October 21, 2016

Reboot: What Should It Take to Become President?

In a little over two weeks America will be choosing a new president, along with senators, representatives, and other government officials.  I think I can say, without contradiction, this has been the most unusual, outrageous, tense election cycle we have experienced. The differences between the two top candidates couldn't be starker.

Ten months ago I wrote the following post on what it should take to be president. What are the skills, basic approaches to governance, temperament, and experiences that the next leader of this country should possess?

I am rerunning that post again to see if what was said almost a year ago should be modified or changed in any way. Just like the last time, please don't turn this into a rant about either of the candidates running for president. I would hope that this list, along with your comments, can be re-run before the 2020 cycle to help us think through whatever those choices will be.

After a post late last year, Are We Really So Afraid?, a reader asked me to develop a job description for the office of president. The silliness of the debates, the sound-bite approach to picking a leader for our country and the difficulty in finding information that hasn't been pushed through a particular political or social filter made this a fascinating request.

After all, someone who applies for a position of leadership in a large company must be able to prove why he or she has the experience and temperament to get the job done. For a position with as many direct consequences on our daily life, shouldn't there be as careful an examination for president?

If we look at the last several decades, the answer would seem to be, No. Our Chief Executive is picked on emotional reactions or ideological feelings, the ability to raise huge sums of money, and having powerful friends both inside and outside government. Experience in managing people, effective decision-making, the ability to compromise for the good of all, and a moral center that prohibits losing sight of who and what we are as a company (or country), are great for the CEO of Intel or Google but don't seem to be part of how we choose a president.

So, in all humility, I offer the following as a basic job description for the office holder of the U.S. Presidency. This list is not all inclusive, but maybe a good start for discussion:

1) Understand that the president is the leader of all 320 million of us. The politics that gets someone elected cannot prevent that person from governing in a way that benefits us all. Purely partisan decisions must be left behind when entering the White House. 

2) Understand that democratic governance often requires compromise. That is how our system is designed to function. Unless we are willing to adopt an autocratic form of government, there must be the ability and temperament to compromise. Sometimes unpopular, hard decisions are required. At other times, they are counterproductive.

3) Understand the United States is part of a world economy and collection of 195 countries. Many have no interest in being like us. Some actively dislike us. Some are our friends when it suits their interests, or ours. Maybe it worked in the past, but today we can no longer tell others what to do and expect them to toe the line. To protect our interests you may have to act in a way that makes others angry. At the same time, cooperation and recognizing the rights of others to make their own choices are essential skills. Trade pacts are developed to protect each participant, but sometimes that is not the end result. Be open to change if needed, stability when required.

4) Understand that over the long haul building bridges works better than building walls, though sometimes the person with the biggest wall wins.

5) Understand how our system of government functions. Being an "outsider" is an attractive trait when some are angry at a dysfunctional establishment. Not having a strong knowledge of the rules of the game and how things are accomplished will lead to gridlock and a frozen system, or being taken advantage of in a way that puts all of us at risk.

6) Understand the geopolitical world situation. The mix of religions, ethnic groupings, history, changing alliances, and an inner-connected world is a complex system that does not respond to simple solutions.

7) Understand the history of the United States. How and why we were founded, the mistakes and accomplishments in our past, and the moral character our citizens believe in must guide decisions and leadership choices.

8) Understand that during your term you will face unending criticism from constantly shifting portions of the citizenry. You will have to make tough decisions that might be politically wrong, but ethically right. You will do things that some people hate, and some may love. You cannot take it personally. You are trying to lead a society that has become fragmented and ethnically diverse. You will never please everyone. Also, understand that in 4 or 8 years you will be out of a job. You are going to be replaced, so stay humble.

What did I overlook?

October 18, 2016

City, Small Town, or Rural Setting: Your Retirement Choice?

A previous guest post, Downsizing To a Forever Home, generated some interesting comments about where to retire: an urban setting, long time home in the suburbs, smaller town, or in a more rural setting. Author, Barbara Hammond and husband, Dave, moved from Philadelphia to the seaside town of Cape May, New Jersey. She says the couple have found the perfect place to put down roots. It has a busy, resort feel in the summer and a quiet, locals only vibe during colder weather.

That post prompted a suggestion to ask some follow up questions about the benefits and pitfalls of each retirement choice.

Betty and I gave serious thought last year to a move to downtown Phoenix. After 30 years in our suburban Scottsdale home we liked the idea of a more vibrant environment, public transportation, and being close to restaurants, theaters, museums, and sporting venues. The smaller housing options were what we thought we wanted, too. 

Well, that wasn't our final choice. Being close to family became the deciding factor. A condo wasn't really our style and single family homes were too pricey. The lack of a yard for Bailey was a problem. We thought the concrete and traffic noise would wear us down. 

We settled on a suburban home. It was slightly bigger than the previous one, within minutes of our grandkids, and with a big backyard for family gatherings, BBQ meals, and plenty of space for Bailey to run and play. Like all American suburbs it has too many strip malls and traffic. But, there are several excellent parks nearby, a full range of restaurant choices, local theaters and a good community college just a few minutes away. 

Betty says she would love to live in a small town. She likes the idea of being able to walk more than drive, knowing the local merchants by name, and forming a real sense of community. Unfortunately, no such place exists close enough to our family without the reality of cold winters, a fatal flaw for us.

Madeline, a regular reader, thought she and her husband would enjoy living in a rural community in the White Mountains of Arizona. They moved to a smaller home in the forest that seemed like a dream location. Then, the reality of being at least 2 hours from trusted doctors and full service hospitals, very few restaurants or entertainment options, and a town that "closed" during the winter struck the couple. They decided their home back in a Phoenix suburb was a much better choice. 

So, what do you think? Which choice is one you have made, or would make if given the opportunity? Does living in a city excite you, or are you happy with the relative quiet of a suburb? Do you call a smaller town home? What are the major attractions of such a choice? How about a rural environment? Is the isolation perfect for you, or do you agree with some of Madeline's issues with that type of life?

Each retirement is a unique journey; the selection of where to live is just as individual a choice. I look forward to your comments!

Too small?

Too large?

October 15, 2016

Leasing or Buying a Car..Which Is Best?

I will admit, this is a post designed to help me. Even so, I imagine there plenty of folks who wonder the same thing when it is time to trade in that old clunker that is smoking up the neighborhood. Betty and I are close to such a decision and I am torn.

I have always purchased, not leased, my cars. I will buy used but only if less than 2 years old. I usually pay cash to avoid the monthly payments. That is especially true on a depreciating asset like an automobile that loses 25% in value the moment it leaves the dealer's lot. I get the best deal I can, write a check and am done with it. If we spill something, or the dog has an accident, we clean it up and forget it. When some less-than-considerate driver dings the door in the parking lot, I shrug it off.

With a lease I have to pay a few thousand dollars in cash upfront, and make regular payments for the use of the car, normally for 3 years. At the end of that time, I turn the car in, pay for any excessive mileage or wear and tear, and walk away with nothing to show for the money I have spend over that period. In essence, I am renting the car. But, I am not paying for depreciation.

So, why would I consider a lease when the money buys me nothing of lasting value? There are three key reasons:

1. If I purchase a car I will be spending somewhere around $20,000. That money will come from an IRA account, thus triggering taxes on that amount. On top of money withdrawn to live on, that extra income will push us into a higher tax bracket. With monthly lease payments I do not have to withdraw all that cash at once and trigger tax consequences.

2. At the moment Betty and I have different enough schedules that two cars are almost essential to keep the peace. We could live with one (obviously), but there would be some major compromising. So, replacing the 13 year old automobile with mounting problems is a requirement.

3. At the end of a 3 year lease, we may be in the place where one car is just fine. I wouldn't own a car that would have to be sold privately to recoup maybe 40% of the purchase price.

You may argue that I could buy a car for little money down and monthly payments spread over 4 or 5 years. They would be higher than the lease payments but not unworkable. Of course, I would end up paying money in interest charges, but at today's rates it wouldn't be a lot. 

So, it comes down to owning something that would result in the loss of a substantial chunk of ready cash and trigger tax costs, or "borrowing" a car for less money but with no value at the end of the lease.

What are your thoughts?

October 12, 2016

Eight Tips For Decluttering

A blog you will find listed on the right sidebar is Sightings Over Sixty. Tom Sightings writes well and often has a take on a subject that makes me think or chuckle. He also writes regularly for US News & World Report's web site

While on my 7 week RV trip, I asked Tom if he would write a guest post about decluttering, a perennially popular topic. Here are his thoughts.

Like many retirees, our household is downsizing. This summer we sold our house in the suburbs, and at the end of July we moved into a one-bedroom condominium.

Six months ago we had a basement full of old boxes and an attic full of memorabilia. We had overflowing kitchen cabinets, closets bulging with old clothes, bookcases bursting with books and tabletops littered with little trinkets and tchotchkes. But now everything has been packed away and hauled out the door. We moved one truckload of boxes and furniture into our condo, and another truckload was sent to storage -- to await the time when we settle down into a house or condo that is bigger than what we have now, but smaller than what we had before.

How did we do it? Honestly, last spring as we stood amidst our piles of possessions – not to mention a few piles belonging to our kids -- it seemed like an impossible task. But it happened. So here are eight tips from personal experience on how to declutter and prepare for downsizing in retirement.

1. Call the kids. The first thing we did was put our four kids on notice that we were moving, and we expected them to come and sort through their things, take what they wanted and dispose of the rest. One son had already moved 800 miles away and had taken most of what he wanted. We sent him photos of the rest. He told us what items to bring along when we met up with him in June for a family gathering. The rest we got rid of. We were lucky that another son had recently bought his own house. He came with a U-Haul and not only took all of his own stuff, but loaded up a couple of extra pieces of furniture into the back of the truck.

2. Donate to a rummage sale. Our church has a big rummage sale every April, and other groups hold fund-raising rummage sales as well. We donated two carloads of clothes and kitchen equipment. Plus, church volunteers came with a pickup and took away several bookcases, a TV case, a dining room sideboard and a few other pieces of furniture. Of course, you can hold your own tag sale and make a little money. But remember, it’s a lot of extra work when you may not have a lot of extra time.

3. Make trips to recycling. Our town recycling center accepts old electronics (so do electronics stores such as Best Buy), both paperback and hard back books, scrap metal, and paper of all kinds. I made at least a dozen trips to our recycling center. One other tip: Recycle with family and friends. Send out an email with a list of free stuff up for grabs – just make sure to keep track of who wants what, and when they can come and pick it up.

4. Shuttle to Goodwill. We have a Goodwill store near us; others have the Salvation Army, a shelter or community shop. They accept free donations of clothes, books, CDs, and small household items. My Goodwill does not accept rugs. We had three rugs that I had to cut up into strips and throw away.

5. Find your pickers store. There’s a second-hand store in the next town over from us. There’s probably one near you, too. I called the owner and made an appointment. Then I loaded up the back of our small SUV with tools, framed prints and a few knickknacks, drove over to the store, and the woman picked through my pieces, took what she wanted and gave me $140. I made a second trip a few weeks later, and she gave me another $60 for the lot.

6. Trash, trash and more trash. Some towns offer bulk pickup a few times a year. Our town does not. We have a limit of two full garbage cans, twice a week. So we didn’t miss a trick. We filled two garbage cans to the brim, twice a week, for six months straight. Plus, we snuck in a few extra items when we thought we could get away with it.

7. Call the junkman. There are people who will come and haul the last of your stuff away, for a fee. They advertise on community bulletin boards, or leave their business cards in local shops. I found a card at the second-hand store. Fortunately, using all the other methods, we never had to call the junkman. But it’s good to know he’s there, if and when you need him.

8. Have a heart-to-heart with your partner. None of this works if you are furiously disposing of things while your partner is agonizing about whether or not to throw away a Christmas card from 1985. Most relationships, it seems, consist of one hoarder who has piles of possessions and one simplifier who owns one coat, one book and one photo. To avoid working at cross purposes, you need to sit down and talk things out. The hoarder must realize that many things (old electronics, old sports equipment, and most old paper records) are either outdated and useless, or they can easily be replaced. The simplifier has to appreciate that some things have sentimental value and can’t be replaced, and if you get too enthusiastic about downsizing you might end up regretting what you’ve lost. So don’t be like our dysfunctional politicians. Respect your partner’s point of view; realize there are deep emotional issues imbedded in this whole process. And be ready to compromise. 

Thanks, Tom. Betty and I occasionally struggle with point #8. She keeps most everything; I don't keep enough. We are working on it, though. And the 250 square feet on an Rv helpw us focus on what is important.