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Monday, December 31, 2012

Christmas Ribbon

One of the most beautiful subtleties of Christmas is the way each year notches out a little nest in the timeline of our memories. It is one day each year we remember with great attention to detail. While we forget what we wore, or where we were, on Monday, March 14th or the third Thursday in August, we can recall details from past Christmases in great detail; like the texture of silk on our porcelain doll's pinafore and the way the ruffles of our Christmas dress chaffed our legs in the pew sitting next to Grandma at church. We recall the care we took to paint an awkward Rudolph that still finds his way onto your mother’s tree. We can remember hiding from the “stench” of lutefisk in the basement at our Great Aunt’s house; then later sitting with our noses pressed against the cool glass, our breath creating wreaths of fog on the window, watching for any sign of Santa’s sleigh. These memories float easily to mind each Christmas, arousing our senses and flooding our head and our heart with nostalgia and appreciation.
The timeline of our memory ceases to be ordinal. That ribbon of time holding memories of Christmases past bends, folding back and forth, back and forth, condensing time and allowing us to live Christmases past and present simultaneously. In this way, we are able to keep the spirit and traditions of family members that are no longer with us on Christmas Day very much alive.
This year, the Thoe cousins went caroling wrapped up in coats and cloaks that have been passed down from our mother’s, grandma’s and great aunties. To the surprise of our great aunts, we showed up at their door on Dec 23rd and sang through “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, followed by a funky version of "Joy to the World". We thought we sounded pretty good when we were breakin' it down... until we heard ourselves on video!  
In Oshkosh, we  shared a very poignant moment; one that will now be woven into the fabric of our Christmas memories for many years to come.  
December 14, 2011 my Uncle Leon passed away unexpectedly. Last Christmas was the worst I can remember, and yet it was a miracle in its own right. Leon's passing right before the holidays allowed the family to come together for an extended period during a very difficult time. We spent Christmas laughing at old stories, sharing our grief, comforting one another and healing. 

Christmas was his favorite time of year, and this year his big presence (and recipes) were notably absent from the festivities. Jim and Candy surprised everyone when they brought out 20 large lanterns after dinner. The roar of excitement that inevitably rumbles when the Luker clan is together calmed to a hush. We quietly filtered out of the living room into the backyard, through knee-deep snow out onto a little bridge all four of my uncles built for my grandparents’ four-wheelers years ago. Incidentally, the last time the whole family was together with Uncle Leon we took a picture on the very same bridge. We lit the lanterns and watched them sail out over the Luker farm.  At Leon's funeral each cousin placed an item that represented their favorite memories with Leon onto a fir tree. The tree was covered with fishing lures, arrows, camouflage, blaze orange, gun shells and cooking utensils. Last spring, the tree was planted near a four-wheeler trail overlooking a little meadow and the forest. The wind caught the lanterns and carried them directly over that little tree.
Had any children been watching with their nose pressed up to a window nearby, they would surely have mistaken the bobbing lanterns for Santa’s sleigh and eight tiny reindeer.            

Friday, December 28, 2012

Drew's Very First Christmas Letter

This year we sent out our very first Christmas letter. In the Imes family, men take Christmas letter duty very seriously. I really enjoyed Drew's first rendition!

Hope you enjoy our Cyber version of the Christmas Card! If you are reading this, you are probably someone we know and love. We are thankful for you and hope to see you often in 2013!


Growing up is hard. Your first few years of life are genuinely awesome. You get to run around naked, play with toys all day, and generally speaking, aren’t expected to do much at all except eat, sleep, and eventually sit on a toilet. Life as a toddler is so great that people think you’re cute even if you puke or soil yourself. After those childhood years though, life begins to make demands: Get good grades, get a job, find your own place to live, pay the bills, do this, do that, don’t soil yourself. They say these things are just part of growing up; part of becoming an adult. Well, what if you don’t want to be an adult? What if you don’t want to cross that line from being young and exuberant and full of potential to becoming old and boring and hopeless? “Too bad” they say, “It’s impossible, you have to grow up.” Well, I’ve always clung to the hope that I was winning the battle with age, that I would stay young at heart forever and never become a boring-old adult. But alas, I now realize that I have lost the war, for the day a person writes their first family Christmas letter is the day their childhood officially dies. Therefore, by writing this Imes Family Christmas Letter, on this 6th day of December, 2012, I now declare that I am truly an old and lame adult. God forgive me.

Besides falling into the dark abyss of adulthood, 2012 has been one heck of a great year. I’ll start with the biggest and best news, which of course, is that I grew a mustache. Wait, no, I mean, Amanda and I got married!! Yes, this was and continues to be the best thing that has ever happened to me, and Amanda agrees, that it is the best thing that has happened to me. Our marriage was on August 3rd at the Mayowood Stone Barn in Rochester, MN. Most of you reading this were probably there, so I won’t go into great detail. I will say, however, that despite the average temperature of 197 degrees (in the shade), it was the most amazing wedding that mankind has ever witnessed. The only thing that overshadowed the wedding was the bride herself. She was, (the following statement has been proven to be true by various unbiased scientific communities), the most beautiful bride ever. Period.

So the wedding was a big part of the year. Unbeknownst to me, it takes a certain amount of planning and preparation to make a wedding happen. You have to collect buckets of rocks from the shores of Lake Superior and very nearly break your wrists hauling them up a steep hill back to the house where you will use them to make candles and other crafty things. You have to scour Craigslist looking for hundreds of mason jars and then go to these strangers’ homes hoping that they are not a serial killer or some sort of deranged lonely widow. You have to search the countryside for a certain type of plant/flower that you bundle up, tie up, and then hang from every possible space in your small condo to let dry. Oh, there is also the small matter of collecting dozens of shepherd’s hooks, which, if you are educated like me, now know that these are things you hang flowers from and not the actual hooks used by shepherds to tend their flocks. And don’t forget the invites. No, you cannot forget the invites. But if you are a male, please do not attempt to surprise your lovely fiancĂ© by preparing the invites yourself. You will most certainly put the cards in backwards, use the wrong stickers, and forget to include a vital piece of information.

Bosco, our French Bulldog, also played a major role in the wedding. No, he wasn’t the ringbearer, but he did manage to get lost five minutes before Amanda and I were supposed to be at our ceremony. It’s true, as we were leaving the Thoe Farm to get married we realized that Bosco was missing. We looked and yelled and yelled and looked, but we couldn’t find him. Eventually, people told us we HAD to go and some volunteers stayed behind to find the worthless mutt. Surprisingly, having a lost dog, possibly a dead dog, on your wedding day, is not something young girls dream of when they sit around and plan their weddings. So we both arrived at our wedding ceremony with heavy hearts, until… hallelujah!!!!...a report came in that Bosco was found in someone’s’ car nearly, but not totally, baked to death. Bosco is alive to this very day.       

We did do more than just have a wedding this year. In March we went out to Colorado with a group of friends to get in some spring skiing/snowboarding. We skied from morning to night for about seven days straight. The girls took a day off from skiing to take a hike up to Hanging Lake, which, when all was said and done, the guys were jealous of. In all, we skied Keystone, Copper, Vail, and Beaver Creek. To give you an idea about what the weather was like, after skiing all day, we would swim in the outdoor pool at our hotel. It was definitely a lifestyle we could get used to.

In June we went to Alaska to visit the Alaskan Imes Family, which consists of our two beautiful nieces Anna and Mara, their lovely mother Maren, and my “special” brother Nate. It was an amazing trip. The best part was seeing the family, but climbing mountains, kayaking with sea otters, fishing for halibut, and eating elk hotdogs were okay too. A memory Amanda and I will always cherish is climbing the Blacktail Rocks via Mount Baldy in Eagle River, Alaska. This was a pretty legitimate scramble up a steep snowcapped peak. We stopped before the snowline (in June!) and shared a miniature bottle of wine and took in the view from what looked like the top of the world. The wind was so powerful it felt like it would blow us off the jagged cliffs, so we holed up in a little cranny until we felt rested enough to begin the long descent. I think we both could have stayed up there forever, but that was before the wolves began to howl. Amanda might have set a mountaineering record for the fastest descent of Mount Baldy. Alaska is a huge and wild place, and we both can’t wait to visit the Alaskan Imes family there again.

Let’s see here, what else? Ah yes, we also went to the Bahamas for our honeymoon. Neither of us had ever taken a dedicated “beach” vacation so this was our attempt to do so. Amanda had no idea where we were going until we were at the airport and we arrived at the gate which said: “Destination - Nassau”. Amanda got really excited for a minute, and then she realized she didn’t know where “Nassau” was. If it wasn’t for the unfortunate invention of smartphones and Facebook, she wouldn’t have known where we were going until we actually touched down on the island. The trip was fantastic, yet not quite so relaxing as one might expect. You see, being the savvy shopper that I am, I found a beautiful bungalow on the beach for a surprisingly modest price. The only caveat was, it was part of a Yoga Retreat. Well, Amanda loves yoga so I didn’t think that doing yoga once or twice would be a big deal. Little did I know that guests were expected to do 4 hours of yoga and 4 hours of meditation/crazy chanting a day! However, through conversations with other guests, it quickly became apparent that you could skip stuff without fear of punishment. To be fair, the Yoga Retreat was great. It was like a jungle oasis on the beach. We also stayed in a former buccaneer’s mansion which has become the oldest hotel in the country. It was very classy with beautiful art and furniture, a 4-Diamond restaurant, a guy that rolls you fresh cigars, an in-house chocolatier, bottles of wine worth $200,000, and the delightful company of the father and son Italian Mafia owners and their overly-dramatic Mafia wives and daughters. Lastly, we stayed at the Hilton British Colonial Inn where we had access to the VIP lobby on the top floor where you get free food and drinks. Swimming with dolphins and being attacked by schools of rabid fish while snorkeling the barrier reefs are some other highlights of the honeymoon trip.

Okay, I have to start wrapping things up now, but there is still so much left. We are both really pumped to have my new sister-in-law Bonnie and my “special” brother-in-law TJ live here in Minnesota. They moved up from Texas in August and it is great to be able to spend time with them. We all went and chopped down our Christmas trees and walked a Spruce Maze (the girls cheated of course) a week or so ago. We are looking forward to many more adventures with them in the near future, as long as the girls promise not to cheat anymore.

Amanda is a busy bee. She is working part time at the Department of Revenue researching the effect of online sales on the state’s sales tax revenue. She also works ten hours a week working for a professor to research the effectiveness of university extension programs. Oh, and she goes to graduate school fulltime. She will get her Master’s Degree when she finishes her thesis in early Spring. She also found time to go on a trip to South Africa through her graduate program. In Cape Town she went to the top of Table Mountain, frolicked with monkeys, and took a day-trip to the southernmost tip of Africa, Cape Point. She also went on a safari, stayed at some really authentic ranches, fell in love with a meerkat, and observed that South African men still wear really short and tight cut-off jean shorts. If you haven’t noticed, I was not on this trip. Am I bitter about that? Yes. Do I tell Amanda that I am going to go on a cool trip by myself? Yes. Am I really going to take a trip by myself? No.

I still work at the Department of Revenue full-time doing boring stuff. I also coach a freestyle snowboard team for 9-12 year old kids. On top of that, I am working part time at REI, which is a big outdoor recreational equipment store.

We live in condo in downtown St. Paul, which is quickly becoming a trendy area. Our new family consists, of Amanda, myself, and a dog that can only be described as “gremlin-like.” As mentioned above, his name is Bosco. He pukes, farts, smells bad, and generally misbehaves; and yet we still think he is cute. I guess nobody ever told him he needs to act like an adult.

Happy Holidays!
  

Love,
Amanda Joy Thoe Imes and Andrew Ralph Imes


Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Oh Target, you fickle fiend.

If you’ve never heard of The Five Love Languages (and no, I am not talking about the Romance Languages) then stop!
Go take this quiz and read up on the love languages here.
If you are too lazy to take the quiz, then I’ll quickly sum it up for you. This great book explains that people have specific ways in which they prefer to give and receive love. The five primary means we show our love for others include: words of affirmation, acts of service, physical touch, quality time and, my personal favorite, gifts.
It’s important to know which love language is your language of choice because it can really improve your relationship. For example, if your husband shows his love through acts of service and you show your love through giving gifts, he may be changing your oil and washing your car but you are not feeling loved because he never brings you flowers. Conversely, he is not feeling loved because you may be showering him with gifts but all he really wants is a simple act of service, such as making his favorite dinner.
I grew up in a home where gift giving is a very big deal. We give (and receive) gifts on nearly every holiday. St. Patrick’s Day, Valentine’s Day, St. Nick’s Day[1]... to name some of the less conventional holidays we celebrate via gifts.
So what does this all mean? It means I should not be allowed to go into Target during the holiday season.  That place draws me in like a moth to a heat lamp.
You walk in and immediately you are greeted by the cheap-o section.  If you are like me, you take a preliminary sweep and wind up with host of things you don’t actually need with a one-week warranty in your cart. Stickers for your nieces, treats for your dog, socks for  your sisters, and some flimsy plastic bowls for your holiday party.
Stocking stuffers -check!
Next you pass the accessory area, a dangerous area for anyone with an X and a Y chromosome. You grab a scarf for your mother-in-law, a wallet for your coworker and some new gloves for yourself.
Heaven help you if you get anywhere near the Christmas section. A mini Christmas tree that plugs into a USB port!? An ornament of a duck playing hockey?! The PERFECT gifts for so-and-so.
Finally you make your way to the check-out counter where you find some great DVDs for $5... another great stocking stuffer!
Just before you put your items on the conveyer belt, you are seized by panic...
Must eliminate a few items from this cart! Should I get rid of this doggy santa coat? No... Bosco would look too cute in this coat to pass this up! Should I get rid of these light up earrings? No... If I do then I’ll have five gifts for Bonnie and only four for Katrina...
In exasperation you ditch the eggs and milk and wait for the cashier to give you the total. 
$127 dollars later you load up your car with a bunch of junk you didn’t plan on purchasing. As you climb back into the driver’s seat you see the crumpled up shopping list you forgot to bring in with you- there, you see the following:
·         Toothpaste
·         Dish soap


At least I know I’m not alone... someone is going home with those faux fur coats and denim rompers, and something tells me they probably aren’t that happy about their purchases either.
Oh Target, you fickle fiend.  

For more fun blogs check out this site: <a href="http://yeahwrite.me/85-open/"><img src="http://yeahwrite.me/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/85open.png"></a>


[1] If you just asked yourself, “what the heck is St. Nick’s Day?!” Then here is your answer: it is a holiday celebrated in regions of Northern Europe. Old Saint Nicholas leaves candy and trinkets in the shoes of good boys and girls on the morning of December 6th. This tradition has been going on in my family for as long as I can remember, but we receive gifts in our stockings instead of our stinky shoes. Yes, we are the only family I know that celebrates this holiday.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Amandles

Making candles has its ups and downs. Despite the fact that Drew has to deal with the constant wax mess I'm creating and his perpetual fear that I'll burn the condo down... there is a certain joy to candle making known only to those wonky enough to give it the old college try.

The picture in the book is what the candles should look like. Lemon/Orange candles were a "down" moment. 
Creating 20 unique rock candles for my friend Bryana's wedding was a definite "up" moment. We also made candles out of invitations for a few of our friends that were married this summer, another up.


The first Amandle craft sale...an up, and a down...

I've been filling mason jars from the wedding with wax every weekend. I also started making these gourd candles:




I definitely overestimated the demand for these candles.

First, I made about twenty candles.

Then, Bry and Kristen were due for a girls' night. I decided I'd take advantage of their free labor.

Bry and I ran to Target to pick up some gourds to carve and transform into pumpkin candles.

"So, two bags or three?" I asked as I picked up the little gunny sacks of gourds.

"Ummm, I was thinking one would be plenty." Bry responded.

We compromised on two. *I'd like to note here that the "free labor" idea did not pan out as these two ladies just sipped on their wine and watched me carve the pumpkins.


So now I had about 45 gourd candles...

But that didn't stop me. I picked up two more gunny sacks of gourds while grocery shopping with Bonnie.

Bry and Kristen were wise enough not to offer to help. Bonnie wasn't so lucky, she had no choice- I just gave her a spoon and told her to start scraping.

Seventy gourd/pumpkin candles later, I was ready for my very first craft sale.  I thought I was going to be rich. I was planning to sell the candles for $5 a pop, or maybe $3 at a minimum. I thought they would go like hot cakes.

I'd only been at the sale about 5 minutes before I reduced the price to 3 candles for $5, or $2 each. By noon, I had sold one gourd candle.

Drew joined me for lunch and immediately struck the prices even further. He changed the price of gourd candles to $1 a pop, and still we couldn't get rid of them.

Turns out, people don't really want to buy candles that will eventually rot. We made $45 whopping bucks, whoo hoo! Looks like my family will be getting mason jar candles for Christmas, and I'm sure my Thanksgiving spread will look even better with about 30 gourd candles to spruce things up!

I did manage to spend most of the profits buying crafts made by my coworker Alyssa. I can't post any pictures of them here because I'd be spoiling the surprise for their intended recipients on Christmas day!

Ending on a positive note, the name "Amandles" received rave reviews. Now I just need to work on the product!



Check out other fun blogs here: <a href="http://yeahwrite.me/84-open/"><img src="http://yeahwrite.me/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/opengrid84.png"></a> <a !

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Reflections on the election

Last night I had a girls' night with two of my favorite friends and political wonks. We share ideas, news articles, good books, crafts, recipes and experiences- quintessential ingredients for lifelong friendship.

Kristen shared her experience working at the phone bank for Minnesotans United For All Families. She called one young man who told her he didn't know how to vote because his religious beliefs suggested he should not support gay marriage. Kristen then asked him what he valued most as a Christian; she offered that she strongly values the importance of loving your neighbor as you love yourself. The young man was moved  by this; he thanked her and told her he would be voting no on the marriage amendment.

Bryana has worked extremely hard to inform others of the importance of voting no on the marriage amendment. She posts facts and stories on facebook and even had a "Vote No" sign at her wedding this August.

I shared my experiences writing the blog and the emails and fb notices I receive with questions, comments and criticism.

As we watched Saturday Night Live we wryly laughed along with a sense of disappointment in the election in general.

I think the three of us are very representative of many Americans at this time. We are informed, independent individuals that value the importance of pragmatism and compromise. We don't appreciate the extreme partisan politics in Washington.

We simply want intelligent representation in Washington, individuals willing to work with one another to rebuild America. We don't have any time for politicians waging wars on issues we've made peace with; we accept physics, math and biology. We know we need to work to become carbon neutral and a green economy that produces less plastic and waste. We know that climate change is a very real and very dangerous aspect of our future that we need to address now, so we can acclimate ourselves to the changes it will bring. We know that we must spend less on entitlements and the military in order to reduce the enormous deficit. We know that we need a practical approach to tax reform, reform that will ease us through the fiscal cliff and allow the deficit to become small enough that interest rates can become larger than 2.5%.

We also respect the rights of women, Hispanics, homosexuals and those struggling financially. Politicians forget that nearly every American felt the recession in some way. Maybe we had a friend or relative that lost their job at age 50 and is now struggling to start a new business. Perhaps we have a niece, nephew or daughter that graduated from college and has been working a minimum wage job for two years. Or perhaps we know a family that lost their health insurance when they lost their job, and now the family cannot afford adequate medical attention. We don't appreciate the hate mongering and disdain so callously displayed in debates and political ads.

The mood of America is sober; we're tired and frustrated with politics as usual

We long for politicians that abandon the extreme left and the extreme right, and move beyond the battles of the past. We need to stop talking about birth control and start talking about tax reform. We need to stop pretending that climate change is a political issue and accept it as a scientific reality agreed upon by 99% of scientists.

My hope for Tuesday is that the newly elected and re-elected officials enter Washington with a sense of earnest humility so that four years from now we aren't listening to the same tired arguments and political cliches, but proud of what has been done and eager to build upon the achievements of the past.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Don't like wasteful government spending or restricting rights? Vote no on Voter ID, here's why:

The Marriage Amendment has taken center stage on the major issues Minnesotans will be voting on in four days. There is another amendment on the ballot this year that deserves equal attention.

I want to explain why I'm voting no on the Voter ID amendment.
1. This amendment is very expensive.

MN has run deficits 8 of the past 11 elections. This amendment has been estimated to cost the state  somewhere between 10-14 million over four years. These costs will cover  the "free" IDs and taxpayer education.

The costs to local governments will be much higher, somewhere between 26 million and 64 million. These costs will cover provisional balloting, electronic rosters for polling places, converting mail-in polling places to in-person precincts. These costs will be largely paid through property tax revenue; property taxes are already at an all time high.

This amendment is an example of wasteful government spending that will limit one of our most important rights, the right to vote.

Disclaimer*** You may have noticed by now that I tend to be a bit liberal, but that doesn't mean I don't think fiscal responsibility should be centerstage in alll important political decisions. (-:

2. Voter Fraud is not a problem in MN (or in the US)

There is no evidence of voter impersonation in any MN election.

We had statewide recounts in 2008 and 2010 and voter fraud was not found to be a problem; in fact, the recount illustrated how sound the voting system is here in MN.


3. This amendment will keep an estimated 200,000 Americans from the polls.

This legislation allows only 4 kinds of photo IDs for voting: a driver's license, a MN issued photo ID card, a tribal ID or a newly created form of voter ID. (Which means you could NOT use a passport, military ID or student ID). To obtain a "free" voter id, you'd need to obtain a driver's license of birth certificate. This disadvantages anyone who has moved far from their county of birth, cannot drive, or does not have the means to obtain such documents as they cost money and time to obtain.
The right to vote is protected by both the US and the MN constitution.
Republican, Democrat, who cares? Vote No on Voter ID.




For more info:
It should also be noted, that the entire wording of the legislation is not included on the ballot. For the full wording, see this document: http://www.lwvmn.org/document.doc?id=508

Some related links if you'd like to know more:

Non-partisan group the League of Women's Voters provides a multitude of information on their site: http://www.lwvmn.org/sslpage.aspx?pid=1197

A summary of the MPR debate that took place on Tuesday, October 30 2012. http://www.startribune.com/politics/statelocal/176522591.html?refer=y

The Cost of the Proposed Election Amendment (source of stats above): http://www.ceimn.org/sites/default/files/Cost%20of%20Minnesota%27s%20Proposed%20Elections%20Amendment_corrected_0.pdf

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Obamacare: what it does (or will) do, what it doesn't do, and why we shouldn't repeal it

Last night Mr. Romney proudly asserted that he would repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) if he were elected. To me, this would be a step backward for the United States when we really need to continue moving forward. 

Sure, there are many problems with the Affordable Care Act, but there are many solutions in that 2,000 page bill that will save the lives and finances of millions of Americans. This legislation is a step in the right direction, while it is imperfect, we should work on ways to improve the legislation instead of unraveling the work of the past four years.

So what is Obamacare exactly? I decided to write about what Obamacare actually does, simply because it is a very complicated bill and I think many people don't know whether they support it or not because they don't know what it does, or what it could do for them or their loved ones.

The current system:

In the United States, you either receive Medicare, Medicaid, VA benefits, insurance through your employer or privately purchased insurance policies. This system has serious disadvantages; the principal disadvantage being that it leaves 48 million Americans uninsured because they either have pre-existing conditions or they cannot afford the high premiums charged by insurance companies. (Many employers do not provide insurance, leaving their employees to the private insurance market.)

This employer based system also poses many problems for the private sector. This system is a cost to US businesses vying to compete in an hyper-competitive global market. Tying insurance to employment also keeps potential entrepreneurs from entering the market because they feel they cannot afford to leave their job and give up their health insurance.  According to the Commonwealth Fund, 7 million Americans lost their insurance in 2010 due to job loss.

Recently I sat down with my friend, an Emergency Room Dr. who also has a Master’s Degree in Public Health. He wrote this compelling piece, which brings perspective to the healthcare crisis faced by so many, not only the uninsured, but also the underinsured. The tragic plight of the patient in the story, and so many like him, is obviously one that Mr. Romney has not yet connected with as he stated last week, "“We don’t have people that become ill, who die in their apartment because they don’t have insurance.” In fact, an estimated 45,000 deaths occur each year due to a lack of insurance[1].

The average annual health insurance premiums for family coverage were $15,745 in 2012, a 97% total premium increase since 2002[2]. While the price of insurance has skyrocketed, wages have stagnated. For someone without health insurance, a broken arm can mean financial ruin; healthcare costs are the number one cause of bankruptcy in the United States.

You will hear many say that anyone can receive care in the ER. While that statement is true, the patient is still responsible for paying for any treatment received (which is usually more expensive in the ER, and often could have been prevented if the patient had coverage for preventive care).

Underinsurance is also a serious issue in the US. For example, high-deductable plans and high co-pays encourage many to avoid necessary care; serious illness could mean financial ruin. According to the Kaiser family foundation, 75 million people skipped necessary care in 2010 due to cost, 25% with chronic conditions skipped prescriptions due to cost and 29 million Americans used all their savings to pay medical bills.

So what exactly will the ACA do? In short, here are the key things the ACA will do:
· Ensures that people with pre-existing conditions cannot be denied healthcare (this portion of legislation is already in effect for children with pre-existing conditions)
· Employers with more than 50 people must provide healthcare for their employees; the bill requires that insurance packages include preventive care and access to birth control. Small businesses will be able to purchase packages through insurance exchanges, and tax credits will support small businesses in this purchase.
· The ACA caps the administration costs of private insurance companies at 20%. (Currently 31% of US healthcare costs go to administration costs)
· Requires everyone to buy health insurance or pay a fine-the rationale being that if everyone has insurance, the risk will be pooled and costs will eventually come down. (The fine to opt-out is very low initially and will gradually increase over time).
· Allows people to stay on their parents’ policy beyond age 26.
· Insures an additional 32 million Americans (still leaves 20 million left uninsured)
· Private insurance companies must spend 80% of premiums on health care (as opposed to shareholder profits, administration costs and huge CEO salaries).
What the ACA will not do:
  • It will not fund abortions. (For those of you that think Federal funding supports abortion through Planned Parenthood, it doesn't. In fact, abortions represent only 3% of Planned Parenthood's annual costs.)
  • It does not allow the government to negotiate the price of drugs with pharmaceutical companies; this is a portion of the legislation that I hope can be changed in the future as it is a huge healthcare expense.
  • It does not mean "socialized medicine". Healthcare will continue to be provided and delivered privately.
  • It will not "bankrupt" the country; the Congressional Budget Office estimates it will cost $938 billion over the next ten years, but will pay for itself and reduce the deficit by $124 billion over the same time period.
In closing, I think we should be proud that our legislators were able to pass this legislation despite the extreme partisanship that has defined recent political history. Out of 193 countries, the World Health Organization ranked the US 28th  in life expectancy, 41st in infant mortality and 37th overall in 2011.

We have many huge political battles we must face; why not improve the legislation we have in place rather than go backwards.

For more on the economics beyond this issue, you can read my previous post here.

Please do read Dave's piece linked above, just in case you missed that link, I'll post it again right here!
https://www.commondreams.org/view/2012/08/06-6#.UHsJ-UNO_78.facebook





[1] Wilper, et al., AM J Public Health, 2009, 99:12.
[2] Kaiser/HRET Survey of Employer-Sponsered Health Benefits, 2002-2012.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What tax reform in MN should look like

Mark Dayton plans to unveil a budget in January 2013; tax reform will be a major piece of the proposal. The Commissioner of Revenue, Myron Frans, has been traveling the state to garner ideas for tax reform from cities, counties, businesses, taxpayers and legislators.

On Monday, the Commissioner gave a presentation at the Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota.  After his presentation, he sat on a panel with Bill Blazar, Senior Vice President of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, and Laura Kalambokidis, Associate Professor and Extension Economist in the Applied Economics Department at the University of MN.

If you’d like to watch his presentation outlining the many reasons we need tax reform, you can view the presentation here.  I’d like to sum it up quickly for you as well because tax reform is crucial for both the State and Federal Budgets- it would be nice to see MN at the forefront of tax reform.

Prominent Minnesotans like Tom Stinson, Art Rolnick and Myron Frans often tell a similar story about Minnesota. In 1950 MN was ranked 26th in per-capita income. At that time, agriculture provided a major source of employment for Minnesotans. Over the past fifty years, the state invested heavily in education and infrastructure. The State’s investments in education paid off; in 2004 MN was ranked 7th in per-capita income. MN is also home to the most Fortune 500 companies on a per-capita basis. Why? Because businesses have access to a highly educated work force and adequate infrastructure thanks to the many investments Minnesota made over the past 60 years.

However, in order to continue spending on education and infrastructure, the state needs to address a structural problem in the budget. The state of MN has run a deficit 8 out of the last 11 years; addressing this structural deficit problem is of growing concern as Minnesota’s population ages. Baby boomers are reaching retirement age, and family sizes have grown smaller, leaving a disparity between the number of Minnesotans in the workforce (and paying into the system) and growing numbers those at retirement age (pulling money out of the system). The Minnesota State Demographer predicts that by 2035 Minnesota will have 850,000 or more people age 60+ and only 60,000 ages 35-59.

Many people will say the state has a spending problem rather than a revenue problem; however, the facts tell a different story. For example, Minnesota is one of only five states that enjoys a tax exemption on clothing[1].  This exemption leaves a gaping hole in sales tax revenue. Similarly, approximately $400 million dollars in sales tax revenue is lost to remote sales and e-commerce sales (unfortunately, taxation of e-commerce is a very complicated issue for a later post). Sales tax currently only accounts for 27% of the annual revenue; a much smaller share than it has accounted for in the past.

Another problem is that the composition of the economy is changing; in the past, goods comprised a greater portion of retail sales than services, but in 2011 services accounted for 67% of sales in MN and goods accounted for 33%. Minnesotans and Americans are spending a much larger share on services than we have in the past, and these services are not tangible, and as such, typically not covered by sales tax. 

Our income tax forms are confusing. In 1950 you chose from 6 possible forms for an initial return, now you have to choose from 18. The number of adjustments and credits has risen from 9 to 50. In 1913 there were 6 property classes and tiers, now there are 55.

Obviously we need tax reform. We need simplicity (eliminate tax expenditures[2] where possible, simplify tax forms) and we need equity (a popular proposal includes graduated sales tax on items like clothing and certain foods).  

It will be interesting to see how tax reform in MN plays out!

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Some problems cannot be solved, they must be managed: a case against taxpayer subsidized amenities

2006: State of MN promises $393 million in public subsidy
2007: State promises 138.48 million for the new TCF Gopher’s stadium
2012: Vikings awarded $1 billion for a new stadium
2012: Saint Paul Saint’s promised $25 million to move the stadium from it’s current location in Midway to Lowertown

This semester I’m taking a class with former research director at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Art Rolnick. Dr. Rolnick is also a Senior Fellow at the University of MN’s Humphrey School of Public Policy and one of the leading experts in the economics of investing in early childhood education. I’m fortunate enough to listen to his insights on investing in early childhood development twice a week, and I wanted to take a minute to share some of his views with my readers.

Before taking this class, I was a big supporter of a Lowertown Ball Park. I live a few blocks away and I believe the stadium will generate a lot of revenue within the city of Saint Paul. I think it will be a cherished amenity, and I’d even go as far as calling it a public good for the city.

But Dr. Rolnick has convinced me that these stadiums represent a serious problem for the overall economy. He often uses stadiums as an example simply because budget deals for stadiums are so highly publicized. The unfortunate reality is, states are offering subsidies to expand and retain private businesses all the time. 

Retaining and “attracting” businesses makes sense at the state level, but it makes no sense for the national economy. If a company has a greater comparative advantage with headquarters in Atlanta, GA, then it would be in the best interest of the national economy for that company to base its headquarters there.

However, that is not how the scenario is typically played out. Competition for businesses among the states is a zero-sum game, or even a negative-sum game, in which private businesses are the benefactor and taxpayers are the losers.

The root of this problem is that cities and states competing for businesses cannot afford to ignore one another. For example, if MN had decided not to participate in competitive behavior, the Vikings would have left for LA; they in fact, used that very argument to put pressure on the state. Herein lies the problem, while it is rational for individual states to compete for specific businesses, the overall economy is worse off from their efforts because taxpayers lose important tax revenue to support public goods, such as funding for education, and businesses suffer because subsidies encourage a misallocation of resources.  

Some people have another word for the act of forcing somebody to pay for something by threatening to do something harmful to him/or, and that word is blackmail. The problem is, the rules of the game are set up to encourage this type of behavior. I don’t blame private businesses or states for participating in this game, because the incentives of the game encourage participation.

Understanding this issue can be clearly illustrated using game theory. The matrix for this game is presented in the following chart. Imagine the figures in the boxes represent the amount of revenue (in millions of dollars) each state has to win or lose by choosing to cooperate or compete.

California
Minnesota

Cooperate
Compete

Cooperate
(5, 5)
(-2.5, 7.5)


Compete
(7.5, -2.5)
(-2.5, -2.5)



The two strategies available to each state are (1) to cooperate by refusing to participate in competitive behavior with other states, or (2) to compete with the other state by offering subsidies and tax incentives for businesses to relocate to their state.

What should these states do? Consider first California. If Minnesota cooperates (doesn’t offer a subsidy to build a new stadium), the best thing  for California to do is compete. California would enjoy additional tax revenue from the Vikings relocating from Minnesota to California.  However, if Minnesota competes (offers the subsidy), again the best option for California to do is to compete (offer an even greater subsidy) because failing to compete would result in a substantial loss in tax revenue.

The strategy pair compete-compete is a dominated strategy equilibrium. Unless a strong incentive to cooperate exists, such as a federal mandate required by Congress, both states will compete. If both parties were rational, the equilibrium would obviously be for both states to cooperate. One of the most important roles of government is to implement policies where market failures exist; competition among the states is a prime example of a market failure demanding Federal attention.

Unfortunately, under the current political climate where cooperation is practically a curse word and the perception of losing state revenue is political suicide, it is unlikely that such a mandate or bill will ever reach fruition.

Dr. Rolnick has become a highly sought after expert in this field. The evidence is overwhelming; investing in early education provides substantially higher returns than investing in so-called public goods such as stadiums. Some studies suggest that in metropolitan areas the returns to preschool are $16-$1, a huge return on the initial investment. For more information, read this article, "Early Childhood Development: Economic Development with a high public return."

I'll leave you with the concluding paragraph from the article linked above:

"The conventional view of economic development typically includes company headquarters, office towers, entertainment centers, and professional sports stadiums and arenas.[...] The return on investment from early childhood development is extraordinary, resulting in better working public schools, more educated workers and less crime." - Art Rolnick, Rob Grunewald


 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Meet Bosco



Meet my dog, Bosco.

Bosco is very photogenic.

See what I mean?

 
He loves to sleep.


Bosco can't really swim without a life jacket. (Pathetic but adorable)

The only thing Bosco likes better than sleeping is playing with balls.




Sometimes Bosco thinks rocks are balls... the beach tends to make him a bit frantic. BALLS EVERYWHERE
Bosco is a good sport when we occasionally dress him up. 

Rockin some booties and a muscle tee.

Hot Dog!

When we camp... he gets carted around behind the bikes.

When Bosco goes for walks, he tends to get overheated. He always pulls this move when we come across vents. 
He also wallows in every puddle and fountain we come across.




It's possible that we love our dog too much... Drew carved this pumpkin last year.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

Meghan's Bridal Shower and Bachelorette Party








 This weekend we celebrated the upcoming  wedding of my cousin Meghan. We kicked off the festivities with mimosas and a bloody mary bar accompanied with some delicious breakfast her friend (and chef) prepared for us! He also made us dinner at Meghan's house before the bachelorette party and it was five-star quality! 

 After breakfast we had fun playing everyone's favorite shower game, the "make-a-dress-out-of- toilet paper-game". Katrina's avaunt-guard, gaga inspired dress won!

While Meg opened gifts, this little entrepreneur 
set up a mini-farmer's market, so cute. 
























































Every year the Luker's decorate one of the trails in my grandparents woods for Halloween. It's become a tradition to take a haywagon ride out to the trail with some adult beverages and walk along the path without flashlights. It's a tradition we all love. Bonnie and I try to get there to make a giant spider web, but this year with several helpers we made two giant webs and a webbed archway over the trail, as well as a little canopy of webs! It's sort of hard to see in the pictures, but trust us, it is pretty cool!



I love Meg's dogs! Meet Jack.


 
Mary, McCayla, Merrill and Gabrielle 
                                                  Until next time, Happy Trails Oshkosh!