Doctor Eclectic

Doctor Eclectic
Doctor Eclectic

Monday, August 27, 2012

Student Loans

I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal that spoke to seniors having their Social Security reduced because of failed student loans.  I found this particularly interesting because I wondered why people over 65 would have student loans and also because previous tenants who defaulted on $10,000 they owed me escaped a court judgment to pay because Social Security is protected from bankruptcy.

So, why not make my research a Post on my Blog?

Turns out that most of the 2.2 million people over the age of sixty who have student loans have them because they financed the education of their children or grandchildren.  Most, but not all.  Some went to school at age 40 or 50 in attempts to retrain from a failed or obsolete occupation.  Others because of a need to reenter the job force from a death or divorce.

Student debt has grown to be the second highest source of debt in the United States: at about a Trillion dollars it is now higher than auto debt or credit cards.  Only mortgages are higher and those numbers are more difficult to get one’s arms around.  Thirty-seven million debtors hold the debt and while two-thirds of them are under forty, 4.6 million are between 50 and 60.

Several aspects of this are troubling.

In my field, dentistry, most graduates will have debt close to or more than $200,000 the day they graduate with a payment schedule that starts immediately.  Unless they qualify for some of the recent subsidized deferred plans, which set payments based on your income, they will have a schedule of about $2,000 a month of after-tax income.  No wonder most go into what the ADA disdainfully calls “corporate dentistry”.

The average four-year student will have more acceptable payments, of maybe $400/month, but at a time when many are hoping to enter the American Dream, with marriage, a home and family, there are few who can find a job to handle all those things.  So, in this recession we may have a generation who will defer, perhaps forever, the lifestyle of their parents.

But, to return to the Social Security question: There are three types of student loans, listed in order of interest rates from low to high, although 2010 legislation puts recent loans pretty much into a federal box: Federal and State loans, Private loans, and Family loans. The Family loans are granted to parents to allow them a payment plan to cover the cost of a child’s education over an extended period.  For the most part these have a low default rate because they are often only a component of the education costs.  Federal loans are not a great problem, partially because they are granted with consideration for subsidies and ability to pay.

Private loans are a bigger problem.  Sixty-six percent of graduates have debt, but almost 100% of graduates from prestigious or graduate schools have significant debt, held by some sort of private concern.  This was true when I incurred my younger son’s loans in 1988 but while only 10% of the loans at that time were $50,000 or more (mine was about $10,000) now three million loans are greater than $50,000, adjusted to inflation.

Loans assumed or negotiated on behalf of the student are not co-signed loans.  They are the sole responsibility of the parent or grandparent  .  Furthermore there is no bankruptcy relief, which may explain why 1 of every 8 loans held by those over the age of forty are delinquent.  It is that “no bankruptcy relief” factor that allows Social Security payments to be attached or reduced.  And some 115 thousand checks have been adjusted to date.

I don’t know where there is any good news in this, but I agree with some sage who recently said, “Why we are placing our best and brightest under a burden of debt when they are most in need of money to reach their new potential, escapes me.”

Me too!
We are going into the Paralympics with the inspiration they bring, a fact made crystal clear to me when I visited Walter Reed Hospital last weekend.  In my next post I will share with you what I saw and what I gained from the experience.  Please, come visit

Friday, August 17, 2012

You Don't Need a Belfry

The adventure started when someone noticed a small creature who apparently had decided to nest (or more accurately roost) in the light fixture above my front door.  A tiny thing, it seemed content to hide from all those people who were poking brooms and things at him/her.  There were droppings on the stoop and we soon concluded that we were housing a bat.

As resident defender of the health and humanity of my family and guests, I immediately embarked on an online search of what danger bats might present.

Turns out, not so much.

When we lived in the Philippine Islands, we would often see, hear and sense the swoop of the huge Fruit Bats that frequented our back yard around dusk.  They would have a three foot, or more, wing span and often came close enough to remind us of the horror stories of bats getting tangled in one’s hair.  Our bat, hardly more than four inches long would likely go unnoticed, even with its wing span of more than a foot.  Other species, including several Vampire Bats, might be of concern.

It appears our little critter posed no such danger.

Audubon House
I quickly found that Orange County, California has no end of people who know, admire, and are dedicated to getting others to know and admire, bats.  Eventually, Mary and I were fortunate enough to get invited to a newly added Bat Walk, sponsored by the Sea and Sage Audubon Society.  When we attended, others in our class of fifteen, included a couple of young children, age eleven or so, the physician of one of the Docents, and two highly-placed members of the Irvine Ranch Water District, which has had an ongoing, symbiotic relationship with the Audubon group for many years: benefiting from the protected waterways by research and cost containment of recycling water.
Stephanie Remington

Our guide through the two hour presentation and walk was Stephanie Remington, who has been featured in, among other journals, Coast Magazine.  Stephanie told us that there are almost 1300 varieties of bats in the world.  Most are insect eater and many pay an important part in pollination, an especially interesting tidbit of information since our bees are having survival problem.  Bat too, it turns out, but the major danger is pretty much confined to the East Coast, a fungus that turns the nose white with sometime fatal consequences.  The good news is that the fungus has been in Europe for many years and bats seem able to build up immunity.

The Duck Club
After a fascinating Power Point presentation in which she showed us a cave in Austin, Texas that houses sometimes 20,000,000 bat moms, mammals not birds, and their 20,000,000 nursing pups. (The eleven year-old got the math correct.  My question was, “Where are the dads?” The answer of which was, “After they mate they go in search of their own bat hose until it’s time to mate again.”)

How very Southern California.

Stephanie gave some of the group oscillators, which could capture the otherwise inaudible chirps used by the bats to locate insects, obstacles and each other.  One set was keyed to the Yuma Myotis bat (like the one on our porch) and the other to the Mexican free-tailed bat, the two most common dusk-feeding bats in Orange County.  The kids held counters and the numbers seen were respectably high, even if the young fingers, ears, eyes and imaginations might have exaggerated them a bit.

The walk was pleasant, the evening cool for this time of year, the insects appeared occupied with bat survival more than biting us, and the hour walk sped by.  We saw the Duck Club and the Audubon House and some of the lovely 12-mile path and bridge.

I would endorse this program on so many fronts.  I am renewing my membership in the Audubon Society, and encouraging my son to take his children to the more open Bird Watching Walks and next year to get them signed up for a Bat Walk.  Announcement in February, signups in March and sold out that very same month.  My son thinks they may have a bat on their porch too.  One thing for sure, if so, we both have males.

This week I heard a story about the government collecting failed student loans from Social Security checks.  Next post I intend to figure out what that is all about.

Have any of you been on a Bat Walk?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Contributions


The root of the word essentially explains why my attitude toward donations is significantly different than my children’s or my grandchildren’s.  The Latin stem of the word comes from “working together”. Contributions are really big as this Election Year heads towards its November conclusion.  Not a day goes by that I don’t receive several solicitations through the mail, text, or telephone.  This has caused me to pause and reflect on how my contributions, in time and money, have changed through the years; and why.

My parents believed in allowances, some portion of which was tied to contributing time and effort to help around and with household activity.  We were churchgoing people, who went to Mass every Sunday and often, in those days, on other occasions.  As Catholics we were given an opportunity to contribute at least once to a collection, generated by men passing around a wicker basket on a long handle.  Years later, I realized that in my parish, as many outside Iowa, portions of the collection made their way back to Ireland to support the Resistance; not that knowledge of this fact would have deterred my donation.

My donation was expected to come from my allowance, and when support for a new church was needed, my sister and I were encouraged to donate a separate amount for something in the new church that would be “ours”.  My wife, Mary’s family did not believe in allowances, but her church experience mirrored mine, with a small amount given her and each of her siblings by her mother to place in the collection basket.  We also shared a commonality in supporting causes outside our church with time and money.  Support for the Second World War came in the guise of Bonds and Stamps.  Missionary work was supported by our adopting all manner of pagan babies from all corners of the world.  Polio was conquered by our contributions to the March of Dimes.

As we went to college, got married, and gained personal and financial independence, we began to transfer our good intentions to other charities that caught our interest: literacy, world hunger, Civil Rights, political positions.  Through it all, whether we gave time or money, we operated in the true sense of the word:  we worked together with others who believed as we did; who shared compassion for “our” causes.

I find it interesting that Mitt Romney’s only published contributions are to his church, tithing (of some figure) as the Book of Mormon suggests.  President Obama on the other hand has contributions more similar to mine, running to scores and perhaps hundreds of different organizations.  Both men’s contributions pale to those sums contributed by others to assist in their campaigns, an irony I find less than amusing.

My contributions are significant, occasionally direct as a large sum to one or another particular charity.  When I was in the corporate world, I would contribute through United Way to gain the benefit of a matching corporate award.  Now, in my retired state, the sums are generally less to any one charity but collectively of a sizeable enough amount, so my accountant asks for support before he says okay to my return.

I asked my 40 year-old son whether he contributes.  The word puzzled him for a moment before he gave a simple answer, “No.”  I haven’t asked his older brother but, knowing his hand-to-mouth budget policy, I am sure his answer would be similar.  As would his children: aged seven and fourteen.  I cannot help but compare their position, with middle to upper-middle class lifestyles, with the Gates and the Zuckerbergs, one who started philanthropy at their ages and one starting now, much younger.

As my generation passes, will charities lose the support they have learned to depend upon?  We are already seeing Foundation support whither for lack of investment return.  Will grass roots support be a death knell to not-for-profit endeavors?

I researched three avenues that define which charities make the best use of contributions: Charity Watch, CharityNavigator and the Better BusinessBureau.  Although I do not use them routinely, I am attuned to some charities that they list as lying beyond the pale, and would recommend them to those of you who contribute to non-local charities and want to see where your dollars are going.

I would be interested if my family contribution experience differs from yours.  Please comment.

Next Post I will share with you a unique experience Mary and I just had: a Bat Walk. Not to the cinema but to a local Audubon group: The Sea and Sage.  Absolutely fascinating!

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Murmurations


A week or so ago, I received an email with an unusual attachment.  The YouTube clip was of Murmurations.  I’ll link the clip because I think, like me you will be very impressed.
The term is much more encompassing than an explanation of the various patterns the Swallows/Starlings make in their winter migration to Great Britain.  It speaks to the ability of non-verbal species to communicate almost instantly intricate commands that allow thousands to turn and make formations, almost instantly.

I was sharing my newfound knowledge with a golfer I teamed up with and it reminded him of a man who trained crows to collect coins for him.  His story and his coin-collecting machine are captured in another video clip, which I will link.  It is a little longer, eight instead of two minutes, but again is well worth the watch.  I was unaware of Joshua Klein and certainly was amazed at how much communication crows share with each other. Now I understand why you can’t leave a sandwich, even one that is boxed, in your golf cart when crows are nearby.

Who says you can’t learn new stuff after age sixty?

Four Wings and a Prayer
As I began to research other examples of murmurations, I was surprised that the term is used to explain how thousands of butterflies migrate en masse between Mexico and even, in the case of Monarchs, to Door County, Wisconsin, from where we recently returned from our annual family outing. Sue Halpern has written an excellent book describes the phenomenon.

I had seen the Butterfly aviary in Victoria, but had not realized that they might have been commenting on our presence as much as we were commenting on theirs.  Be careful what you say in the presence of God’s other creatures.

I had experience with another example of murmurations when we were living in the Philippine Islands.  At one time I had five salt water tanks, stocked for the most part with fish we had caught in plastic bags while diving off the Subic Bay.  One of the strangest was a group of little black fish, none larger than an inch, which I caught as a swarm one day.  There must have been forty or fifty of them, and when I saw the original school there may have been hundreds.

They were swimming in formation, a formation that made them appear to be a single, much larger fish, turning in unison, never losing the illusion that they were something other, and much bigger, than they were.  They continued to maintain this pattern in my tank and were a joy to watch as well as to show off to my visitors.  When we left, I returned them to the bay, hopefully to find others of their species.

Noctiluca
While not technically a murmurations example, a similar phenomenon exists in the sea.  I have seen it at night in Subic, in Carlsbad, where the waves crashed against the window of a restaurant where I was dining, and my son and granddaughter saw the phenomenon at Little Dix Bay in the British Virgin Islands.



Luminescence from the shore
I refer to the luminescence given off when certain Noctiluca or similar species are agitated, by motion of a body in the water, or by the action of pounding surf, as was the case at the restaurant.  Blue and yellow iridescence covers much more of the water than could be explained by the movement of a hand.  Surely there must be some sort of communication involved.

I don’t know how much of this post you already knew, but even if you knew everything this should make you more appreciative of the world we see around us: its complexity and its mystery.  Drop me a comment if you have other examples of murmurations.

Today I had one of those Senior Moments, when I put my cable bill check in my church envelope and had to swap out the two at the Rectory later in the day.  It wasn’t the fact that the cable bill is more than my weekly contribution (something to ponder)  but it made me think about how and why we contribute the way Mary and I do.  That might be worth exploring in my next posting.