratulations.

But I don't want to be cynical. I want to try and handle this rationally. So let me tackle your question a piece at a time.

First, the term "middle class" is one that is thrown around a lot, and since I'm a big believer that language needs to be clarified I want to talk about it for a minute. I would guess that the vast majority of American citizens believe themselves to be in the middle class, regardless of how much money they make. I believe that this is because they want to be part of the majority of the country. If you're "middle class" then you're just a normal, hard-working American. You're not one of those evil rich people (who probably screwed you to get rich), but you're also not poor. It's a psychological need, and there's really nothing wrong with it. But it can lead to some interesting class warfare discourse.

Since that's not the point of your question, though, I won't go into further discussion here. The point to keep in mind is that "middle class" means different things in different parts of the country due to the differences in cost of living. A couple living in New York City may make $300,000/year and be middle class, while another couple living in Kansas City, Kansas may make $80,000/year and also be middle class. The thing to remember is that those people in Kansas probably see $300,000/year as being rich.

I realize that all of this may be obvious and that it might sound like I'm talking down to you. I don't mean to. I just wanted to say it anyway to keep it fresh in your minds.

Second, I disagree with your assertion that we have "a financial system that obviously favors the people that make morally and financially stupid choices." Your sentiment is correct but I think that your anger is a little misdirected. Left alone I believe that the financial system would have performed just fine and that the "crisis" that we find ourselves in would have been avoided completely. How can I say that? As I see it the problem is not the financial system. It's the political system. And I say that in a non-partisan way as you'll see in the argument that follows.

Politicians during the 1990s and 2000s felt that the dream of owning a home (the so-called American Dream) was out of reach to too many people in the country. If more people owned homes as a result of the actions of politicians, then those people would vote for the politicians. Cynical? Yes. Accurate? Also yes. These politicians decided to put pressure on banks and lending institutions like Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac (which are both government entities) to loosen lending practices.

The result?
1. More and more people began to buy homes, which caused a rise in home values thanks to the age-old economic law of supply and demand.
2. That rise in home values led to even more buyers entering the market. People were told that their home would increase in value, and thus that they should buy more house than they thought they could afford. The rise in value would make up the difference, and you could just turn around and sell the house for a big profit.
3. That led to people "flipping" houses, and to speculators risking big to buy houses on the theory that the values would just keep going up and up.

But what goes up must ultimately come down. People gradually stopped buying houses which caused home values to start to drop. The homeowners who had bought more than they could afford suddenly found themselves "under water", meaning that they had a mortgage that was more than the value of their home. They then began to stop paying, which caused banks to start to fail. Credit supplies dried up, which caused more problems and have led us to where we are today.

Now for our first moral issue: is the blame for the housing boom and bust on the buyer or on the seller? Is it with the person who bought more house than they could afford or with the lender who lent them the money? Remember, the lenders were being told to offer more people the chance at the American Dream. So did they do immoral things to meet that demand? Absolutely, and some blame lies with them. But in my opinion the majority of the blame lies with the people who signed mortgages for more than they could afford. Personal responsibility trumps all as I see it.

Having caused the problem in the first place politicians now see it as their duty to fix the problem. Which is very nice of them. But the reasons for fixing the problem are as cynical as what caused the problem int he first place. Bailing out people who made poor decisions is a sure way to keep them voting for you. "It's not your fault," they say, "it's those predatory lenders. They fooled you, tricked you!" Which is what people want to hear, after all. No one wants to be told that they screwed up. They just want their money back.

So after all that rambling, what's my answer? The way I look at it if you get bailed out by the government then the government in essence owns you. That which the government can give, the government can take away. It may seem like you should just start cheating and let the government bail you out. But if you do that then you're a slave to that same government. In addition there are still rules in place regarding lending. Those people who bought too much house and tried to live beyond their means will have difficulty getting loans in the future. Additionally there is growing public anger about this issue, and politicians respond to anger. Maybe they'll even get things right this time.

Finally, you're not "naive/uninformed". Quite the contrary. Your question is a good one. It shows that you've been paying attention and that you're angry at what you see as injustice. And no, I don't mean to patronize you by saying this. I'm happy that people are paying attention. It makes for good questions for me to answer.

Q: Eric Democko - Continuing with the beer and porn theme, should the government (federal or state) legalize marijuana?
A: You've hit on one of the issues where my libertarianism meets my social conservatism. These are the issues that I find I have the most trouble resolving, so thanks for the opportunity to think and muse about it.

First, let's get the disclaimer out of the way: I have not ever used marijuana. [Ed: You mean you didn't inhale? No, I mean I've never inhaled, exhaled, toked up, or anything else.] I have been around people under the influence and have observed its impact. I also know the stereotypes and cultural significance of the drug. But a user I am not, so my ramblings on the subject are going to be a little uninformed from that point of view.

The libertarian in me says, "Sure, legalize pot. What do I care what people do to themselves?" If someone wants to smoke themselves into oblivion it doesn't directly affect my life, and thus I don't really care. There may be indirect costs in the same way there are indirect costs for smokers and drinkers, but if I take a hands-off standpoint on those, then why not pot too?

A second argument in favor of legalizing marijuana is that it would free up law enforcement resources and the legal system. This is a compelling argument. Federal, state, and local governments spend millions (if not billions) of dollars every year prosecuting users of marijuana. If we just legalized pot then those dollars would be spent elsewhere. I would add that some of those dollars would be spent dealing with abuse of marijuana similar to the abuse of alcohol we have today, but the point is a valid one.

My socially conservative side asks, "What about the social ills caused by drug use?" It's a cliched argument, but not one that's invalid. Marijuana is a mind-altering substance. Prolonged use can have life-altering results. Do we want our society to condone the use of this substance? I won't go so far as to say that pot is a gateway drug that leads inexorably to harder drugs like cocaine, but by being permissive of one drug, why not others? A slippery-slope argument fits in this case. The day after pot is legalized there will be a movement to legalize all drugs. And that's something that is bad for society.

In my mind marijuana combines the worst aspects of smoking and alcohol use. You get the health impacts of smoke, plus the mind-altering impact of alcohol, all in one little joint. Yes, I know the impacts are different. And an argument can be made that if alcohol is legal, why not marijuana? It's not something I have a good answer for. In the end this is one of those issues where I let feelings rather than logic take over. I don't think that marijuana should be made legal, but I don't have strong rational reasons. I just feel it. Drugs are something that should not be encouraged, even "harmless" drugs like pot. By allowing one but not others we're opening ourselves up for some negative societal trends.

Below are a couple of websites on both sides of the issue:
Keep Illegal:

Q: Eric Democko - i just used the search feature on the blog- love it! thanks for putting everything up there. great resource
A: You're quite welcome. I'm slowly spreading my wings with this site. I've started posting on Facebook when I put up my answers in the hopes of generating more questions. Hopefully that forces me to answer questions faster and more concisely. [Ed: And better? What about better? That too.] I'm going back through all my answers and putting labels in for the various topics I've touched on. This is both for the reader and for my own bookkeeping. As I stated when I started this project I intend to write a book on questions, and some of the ones you've submitted will undoubtedly wind up getting some treatment.

Q: Tara - Question: Which is the better beer - Sam Adams White Ale or Harpoon 100 Barrel Series Maple Wheat?
A: I dislike wheat beers in general. I've had Sam Adams White Ale before, but not the Harpoon variety. I would guess that I would dislike them both equally, but since I'm biased towards Sam Adams in general I'll say that Sam Adams White Ale is better.

Q: Todd Nielson - Total newbie to Linux, particularly to Ubuntu (which you very kindly recommended). I downloaded the latest copy of Open Office, but I cannot for the life of me figure out how to install it. What do I gotta do?
A: Open Office should have come with the install of Ubuntu that you did. If you click "Applications -> Office" there should be "Document", "Spreadsheet", etc. If you did not install Open Office then the easiest way to do it is to go to "Applications -> Add/Remove". That takes you to the Ubuntu software management tool, which will get you access to all sorts of neat applications. Search for "Open Office" and you should find it right away. Good luck!

Q: Todd Nielson - What is Norwegian Wood? And, if not self-explanatory, how do you know if it is good or not?
A: As far as I can tell Norwegian Wood can be one of many things:

- A book by Haruki Murakami (found here)
- A song by the Beatles (information here
- A low-quality wood used to make cheap furniture.
- A euphemism for a variety of sexual acts including masturbation and lesbianism.

Without knowing which one you meant it's hard for me to answer the second part of your question. If you mean the book or song, I've never read the book or heard the song, so good is in the eye of the beholder on those. If you mean the wood that comes from trees, by definition it's not very good so I'd say if you can't break a piece of it over your knee then you're in good shape. If you mean the wood that comes from, um, well, other activities, then that's a little too subjective for me to answer.