Monday, June 30, 2014

Show Me the Money!

New York Times

Let Them Eat Cash
By CHRISTOPHER BLATTMAN
JUNE 29, 2014

A CHINESE millionaire tried to give $300 (and lunch) to homeless men and women in New York last week. This didn’t sit well with the nonprofit New York City Rescue Mission. The Rescue Mission offered to help with lunch, but wouldn’t cooperate in handing out cash. So midway through a meal of sesame-crusted tuna and filet of beef, some 200 homeless people discovered that they would not be getting money. Instead, the Rescue Mission would accept $90,000 on their behalf. You can imagine the anger and humiliation.

The millionaire, a recycling tycoon named Chen Guangbiao, wanted to set an example of generosity in the world’s financial capital. To announce the $300 giveaway, he’d taken out a full-page advertisement in The New York Times.

The executive director of Rescue Mission said he was worried that people might spend the handout on drugs or alcohol. This pessimism (and paternalism) is common and understandable. But evidence from other countries suggests we should be more optimistic.

Globally, cash is a major tool to fight extreme poverty. The United Nations is handing out ATM cards to Syrian refugees alongside sacks of grain. The evidence suggests these cash programs work. There have been randomized trials of cash grants to poor Mexican families, Kenyan villagers, Malawian schoolgirls and many others. The results show that sometimes people just eat better or live in better homes. Often, though, they start businesses and earn more.

In Uganda, my colleagues and I worked with a nonprofit that offered $150 and five days of business planning to 900 of the poorest women in the world. After 18 months, the women had twice the incomes of a random control group.

I also worked with the Ugandan government to study what happened when it gave groups of 20 poor people $8,000 in return for a business proposal. My colleagues and I followed hundreds of groups that did and did not get grants. Those who did mostly invested in trades like carpentry. Four years later, their earnings were about 40 percent higher than those of a random control group.

The poor do not waste grants. Recently, two World Bank economists looked at 19 cash transfer studies in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Almost all showed alcohol and tobacco spending fell or stayed the same. Only two showed any significant increase, and even there the evidence was mixed.

You might worry handouts encourage idleness. But in most experiments, people worked more after they received grants.

You might also worry that the poorest of New York are different. The average person in Uganda is impoverished; it’s easy to believe he would make good decisions with cash. But a homeless person in New York is not average. Substance abuse is pervasive. Maybe panhandlers here are different from the global poor.

I used to believe this. Now I’m not sure. A few years ago, I started working in Liberia’s urban slums. My colleagues and I sought out men who were homeless or made their living dealing drugs or stealing. Many abused alcohol and drugs. We tested different programs in a randomized trial of a thousand men. One thing we tried was giving out $200 in cash.

Almost no men wasted it. In the months after they got the cash, most dressed, ate and lived better. Unlike the Ugandans, however, whose new businesses kept growing, the Liberian men were back where they started a year later. Two hundred dollars was not enough to turn them into businessmen. But it brought them a better life for a while, which is the fundamental goal of any welfare program. We also tested a counseling program to reduce crime and violence. It worked a little on its own, but had the largest impact when combined with cash.

In 2010, Jim Rankin, a reporter for The Toronto Star, asked himself the same question. So he handed out five $50 prepaid Visa and MasterCard gift cards to panhandlers. What did they buy? Mostly food. Some phone minutes and clothes. A couple bought liquor as well.

Back to the millionaire and the mission. The Rescue Mission has every right to be cautious. Perhaps our first duty is to do no harm, but I say that’s our second duty. Our first is to be skeptical of stereotypes of those we purport to help.

These stereotypes have consequences: The Family Independence Initiative tried paying poor American families in return for setting and meeting goals. Its demonstration project showed promising results. But the No. 1 obstacle the organization said it faced? Mistrust by donors and other nonprofits who held hard to the view that poor people can’t make good decisions.

Here in New York, the Opportunity NYC Family Rewards program has experimented with cash transfers to poor families. It sent $8,700 over three years to thousands of families. A randomized evaluation showed that self-employment went up and hunger and extreme hardship went down, at least while the cash transfers lasted.

These programs didn’t target the hard-core homeless. Are they so different? I don’t know. Even if handing out cash works, it’s surely only part of a larger solution. But why not try?

Christopher Blattman is an associate professor in the political science department and at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Jazz at Miramar (poem)

Way back when,(1990's) I attended a writer's conference in Monticito/Santa Barbara, California at the old Miramar Hotel which sat right on the beach. I think it's gone now, or certainly closed. I'm delighted that I got to stay there before its demise in 2000, as it was a little world of its own with blue tiled roofs and California sunshine, and a rich history back to the 1800's. It was a great conference and I met some of the big writers like Ray Bradbury, Elmore Leonard, T.C. Boyle and Sol Stein, to name only a few.
There was a train track and stop (surprisingly) just a few feet from the beach itself and the distinctive whistle of the train, day and night, lent a peculiar charm to the lovely old place - a main hotel and a sprawl of cottages and bungalows, green manicured lawns and birdsong.


Here was my tribute at the time:

JAZZ At MIRAMAR

Sprinklers do percussion
While a nozzled hose
Squirts riffs
Across a cottage lawn.
Mainstream bebop.
Swish and slide.
Girlish twitter from the birds,
Whistling fluff-ups,
Band-rats with wings
Eager for a splash.

The train screams in
With clang and clack
And chortles out
Stan Kenton style
Brash solo
Hollows out one after-beat
Of silent awe.

Beyond the tracks
Across the dunes
The waves applaud.
Curled fingers spread
and slap the sand,
And further out
The deeper sea,
Too drunk to sing,
Slurs and slurps
Off-key.


##

Saturday, June 28, 2014

June is Going Out Like a Tidal Wave

Summer rain storms in South Florida are nothing to ignore. The tropical thunderstorms gnash and thrash, sheets of rain, high winds and lightning that would make Thor proud. I drove home in such a storm yesterday (and they will occur almost daily throughout our summer) and could barely see the car in front of me on the Tamiami Trail. This morning a neighbor came over to inform me that a piece of siding on my house was down, exposing poor ol' underbelly of my wee house to all the feral neighborhood critters.

My dogs have to wait for very long periods of time for the rain to subside, thus their walks are compromised. Palm fronds were strewn all over the sidewalks of our dog park this morning (giving my boys the joy of numerous reasons to lift their little legs.) It's formidable!



BTW, the gazpacho I made from the recipe in my last post (a 10 minute quickie recipe) was outstanding!! It's a keeper. And it beats the heat and humidity off, or so it seems.

~ * ~


There's trouble in River City. My emotions are doing their own thunder storms this week. Not too happy with my job, as it turns out. Eventually people show their colors, and I'm not feeling too overjoyed with the outcome. Micro management and yelling and criticism have shaken my confidence.

I KNOW my skills, but this particular employer who does NOT know my skills thinks I'm a puppet who needs to have her strings pulled just about every second of the day. Me, the self-starter, autonomous business exec being lectured on how to organize my work? Well, that's only the tip of the iceberg. It's getting brutal. How do you say enough? I'm beginning to make mistakes that I normally wouldn't, just out of upset.

His management style is his own business. I can't criticize it. So shut up or leave, Kid.

Can't handle the conflict. Lost my peace of mind. Just an unfortunate mismatch, his control issues hidden under a lot of good Christian sheep's clothing. He's not happy either, but hates to fire people. So, we know what that means...Not a bad man...just not the right boss for me.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Hot Summer Days for the Loose Fish

June is leading right into July, ya' notice that? And it IS hot! S.W. Florida in the summertime. I chose to live here right?

BUT, I did not realize the air conditioning ducts under my house were so far gone that it would cost more to repair than if I put in a new A/C System altogether. Neither of which I can afford. The unit itself is working but the "faulty" duct/insulation system is leaking cold air out from under the house into the surrounding world, meaning my house is lukewarm and my A/C bills are ASTRONOMICAL. Can I catch a break?

And almost like some kind of weird karma, the A/C in my old clunker van (only about a week old in my care) started blowing hot air too~~~!!! Man, I live in a very hot world these days.

So...what's the solution?

Okay, cool dude David who tried to help me with the under-house problem suggested I bite the bullet (after all, this house is a 1979!) and just cut holes into the walls at appropriate places and install big window units. Last night I ordered two 15000 BTU air conditioners from WalMart (the largest BTU I could find with 120 V current, goodness knows I don't want electrical wiring bills for 220 V TOO), and I can pick them up Friday. My park handyman, Mike, is willing to do the job and knows exactly how...(he sat andgave me elaborate descriptions. He's built houses from scratch, and lives in a mobile home himself which he's turned into a dream house with his skills). So it may take a week or so, but this project is under way.

I was nervous about the Dodge Grand Caravan too. Cheap car, expensive repairs? But the Lucky Pauper danced with the Loose Fish again, and it turned out to be a case of 1 1/2 lbs. of freon was needed. The car was almost empty of freon. $100 and I was blissfully cool and on the road again. I love our local mechanic, Naples Park Auto Services. Honest, fast, kind and efficient. I recommend them highly.

So...things are cooling down, but to help the situation I've put this on my shopping list: (a recipe from "You're Doing It Wrong" column on Slate's wonderful website) I love this one cuz it's 10 minutes. About my attention span these days. I would hold out a few tablespoons of veggies (from the mix) to add at the end for crunchies.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Bankruptcy -- not the answer it used to be.

Last evening I attended a Legal Aid Bankruptcy Clinic in East Naples, Florida at the Legal Aid Society, where pro bono help is offered to those in need.

Four practiced bankruptcy attornies spoke to a room full of potential clients, focusing on Chapter 7 Bankruptcy basics. Some of the information was not new to me: Your income needs to be less than $42K to even qualify for Chapter 7, but if you meet that criteria, then other rules come into play.



The Role Of Exemptions in Chapter 7 Bankruptcy

When you file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, almost all of your assets and property become property of the bankruptcy estate (there are a few exceptions).

A bankruptcy trustee is appointed (SELF EMPLOYED trustee who gets paid in accordance with the amount of debt they recover!) and given the authority to sell your assets to pay your creditors. However, filing for bankruptcy does not mean that you have to give all of your property to your creditors.

Exemptions allow you to keep a certain amount of your property so that you can make a fresh start after the bankruptcy. In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, if you can exempt an asset, the bankruptcy trustee cannot sell it to pay your creditors. How much property you can keep in a Chapter 7 bankruptcy depends on the value of your assets and what your specific exemptions are. Thanks to exemptions, most Chapter 7 filers keep all or most of their property. (A fresh start with a $6000 exemption? Who are they kidding?)

This is where it gets (imo) really sordid. Of course one's assets are in contention. If you have boats and jet skis and Corvettes or CASH, forget it, you're not going to keep them if you file bankruptcy--that would be no surprise. BUT, what is exempt from being "taken" and sold to repay your debt is:

1. a Homestead exemption $1,000 of your house is exempt;
no Homestead exemption $5,000 of your house is exempt

2. personal property (electronics, furniture, collectibles) $1,000 is exempt. Yes, they could sell your couch, your mother's jewelry, your grandmother's silver, etc. if it comes to more than 1K totaled up. Trustees get paid by those totals, so overvaluing assets is common. This has got to be seriously WRONG.

3. Auto $1,000 of your auto's value is exempt. ( My 2005 Dodge van clunker, worth $3500 would be taken away and that $1,000 exemption is lost (cannot be applied to other personal property) The auto worth is often overstated too, the lawyers admitted.

Your wages and pension and a few other things are also exempt, but it's pretty slim. Here's more details:
Florida Bankruptcy Exemptions


Chapter 7 Trustee Compensation
In a Chapter 7 case, the trustee is paid in two ways depending on whether there are assets administered in your case, or not.

Administrative Case Fee

First, the trustee receives a $60 administrative fee which is paid from the filing fees you pay to the court clerk when you filed the case. In cases where the filing fee is waived, the trustee receives no administrative fee.
No Assets, No More Fees for the Trustee

If there are no assets in the case for the trustee to sell and the trustee does not recover any other money through tax refunds, lawsuits, or other actions, there is no further fee paid to the trustee.

Commission Based on a Sliding Scale

If there are assets that the trustee collects in the case and the trustee makes payments to creditors, the trustee also receives a commission on the money collected based on the amount disbursed to interested parties (generally professionals and creditors) by the trustee. The commission is paid from the money collected from the sale of nonexempt assets or the recoveries on lawsuits brought by the trustee. You do not make any extra payments to the court to cover the trustee’s commissions in a Chapter 7.
The amount the trustee is paid is based on a sliding scale as follows:

25% of the first $5,000 disbursed
10% of the next $45,000
5% of the next $950,000, and
3% of anything over $1,000,000.

The sliding scale is set as the maximum amount of the trustee’s compensation. In order to be paid, the trustee must file an application for compensation with the bankruptcy court. All creditors and interested parties receive notice of the amounts requested. If no one objects, or after a hearing is held on any objections filed, the court reviews the trustee’s fee application and enters an order awarding the fee that the court finds reasonable.

Since the trustee's fee is defined by the bankruptcy law as a commission, the maximum allowable is often awarded if no objection is filed. However, in cases where the commission is very large in comparison to the work required, or there was a substantial delay in the administration of the estate due to inaction or another problem in trustee’s office, the court may award a fee less than the maximum allowed.

Sweet, eh?

Oh, and the Clinic attorneys said you have to take a Credit Counseling course ($5 to $50 online) before the bankruptcy is filed and another financial course after the filing. Mandatory. I once filed bankruptcy in California, decades ago, and nobody came to my house, it didn't take 6 to 8 months for the case to be completed. And the only thing I lost was my debt! We live in a different world where only banks and Wall Street get away scott free.

Floridians, they tell you our bankruptcy laws are among the most lenient. But you'd never prove it by me.

Needless to say, this is not an option I'll pursue.

##

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Journal Entry & A Visit from the Goon Squad

BOOKS



Yeah, I'm a glutton for punishment. ANOTHER Pulitzer winner, a few years back, that I'm just getting around to. Yech! I find it much less interesting that either The Goldfinch OR Life After Life. I cannot finish the damned thing!!!!! I perservered with Tartt and Atkinson, but this is too boring, and I find myself dreading to pick up the iPad, so that's a sure sign it's time to let it go.

I should do a proper review of it, but you know what? I just don't care enough.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Work Ethic and Personal Beliefs

It's really odd, life.

My new employer is a highly religious man--goes to church, reads scripture, has Biblical plaques on his office walls. He speaks of working first for God, then his wife. Of course to my ears, it's all jabberwocky -- not being a religious person. But I like him, and I appreciate his earnest heartfeltness.

But it made me think of my own work ethic, which was likely seeded in childhood by a super-conscientious stepfather (despite his numerous shortcomings) but then was fully developed when I worked for Werner Erhard in the 70's. I took the est training in New York City, and was quickly hired and sent to San Francisco to est headquarters to work in the accounting department, which I later managed.

est was all about giving purpose to your life, and that included your relationships to family, spouse, job, and the outside world at large. It was about making a difference in the world. Sounds very lofty but when practiced day in and day out at the est offices, one began to see the potential for living a life that is not about just meeting your needs and grabbing at your desires. It's a higher calling. It's about aliveness and not sleep-walking through life. Which is what my boss is trying to be about too.



I realized rather wistfully that I have little framed est mementos hanging in my house. Cards and gifts from Werner. Things like a quote from e.e. cummings: "we're a mystery that never happened before and a miracle that will never happen again." And another by Robert Frost: "Earth is the right place for love. I don't know where it's likely to go better." Is that so different from my bosses Bible quotes?

So, today I tried to explain to him, very briefly, that I once had this job....(of course he didn't know Werner ERhard, didn't know est, didn't even really know of the huge transformational craze that swept this country in the 70's with gurus and self-development and enlightment programs galore. Everything from Primal Scream to Silva Mind Control, Impact Training, Life Spring, and more.) I didn't delve too deeply into my experience, but I think my boss "got it" just in the short spiel I made, and hopefully knows we are on different but similar paths.

After all, transformation is in the mind, even the Bible says so:

Romans 12:1-8
Key Verse: 12:2
“Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”




Another odd thing is that an est co-worker found my blog and wrote to me this past week, which triggered yet another old est co-worker to seek me out. It's been decades since I've seen these friends, but it has been wonderful to play catch up.

When you get to be my age, things sort of soften around the edges. My fervor for that which I love and my judgment of that which I don't are both different today. I can co-exist a little easier with God-fearing creatures and relax a bit about just what I think the world ought to do and be.

And I am grateful for my work ethic. I just got another 5 hours a week added to my schedule. My boss has work to be done. I'm needed!

##

Monday, June 9, 2014

It's a Dog's Life

Okay, the "clunker" transaction has been completed, and what a day that was! Too boring to relate, but stressful nonetheless.

. So the new dogmobile is now being outfitted for the comfort of Sugar and Spice. I'm perfectly comfortable in my Captain's chair behind the wheel, but alas, the van has no rear windows that roll down (to speak of; only little vents crack open, too small for a poodle head) so the head-to-the-wind, tongue-lolling-joy of Spice has been brought to an abrupt end. I'm trying to entice him into the front passenger seat where there is a window, but he seems reticent. Perhaps in time he'll come up there.

Sugar is perfectly happy to spread out and sleep for the trip.

Well, you might have seen the photo in an earlier post of the "empty" cavern when all the seats are down, so here's what it looks like for hurricane transport. (I plan to sleep here when we're evacuated, and on the road)



Then I realized, two little dogs don't need this much space in everyday life, and I need grocery cargo space, so I put up the banquette seat(s) (row 3) to give me the rear hatchback access to cargo floor.



That still leaves plenty of space for spoiled dogs, and I tried to make the front accessible to Spice by tipping the passenger seat backwards.



Oh well, we'll see how it plays out. It's a pretty comfortable ride compared to that little bitty Honda, so except for the $65 tank of gas, I think I'm happy.

They look happy, don't they?



Friday, June 6, 2014

A Pot of Purple Petunias

I have a mystery. A lovely pot of purple petunias showed up in my carport the other day.

I had picked up the mail for a vacationing neighbor, and assumed she was the giver, but no!? Then who? Not my beloved friends who bring me charity cases of Merlot either!?

Thanks to whoever left them. They make me smile.



##

Monday, June 2, 2014

Out with the Old, In with the Older!

Well, FINALLY got my car sold and another car purchased. Let me just say that selling cars on Craigslist is something you probably don't want to do. (though I'm sure a zillion people do it successfully, those people would not happen to be ME.) I had at least three scammers show up almost instantly, and one girl who sounded reasonably on the up and up (though she could barely spell) and she backed off the minute I said she'd have to come up with cash in hand.

I also would NOT recommend using CarMax. They offered the lowest bid of all on my Honda Fit. I ended up going to my local Honda dealer who appreciated the great TLC that little car received and gave me a fair offer which I grabbed. I have to wait for their check to come from headquarters, alas no instant gratification.

Thursday finalizes my deal and Friday I hope to get my "new" old 2005 minivan, a Dodge Grand Caravan. Don't even ask. The mechanic who went to look at it said it was a good buy and in great shape...and he called me an old hippie when I told him I plan to spend the next hurricane evacuation in the back of my van with my dogs and cat. With the five seats flattened in back, it will hold a 4 x 8 ft. bed. I kid you not. I just happen to have TWO thick foam mattress pads rolled up in my shed.



The purpose of all this? Same old tune. Money, money, money. Still fighting the good fight. And making a bit of headway. But not out of the woods yet.

Still, this helps! Pro Bono Bankruptcy Dude still hasn't come calling. But since one pissy plumbing company has threatened to sue me, even though I'm making regular $15 payments (some people just never know when they're lucky), I may just help that process along myself and file my own law suit.

Yes, yes, I hated to give up my little car...but I hated to give up my house too. These are the penances extracted by life for being a loose fish.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Comfort Food for Lucky Paupers & Loose Fish

Since I've been uh, budgeting, it's been a game to come up with "really good" food on a pauper's budget. I find myself turning again and again to my childhood memories when my mother too was on a tight budget and had to come up with something my stepfather would eat. (Later when they made it in the world, they lived on steak and baked potatoes) Those early meals were comfort food to me, they meant "Mama." That included a lot of yucky things like sandwiches made from Pickle Loaf lunch meat on Wonder bread, but also some economic dishes "of the day" like creamed tuna surrounded by mashed potatoes and peas.

One dish I really did love however was tunafish and noodle casserole. Mama made a pretty basic version: noodles, a can of tuna mixed with a can of cream of mushroom soup, a can of peas and some bread crumbs on top. Sounds a little like the mashed potato version above. But it tasted of love to me. What did I know?

This week I decided to try my own version and see if I couldn't put a little pizzazz into the receipe.

I parboiled 1/2 package of wide egg noodles, only half so it wouldn't be overly noodled.
I used 2 flat packs of Yellowfin tuna in olive oil. (taste, taste, taste. Spare me the water packs, puhlease)
I used 1/2 package of frozen peas.
I sauteed 1/2 pint of fresh button mushrooms in a bit of butter, set them aside and added them later to the sauce.

Then I used one can Campbells Cream of Mushroom soup with 1/2 can of Half and Half to make a sauce.
Added a healthy shake of dried tarragon, a healthy dose of red pepper flakes (for a little zing), added the mushrooms, tuna, peas and noodles and dumped into a greased baking dish. Then I covered the top with bread crumbs and grated parmesan cheese, dotted with butter and put in the oven for about 30 to 40 minutes at 350.

It was yummy! Next time, I think I'll try potato chips on top and maybe add different veggies to the mix. I think it might be good with broccoli or leaf spinach.

Hey, it ain't steak and potatoes, but it tastes pretty darned good!

Oh! Just went to the Web to see what's cooking in other kitchens and here's my casserole at AllRecipes.com but NO canned soup! Made from scratch! (they don't have my pepper flakes or tarragon however) I like the addition of garlic, onions and celery! Next time.

Tuna Noodle Casserole from Scratch

Prep Time: 30 Minutes
Cook Time: 45 Minutes
Ready In: 1 Hour 15 Minutes
Servings: 6
"No canned soup mix in this recipe! Mushrooms, onions, celery, and peas all go into this comfort casserole."

INGREDIENTS:
1/2 cup butter, divided
1 (8 ounce) package uncooked medium egg noodles
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
8 ounces button mushrooms, sliced
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
salt and pepper to taste 2 (6 ounce) cans tuna, drained and flaked
1 cup frozen peas, thawed
3 tablespoons bread crumbs
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese

DIRECTIONS: 1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Butter a medium baking dish with 1 tablespoon butter.

2. Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add egg noodles, cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until al dente, and drain.

3. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a skillet over medium-low heat. Stir in the onion, celery, and garlic, and cook 5 minutes, until tender. Increase heat to medium-high, and mix in mushrooms. Continue to cook and stir 5 minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated.

4. Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a medium saucepan, and whisk in flour until smooth. Gradually whisk in milk, and continue cooking 5 minutes, until sauce is smooth and slightly thickened. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in tuna, peas, mushroom mixture, and cooked noodles. Transfer to the baking dish. Melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a small bowl, mix with bread crumbs, and sprinkle over the casserole. Top with cheese.

5. Bake 25 minutes in the preheated oven, or until bubbly and lightly browned.