Monday, April 26, 2010

Lawn Care for America Now

This weekend, I witnessed a modern American Tragedy. My neighbor, a single mom with two kids, was forced to send her son across the street to our Hispanic neighbors to borrow their lawn mower. She then spent nearly two hours drudging up and down her front lawn, suffering more each time she had to go into the front ditch to mow.

When all was finally done, dark had fallen. She shutdown the lawnmower, called to her son, and instructed him to return the mower to our Hispanic neighbors.

How, I ask you, do we allow someone of these tragic circumstances be forced to mow her own lawn and to beg the use of a mower from immigrants to our great country?

Clearly the free market is not functioning properly. This woman could not afford to pay for what is fundamentally a basic human right: she was unable to hire a professional lawn service, with their superior lawn care knowledge and equipment, to ease this strain on her existence.

That's why I am founding Lawn Care for America Now. Don't let this overburdened single mother suffer, nor the infirmed, nor the elderly, all for want of a few dollars to hire someone to mow their lawns!

The mission of Lawn Care for America Now is to lobby Congress to recognize the fundamental human right of every person to live with dignity by getting access to quality lawn care. Like the recently passed Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), Congress should pass the Homeowner Protection and Affordable Lawn Care Act (HPALCA).

The HPALCA, like the model PPACA, would provide means-tested subsidies to low-income, disabled, and other disadvantaged citizens so that they can exercise their basic right to quality lawn care.

This bill is very important to the continued vitality of America. Many advantages immediately become obvious:

More Jobs: Lawn care jobs cannot be outsourced. This bill would directly reduce unemployment by increasing the number of lawn care specialists, and increase investment in lawn care capital equipment and durable goods and create related manufacturing jobs (in the U.S.A., naturally).

Improved Health: So many people suffer from lawn-related allergies that the cost of treatment and prevention is measured in the tens of billions. Expensive drugs from profit-seeking drug companies are regularly dispensed to suppress allergic reactions and to thwart asthmatic illness. By reducing the number of people regularly exposed to lawn allergens, this bill would reduce health-related expenditures related to unfortunately allergic people being forced to provide their own lawn care. Further, by shifting the labor to those who are more physically fit for the job, this bill will reduce the incidence rate of heat- and stress-related injuries and illness, which needlessly shorten the lives of those most at risk.

Increased Efficiency: Each year, Americans spend hundreds of millions of hours performing lawn care with inefficiently utilized equipment such as mowers, trimmers, edgers, and more. With low utilization rates, much of the maintenance of this equipment is forgotten, shortening the useful life of these assets. Additionally, ordinary Americans must individually bear the expense of purchasing this equipment, paying a relatively high cost for equipment of minimal effectiveness. Professional lawn care equipment does not suffer from this last penalty, as a little more outlay often brings significant benefits. Sadly these benefits are beyond the means of ordinary Americans. This bill will lower the cost of lawn care by efficiently allocating professional-level equipment to lawn care professionals who will achieve high utilization rates, thereby reducing the risk associated with investment, and will allow lawn care professionals to offer access to more services at more affordable prices.

This bill would necessarily require all homeowners to subscribe to lawn care services provided by licensed lawn care professionals. This requirement would benefit consumers in two ways. First, it would spread the cost of lawn care across a larger subscriber base, making it more affordable to lower income homeowners. Second, it would ensure that the lawn care received by homeowners meets minimal quality standards, providing a form of necessary consumer protection.

The bill would also create new and minor taxes on lawn care equipment and services in order to fund the subsidies for lower income homeowners. These taxes will be borne by the equipment manufacturers and lawn care professionals and their profit-seeking shareholders.

There are some who will say that they enjoy performing their own lawn care. There are others who will say that the subscription requirement will cost them more than their lawn care presently costs. Still more will say that they do not need the level of service anticipated by the bill, being willing to accept a lower standard of lawn care. These are half-truths spread by the opposition, who would leave single mothers like my neighbor to fend for themselves in a harsh and unforgiving world.

Remember my neighbor, your parents and grandparents, the wounded veteran, and those with special needs. Join our cause! Donate generously to our group, so that we can work to influence more with our common cause! Contact your elected officials, and make sure they understand how important the passage of this bill is to the welfare of millions of disadvantaged American homeowners.

Together, we can win!

[EDIT: Added heat- and stress-related injury and illness.]

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Government Tilting the Playing Field

Got a postcard from the IRS to my small business today touting "the recently enacted Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act", saying that it "could earn you a new tax credit this year for providing health insurance for your employees."

On the reverse, it explains that "eligible small employers could qualify for a credit worth up to 35% of premiums paid in 2010 (for businesses) or 25% of premiums paid (for tax-exempt groups)."

In order to qualify, I must have fewer than 25 employees (more if I have part-time employees), and less than $50,000 in average wages.

Here's my complaint:

My small business (a veterinary hospital) will be open four years in September. We have around ten employees, split around 50-50 between full and part time. This is the minimum staffing for our business to provide the required standard of care, whether we see patients or not (i.e., whether we have revenue or not). Thanks to an unforseen and powerful recession, our profit is less than one week's revenue and incredibly unstable.

My wife is the chief doctor and receives no compensation yet. (No stable, significant profit means no compensation for the doctor-owner). Our second doctor is compensated according to industry standards (approximately 25% of gross production). Our staff is provided a steady number of hours each week at competitive wages to honor their need to keep on budget at home. We provide time off for full-time employees, and hospital discounts for all employees.

The thing is, not one of our employees wants a group health plan. Some are covered under spousal health insurance plans. At least one detests being in a group plan for the extra expense brought by other employees, and so has an individual plan of her own choosing. Our solution is to pay a cash benefit to full-time employees to help cover the costs of health care. There is a provision in the federal tax code that allows this to be tax-free to employees under specific circumstances, otherwise it is treated as additional wages.

Here's the problem: The tax credit offered by the Act does not apply to my business!

How does this tilt the playing field? My competitors who are larger and have group health insurance plans will have a major labor expense subsidized.

I cannot and will not force my employees into a group health plan in order to get this tax credit. They don't want it. It would be an affront to their individual liberty to do so, would be unethical on my part, and would likely be illegal under state and federal law.

Through no action or inaction of my own, my competitors will receive thousands of dollars in subsidies to provide a benefit they already provide out of revenues. In times of rising medical supply costs (even for veterinary hospitals), this subsidy will allow my competitors to consider passing on fewer of these cost increases in their prices. At best, it will provide additional income to the owners at taxpayer expense.

This hardly seems the object of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Yet it is a foreseen (and foreseeable) consequence. The federal government wields blunt instruments.

Our situation is but one of many unintended consequences of governments of all levels intervening in the marketplace. Even local government is not immune to tilting the playing field.

Dan Telvock, writing in his blog on on March 24th and in later posts, details how yet another company is being offered multi-year tax rebates simply for locating in the county. What a slap in the face to the rest of us who have already located businesses in the county! Are the jobs we create less valuable than the jobs another company brings in?

Economists will call this creating incentives at the margin, but there are costs to these incentives. In this case, local government is taking a lot of "little bits" from me and many others to give "a lot of" preferential benefit to one private entity. Furthermore, it arouses ill-will in the existing business community. What assurance do we have that the deal is being considered solely on merit? There can be none!

In truth, the playing field has been crumpled and tilted in so many ways, that it is impossible to know whether the net benefit to my business is more or less than it would be if the field were level. The fact that the situation is so obscure makes possible rent-seeking by lobbyists and "good ole boys". In plain language, it is easier to hide gains from having the field tilted in your direction.

After all, what the public does not know cannot hurt them, right?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park

Known as the "Gibraltar of the West Indies", Brimstone Hill was built by the British to defend their "middle third" of St. Kitts. Eventually, they took the whole island, but until not after the French (who had the other two thirds) had taken Brimstone Hill at least once. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is worth the thirty minute drive.

Go early in the morning to avoid the rush from the tourists. (Ahem, we are "explorers" and "travelers" on our journeys; never call us tourists, no matter how much we stick out.)

As usual, get a taxi and ask lots of questions on the drive to and from. We had a taxi driver (Leo's Taxi Service, christopherom at, 869-764-3387) who knew more about his island than we could have dreamed of asking. He also knew a fair amount about American History. As it happened, when we told him we were from Virginia, he grew very excited and exclaimed that it was James Madison's birthday. He asked if we had been to Madison's home (Montpelier)--we have, as it is in neighboring Orange County. This is the kind of experience we treasure, and it is not often found on tour buses.

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Departing Basseterre, St. Kitts

Kathy has a very good sense of how to get night shots that bring out an artistic reaction. These two photos were taken as we awaited departure from St. Kitts. We were unexpectedly delayed by three hours as we took on fuel from a barge. This gave us time for astrophotography (didn't turn out too well) and these two samples.
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English Harbor, Antigua

This is a view of English Harbor and Falmouth Harbor (beyond the causeway) in Antigua. This photo is taken from one of the three outposts on Shirley's Heights.

In English Harbor proper is Nelson's Dockyard, so named because Admiral Nelson was commander here for some time. The dockyard is a well-preserved historical site that offers insight into the workings of a Caribbean British naval base in the Age of Sail. It is best to first go to Shirley's Heights to watch the worthwhile presentation prepared by the Antiguans.

Whether with a tour group or going independently with a taxi driver, ask lots of questions on the way to this side of the island. It takes about half an hour to get here from St. Johns (the capitol), and cuts through the heart of the island.
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A view of Signal Hill on Pigeon Island, St. Lucia

This photo was taken from just below Fort Rodney, on the lower of the two peaks on the island. The resort on the causeway to the island is a Sandals resort.

Part of what is interesting about this picture is the difference in vegetation on the saddle point between the two peaks. On the ocean side (left in photo), the vegetation is rough and scraggly. On the harbor side (right in photo), it is composed of more grasses and trees. I wonder if this is a salt spray effect?
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High Dynamic Range Photography: Inside the Cathedral in Old San Juan

This picture was taken inside the cathedral in Old San Juan. This is my first attempt at creating a high(er) dynamic range picture. This is a combination of three photos using "exposure blending." I shot three images, bracketed by 2EV each. In a normal exposure, the madonna in the alcove is washed out. Using this method, as semi-automated by a GIMP script, it was possible to have the full range of detail.

One lesson I learned from several attempts is to use a tripod. In many cases, I shifted or rotated the camera slightly, resulting in an imperfect alignment that is difficult to correct. I gave up on several of my hoped for HDR photos, but I will do better in the future!
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A view of the harbor in San Juan, Puerto Rico as it leads past Old San Juan to the sea. This is part of the walking tour of Old San Juan. We are standing right next to the Governor's Mansion (not pictured), one of the oldest dwellings in the New World.

We found that we could drop our luggage at a restaurant named Barrachina, home of the first Pina Colada, located just two blocks from where this picture was taken. Not only are they very nice to hold our luggage (for a nominal "tip", payable in advance), but the food is authentic and excellent. It was a nice way to end our cruise last month, as we waited to depart by plane later in the afternoon.
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