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Time to End the Mortgage Interest Deduction

I’m a big fan of the two shows This American Life did with Pro Publica regarding the Giant Pit of Money. Shoving interest rates down for so long meant that bond yields were nada. A historically unprecedented amount of money went looking for higher returns. Match that with poorly doc’d CDOs and you’ve got a setup for the biggest balloon since the tulips.

I was out purchasing in 2005 and deeply frustrated by competing in that market. I feel sorry for many, but I also got screwed in a different way. All that easy money meant that I had to pay a lot more for a house than in a reasonable market. We put down a bit over 10% and have a 15 year fixed mortgage. Even given a decline in values (we’re probably down about 10% in Alexandria, VA), we have solid equity in our home.

Personally, I’m in favor of terminating the mortgage interest deduction. I doubt that it’s done much for its purported aim, increasing home ownership. If you look at ownership rates internationally (I’m not on the SCOTUS, so I’m allowed to do this), you’ll some interesting results.

Australia – 69%
UK – 69%
US – 68%
Canada – 67%
NZ – 65%

Take a look at my not so random selection. Home ownership rates are comparable in the UK and English speaking former colonies. The desire for home ownership is a cultural matter, independent of a mortgage interest deduction.

But wait! One argues that it makes home ownership more affordable. No it doesn’t. Historically, the calculation has been based on income. If the government subsidizes mortgage payments, then housing prices will simply rise to compensate.

As an interim measure, I would suggest a housing tax credit of up to 20% with a limit of the median price of a home multiplied by the average interest rate . No second homes either. Sunset it by 1% per year until the damn thing disappears around 2030.


Hot Tamales

Hi all,
It is a tradition throughout Latin America to make tamales around Christmas. Make them, share them, compare them (yours are best, of course). Having married a Tica, we carry the tradition forwards. We use her Tia Lijia’s recipe with a few modifications.
A tamal is essentially a way to convert scraps into a meal. I want to call it a tamale too, but the singular is tamal and the plural is tamales (note, tamalays, not tamalis). We don’t have any truck with those Philistines in Mexico who use corn husks to wrap them. Costa Rican tamales are wrapped in banana leaves, which are great for steaming. The quality of the banana leaf is important. My beloved Keen does the selection and slicing of the leaves.
Here’s how you make Fallas-Baldi tamales. Take two prepared banana leaves and place them cross-wise. That’ll form a good seal for the steaming. Next, put on a generous dollop of masa. That’s the critical component and I’ll explain its preparation in a bit. Now, add the presents to your package. A couple pieces of chicken. A couple of olives. A few capers. Some sautéed, julienned carrots and bell pepper. Raisins are traditional, but we use dried, sweetened cranberries. Wrap up your tamal, put it against another one and tie up into a package. Your tamales will be steamed with others in batches. I think we make about 100 tamales each year, most of which are to be given away.
The masa is the crucial component. The first step is to make the broth. The standard approach is to boil chicken breasts in water then add spices (condimento—a Latino spice). One then removes the chicken breasts for later preparation. Spices are added to the broth and then masa harina (corn flour with lime, Maseca is a popular brand that we use). Mashed potatoes are the secret ingredient in the FB masa. It’s also important to add plenty of fat. We use Crisco, but I suspect that lard is traditional.
Here was my one and only innovation. It struck me that (a) the chicken would be over-cooked and (b) wouldn’t add enough flavor to the broth. I’m big into stock and poached chicken is lovely. It struck me that the basic method overcooked the chicken and didn’t add enough flavor to the broth. This is my one and only innovation (approved of by the tamal nazi).
I purchased 8 chickens at Costco this year. The thighs and legs were removed, skinned, and set aside for later use. The breasts were removed off the bone and set aside. The backs and wings were chopped into pieces, roasted, and used to make stock. It’s a standard stock, with the substitution for parsley with plenty of cilantro and culantro. The latter is a flat-leafed herb with a flavor similar to cilantro. Cilantro is actually called culantro in Costa Rica; culantro is called culantro coyote. It was considered something of a wild herb there and we can finally get it in the U.S. (exported from Costa Rica). We’re going to wind up with about 3 gallons of stock out of all of this.
OK. We just poached the chicken breasts in the stock. In the past, I’ve poached the chicken breasts in water and then added the bones, mirepoix, and herbs to make stock. I think I like this way better as the stock flavors the breasts and vice versa. The chicken is then cut into ~1/2 pieces. It’ll be sautéed in onions with condimento (spice blend) and achiote (which colors the chicken). The julienned bell peppers and carrots will be similarly sautéed.
For a vegetarian friend, I make a few tamales without chicken. She’s not bothered about broth, so I  like making a few tamales con camarones. One year, we made masa with a shrimp stock. Keen indulged me. We also have some pork loin in the freezer, so I’ve defrosted it and we’ll make a few pork tamales.
We’ll be busy tomorrow. Friends are coming over, drinks will be drunk and many tamales will be made.
¡Felix Navidad!

European Contagion

There is quite a lot in the news about the Euro crisis. I’m skeptical of claims that a Euro implosion would be disastrous for the U.S. economy. First off, Greece being ejected from the Euro doesn’t mean the end of the Euro. Just that Greece was brought in with an overvalued currency and with the full knowledge that the books were cooked. The U.K. was ejected from the Euro’s predecessor 20 years ago. That event propelled a dramatic economic recovery from disastrous interventions to stabilize its currency. It’s also the primary reason Labor was in government from 1997 to 2011. Even with larger knock on effects, the Euro zone is not a significant growth market for U.S. exports and an economic slow down might have a knock-on effect for materials prices. The U.S. performance this year tracked fairly well with oil. I’m likely wrong about this, but I don’t see this as our greatest challenge.

The most interesting piece that I read was a graphic in today’s Post illustrating U.S. exports to Europe. As I expected, exports to the southern tier countries aren’t that great. I expected the bigger EU countries (U.K., France, Germany) to make up the lion’s share. The shocker to me is that the largest market for us is Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg), accounting for roughly $55B of U.S. exports per year, well ahead of the U.K. at $42B. One might quibble with me combining the three countries, but our Benelux exports rival those to Germany and France combined ($58B). For the record, here’s the top 10.

Country Imports Exports
Canada $237B $210B
Mexico $196B $146B
China $292B $74B
Japan $92B $49B
United Kingdom $38B $42B
Germany $72B $36B
Korea, South $43B $33B
Netherlands $18B $32B
Brazil $22B $32B
Hong Kong $3B $27B

Incidentally, there is only one country that shows zero imports or exports to the U.S.–Yemen. Unless you included postal bombs.


Is it any wonder?

Good morning, everyone!  I apologize for being absent for solong.  Currently, am still job-hunting,and not focused much on politics at all. I miss it!  I miss y’all!  Even QB.

Kevin and Michi: Thank you for contacting me.  You have no idea how good it feels!  I am stuck here in Manassas, and don’t darego out anywhere to spend anything.  Won’teven go the pool hall, damnit!

All of which leads me to the following:

The job market has changed so much in justa few years, literally! It is drastically different from what it was just 10years ago, and at THAT time, it didn’t have much in common with the way that Iwas taught to job hunt waaaaay back in the 80’s. Now it feels like I am on aroller coaster ride taking the long way around to the Black Hole of Resumes.

It used to be that with some good oldpavement pounding, you could find a job. In the mid-90’s, I took the yellow pages, and just started cold-callingevery business that had an interesting name. I found a job in a week.  I usedthe Sunday newspaper (you know, actual PAPER?)

Today, I go to Careerbuilder andMonster.  I’m trying to figure out LinkedIn.  Gadblummit, I am NOT going to signup to Facebook!  Enough already!!  Besides, I have NO CLUE where any pictures ofme are.  I have nothing to post.  I’m looking for employment, ‘k? I don’t wanta date. Unless they’re paying for everything.

So where am I going with this?  Why does this rant belong here, on this blog?Well.

In job-hunting today, on one hand, you areexpected to hand out all kinds of information about yourself to the generalpublic, in sites such as LinkedIn and FB.

On the other hand, be very carefulregarding identity theft, and pick your friends carefully, as some employersnow routinely run searches on social networks and Google about you before theyhire, and they check your friends as well.

It is these searches that are the cause ofmy ire.  I am looking for a job, youknow, that stuff that you do all day in order to collect a paycheck?  I am not looking to date you.  It really isn’t your business that my brotherhas mental issues.  They don’t affect MYjob!  It isn’t your business that myex-fiancee is still my friend, and that his daughter had a baby out of wedlock(how quaint!) a month ago. It isn’t your business that my old friend fromcollege, that I haven’t seen for 10 years, may have a drinking problem.  He lives in Atlanta.  I am looking for a job in the DC area.  Yes, I play pool.  I love to play pool! What does that have todo with fixing workstations?  If you wantme to dedicate every waking hour to YOU, Pay me!

And now we move on to finances.  Don’t you think, that if I am job-hunting,that I then may have a cash-flow issue? Isn’t that part of the whole situation that I am job-hunting to get outof? Steady paychecks have a way of clearing those things up pretty quick.  So, why are you denying me a job because Ihave been slow paying a couple bills?  Doyou really think that I am going to pay them faster now?

All of the above though, is just theinsult to the injury.  The injury:

I found your job listing.  I went to your website, I spent an hourfilling out an application with all the same info as the resume that yourequested I upload/cut’n’paste, I spent another 30 minutes browsing your site,and running searches on you.  Theresponse from you? Nothing. Black Hole. Nothing.

Oh, I might get one that says, “We gotyour resume.” That’s it. No other follow up. (more on this in a bit).

What happened to etiquette and manners? Afterspending all of that time, I expect a response. Something that says “Thank you for applying, position is filled”, or theone that says “Thank you for applying, we are not accepting apps now”.  You can’t be bothered for a little courtesywhen your job description clearly stated that “Friendly and prompt customerservice is a must”?

Or, if you are going to send a cannedresponse like “We got your resume”, do you mind following up on that?  I have responded to a job ad where thedescription also stated “track issues and follow up on all tickets promptly”.  Obviously, you need to hire me, because I neverhear from you again.

Worse. You apply to a position, and amonth later, and two months later, the SAME JOB IS STILL BEING ADVERTISED. Youknow what? They were just fishing. Trying to compare salary requirements, is all. They have no job. Theynever did.  Arseholes.

So, we have rudeness inside the workplace,and outside the workplace, and in our politics, and in our blogs. Is it anywonder there is such random violence, or that there is protesting going on?Really?

Ok. My rant is done.


I missed my chance at the main thread and was too busy to comment, so am posting separately.
I remember my first Thanksgiving away from home. I was a student at a college in St. Paul, Minnesota and my family lived in Pocatello, Idaho. I was NOT going to be going home for Thanksgiving. The food service had a special Thanksgiving meal planned for students who weren’t going home. Unfortunately, I hadn’t paid attention and didn’t realize it was an early meal. So, when I showed up for my meal, the place was dark and closed. Sigh… I wandered northwards and eventually found a bowling alley that was open. My first Thanksgiving away from home consisted of a polish sausage.
The next memorable Thanksgiving for me was in 2005. Keen was pregnant with twins and I mean PREGNANT. They were at 38 weeks and we would be going to the hospital the following Monday for a scheduled Caesarian. They missed sharing their grandfather’s birthday by one day (which was a Sunday). Friends of ours were gathering at a place near Georgetown. As someone who was beginning to develop a reputation for cooking, I was tasked with roasting the turkey.
I’d never roasted a turkey before. I bought the bird the day before and consulted my trusty collection of Cooks Illustrated. I’m supposed to brine the bird? Holy shit, I didn’t know that! A few years later, I realize that most supermarket birds are prebrined and so it’s not a good idea. Good thing that I didn’t have enough time to do much brining. So, I cook the roast beast and make decent gravy. Then we head out into the night. It was a cold night with wind that was howling. Also, my wife has not one, but two butterballs in her belly. We manage to get up to our friends’ place (even finding parking within a block!) and have a grand time with friends. Keen even had a glass of wine (take that, pregnazis!)
After that experience, I decided that I enjoyed the experience, but was not traveling with the bird. We’ve hosted a Thanksgiving meal every year since but one. I’ve done a lot more cooking since then and am a much better cook. Much of it is scheduling. Sweet potatoes can be done in the slow cooker. Mashed potatoes can be finished early and tossed into our rice cooker that has a warming function.
So, what is Thanksgiving to me? It’s a meal to celebrate family and friendship. I spend the entire day cooking and love it. I also have noticed an interest in cooking of one of my sons and hope to do a Blade & Son affair in the future. Here’s our Thanksgiving menu:
Lobster in Makhani Sauce (NB: leftover turkey in the sauce is amazing)
Stuffing I: Stuffing with caramelized onion and apples (vegetarian option)
Stuffing II: Made with turkey stock
Mashed potatoes
Sweet potatoes braised in coconut milk
Green beans with almonds (brought by a friend)
Gravy I: Traditional
Gravy II: Roasted garlic, coconut milk, and curry spices
Roasted beets
Sweet potato pie (made by Keen)
Apple pie (brought by a friend)
I’ll wish a retrospective Happy Thanksgiving to all ATiMmers!

Giblets and necks

Hi all,

My annual Thanksgiving preparations are ongoing. I’ve learned that starting on Monday means I can actually enjoy Thursday. We generally invite a few friends over to our place for Thanksgiving meal. Most folks bring a side or an appetizer (and wine!) Complicating the annual preparations is that two of our friends are vegetarians. Stuffing is a high light of the meal for me, so it’s gotta be made. I like to have all my guests able to enjoy it, so that means two batches. One turkey flavored and the other not.

Likewise, gravy. I made a mushroom gravy one year. Good, but a little complicated. This year I had an interesting idea. Mashed potatoes made with roasted garlic are tasty, so why not make a roasted garlic gravy? I have an Indian recipe for a garlic curry (cook garlic, onion and chiles in clarified butter until brown, add spices and coconut milk). I toned down the heat a bit and pureed the mixture.

I’ll have to think about the turkey alternative. It seems a shame to just eat sides and I’m sure fish has graced more than one holiday table. I roasted a rock fish one year, which turned out well. It’s fairly easy to do (salt and paper inside out out, toss herbs in the cavity and roast in a hot oven). It is, however, something that requires attention right when everything else is coming together. I actually made a lobster risotto another year. I’m tempted by the lobsters as they were $5/pound at the market and looked pretty frisky. Problem being that risotto is relatively time intensive. I might just try a makhni sauce (used for Indian butter chicken). Cook the lobsters, take the meat off the shell and toss into the sauce. I can make the sauce ahead of time and it’ll be tasty.

So, Monday night was stock night. I made a turkey stock from roasted neck bones. Well, it was a hybrid stock as turkey necks are $2.20 per pound and chicken necks are $0.69/pound. While that was going on, I also made the absurdly complicated vegetarian stock from Cooks Illustrated. The first time I made it, I swore I’d never do it again. In addition to the usual suspects, there’s a pound of collard greens and a cauliflower. All that work to produce a quart of stock. I’ve found that the recipe doubles just fine and makes a quite tasty stock. Still, I’d rather just use chicken stock.

Not much to do yesterday. I made the roasted garlic gravy and roasted some beats. I dice them up for a salad with yogurt, some spices, and some cilantro. Thanksgiving with a side of Mumbai. I took the bird out of the fridge this morning and put it in the brine. I’ll take it out of the brine this afternoon and leave it in the fridge to air dry. Life is also easier for myself if I do a lot of chopping tonight. Carrots, onions, and celery are pretty hard and it’ll save me time tomorrow.

Well, I’d best get to work, go home, and get to work.


The New Monopolies

Just a quick post on something I’ve been thinking about in the last few weeks. With my publishing project, I’ve had a more first person experience with some of the big monoliths in today’s world—Google (AdWords specifically), Amazon, and Facebook, though a friend took on the Facebook role as it was an odd fit for me and not something I had time for in any case.

I have to admit to being in awe of the reach of these big companies that have become so important in our lives so quickly. I won’t go into all the very real benefits they’ve brought because we know what they are. But the smaller comment I want to make is that in a service age, these are not outfits that are particularly good at helping the people who use them. They count on users to know what they’re doing or to figure it out. For instance it’s easy enough to sign up for AdWords in hopes of a marketing boost. For a person who doesn’t have a starting knowledge of all the kinds of data it generates and how to use it effectively, it’s tough and time-consuming to figure out all the ins and outs of how it works and if it works, even if you check on it daily.

With Amazon KDP, you can upload things quickly but if you hit submit before you should, you won’t be able to fix a mistake with the same speed. If you send an email for help, you’ll hear back, but not quickly. As often as not, it’s assumed you’ll have your questions answered in forums by other people who’re also trying to navigate the system. I know very little about Facebook, but I have learned that there’s not a lot of software flexibility. You can have five pictures at the top of your page, or you can have five pictures at the top of your page. If you mistakenly link your page to another page, it’s apparently stuck that way.

My personal concern is with what’s essentially customer service, although it feels bigger than that. When an outfit is as huge and dominant as any of these are and still seeking to expand its reach, even if it’s relatively new in the marketplace, it’s still a monopoly with all the dangers that implies. We love the services and sometimes breathtaking opportunities we get from companies like this, but in some fundamental ways, I think we should be wary. I’m just not sure how.

Racism in the dark corners of one’s soul

Hi all,

This spins off of the recent megathread about the teleprompter and racism. There was a separate discussion amongst a few of us in which a liberal had described Herman Cain as a minstrel. I think that was an ugly comparison, but no more so than some of what I read when Obama was running himself. But that’s not what I’m posting about tonight.

I’d never considered myself to be a racist. I grew up in a proper liberal household. My dad was a professor at a small college (Hastings, Nebraska) and my mom was a speech pathologist. It would be accurate to say that I had a non-racial upbringing in that there wasn’t much racial diversity in Hastings, Nebraska (where I grew up) or Pocatello, Idaho (where I spent my teenage years). The only kid I remember spending time with who wasn’t white was Triet Huen (I’m going phonetic here–Tree-ET, Huyen). He was a Vietnamese immigrant. This would have been around 1976, so I’m guessing his parents left before the end. So, I’m just establishing that my interactions up to going to college were almost exclusively with other white kids.

I had an eye opener the summer after I graduated from college. I went to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. I wound up renting an apartment for the summer after I graduated with three friends. Two of had just graduated and the other two were between junior and senior years. We rented a place on Marshall Avenue. There’s a striking shift in income within just a few blocks. Summit Avenue is mansions. Marshall, about a half mile to the north, is the “hood”.

Our place on Marshall was just off Victoria, about a half mile from Victoria Crossing, where Victoria crosses Grand Ave. It’s a place with some posh shopping and once had a great book store (Odegards). I particularly liked going to Chocolate & Bread as well as Coffee & Tea, Ltd. In order to get there, one walks about a half mile south on Victoria, past a youth center. Outside the youth center, there would often be a group of young, black men. I felt nervous every time I walked past. Know this. Up to that point, I’d never been assaulted by a black man. [I grew up before African American became proper usage, so I’ll stick with black and white for the purpose of this discussion.] I’d had virtually no interactions. And still, I felt nervous every time I walked by.

Without realizing it, I’d absorbed something in our culture. I know that had it been a dozen white teenagers hanging around outside the center, I wouldn’t have felt nervous. It was solely because of their race. It was an eye opening moment for me.

We all make judgements. We all react to race. I think that is equally true, regardless as to one’s ethnic background. That doesn’t make you or me a racist. In my case, I chose to keep walking past that place (corner of Victoria and Selby) as I refused to give into that visceral reaction. I don’t think that I’m a racist, but I am not immune to racial judgements. The struggle against those judgements is something that I face.

Many years later, I faced a little of what it feels like to be judged. I lived in England for four years as an American. Every so often, I’d be hanging out at the pub and someone would make a crack that made it clear to me that I wasn’t local. That’s only a shadow of what others must feel, but it was a valuable lesson.

Good night to all. And just ’cause….


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