Archive for November, 2013

Is breast cancer awareness being exploited?

Congratulations. You made it to November and, if you’re a football fan, through the pink barrage that was the National Football League’s attempt at breast cancer awareness.

I am all for more education about the ruthless disease that affects the lives of millions of women and their families. A bridesmaid of my wife’s wrestles admirably with the cancer. I have known those who have fought and won and those who have fought bravely in defeat.

Yet, the skeptic in me can’t help but curl an eyebrow at the NFL’s relatively newfound sympathy.

“Isn’t this really just about getting more wives and girlfriends to let their husbands and boyfriends watch more football? Wouldn’t head trauma research be a more fitting cause?” I ask myself.

A modern media mantra states that all publicity is good publicity. In that vein, the more pink, the better. Still, I don’t like to see causes get hijacked. I don’t like immaturity undermining noble purposes. That’s what I see happening with breast cancer awareness.

Teenage boys and quasi-men wear wristbands that read, unabashedly, “I LOVE (enter slang term that rhymes with ‘rubies’).”

The first place I saw this fashion statement was on an employee at a rental car place. I couldn’t help but tell the manager I didn’t think the look would impress many customers.

Then, at the pool last summer. My elementary son was playing catch in the water with a young teenage boy. The teenager had on such a bracelet.

When I noticed his wristband, I asked his mother to ask him to remove it or turn it inside-out. I proceeded to state my opinion that teenage boys are already thinking enough about sexual things and probably don’t need a reminder on their wrists.

The mother, slightly miffed that I would make such a request, explained that the boy’s grandmother was dying from breast cancer. I kindly extended my condolences but retracted neither my request nor my assertion.

She ended up asking the boy to hide the message from my son, and, on her way out, told me she agreed with my perspective.

Largely through efforts like Texas-based Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, breast cancer awareness has never been higher. But neither has breast awareness. How much the two are intertwined is difficult to estimate.

It is not difficult to estimate how much women are objectified in our culture. A short safari into the World Wide Web or a click through cable TV will provide the answer, if a grocery store check out doesn’t give it first.

Exploited Hollywood starlets act ever more bizarrely. Miley Cyrus, for example.

Each iteration brings more squinting of the eyes, more wrenching of the gut, more sorrow in the soul. All the while tens of thousands of impressionable girls absentmindedly follow their destructive lead.

So, when the NFL dots its fields with pink, fields encircled by busty bimbos wearing less than sports bras and not exactly leading cheers, the cause seems conjured, cleverly calculated by a well-paid public relations firm.

The NFL campaign and the “I LOVE RUBIES” bracelets may raise funds that researchers would never have come across otherwise. But I’m not convinced overall women’s health has been best served.

Kevin Thompson writes weekly for The Boerne Star in the Texas hill country. Follow him at http://www.kwt.info.

Late Night with Ted Cruz

“People describe you as arrogant, aggressive and abrasive.”

That’s how Jay Leno began his Tonight Show interview recently with Texas’ junior U.S. Senator Ted Cruz.

I looked back at how Leno opened his last late-night interview with President Obama on August 7 of this year.

“Happy birthday, Mr. President!”

The president described his party with long-time friends, the golf and basketball they played. Keeping the sports theme, Leno lofted softball questions on embassy safety and international travel warnings.

By contrast, Cruz had to dig himself out of a hole he hadn’t dug. “I’m just trying to do my job,” Cruz began. “To have a chance to stand up and fight to try to turn this country around, I feel incredibly privileged.”

In backhanded fashion, Leno complimented Cruz on having principle only to question whether it keeps him from compromising.

Cruz quoted Reagan: ‘What do you do if they offer you half a loaf? You take it and go back and ask for more.’”

Predicting Reagan would join the conversation, Leno was ready: “I don’t think Reagan could get in the Tea Party today.”

Cruz was ready, too. He offered the amateur political commentator a history of Reagan’s rise.

“Reagan challenged an incumbent Republican president in the 1976 primary. He led a grassroots revolution during a time of economic stagnation when the policies of Jimmy Carter weren’t working. We face similar circumstances today.”

Citing low Congressional approval, Leno suggested Americans are sick of political brinkmanship. Cruz didn’t disagree but called the real divide between entrenched politicians and the American people, not between Democrats and Republicans.

Leno: “You’re set in your ways. Are you not an entrenched politician, Senator?”

Cruz: “What I’m entrenched about is fighting for 26 million Texans who tell me what they care about is jobs and economic growth. What we have in Washington is career politicians who want more spending and taxes and regulation.”

Cruz continued, “The rich do great with big government. Big business does great with big government. The people who get hurt are the small businesses and workers.”

Leno claimed to “get that” and tried another hot box. “If your priority is jobs, why so much focus on social issues?”

Cruz didn’t take the bait. He said his focus has stayed on jobs and economic growth, particularly Obamacare, “the #1 job killer.”

When Cruz brought up people’s cancelled insurance policies, Leno tried to balance the scales: “You don’t want Obamacare but 25% of your state doesn’t have health insurance so Obamacare would help them, wouldn’t it?”

Cruz answered, cleverly, not pompously, “Not if it costs them their jobs.”

When Leno pushed on gay marriage, Cruz said marriage should be between a man and a woman but supported each state’s right to decide.

Throughout, Cruz calmly turned Leno’s biases into bases for sound argument. Even under bright Hollywood lights, Cruz seemed like the same guy I dined with in a Texas hill country vistro a few years ago.

Texans are fortunate to have an intelligent, articulate and passionate politician representing them on the east – and left – coasts.

Kevin Thompson is an opinion columnist in the Texas hill country. Follow him at http://www.kwt.info.

Paintball Game Prompts Gratitude for Vets

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My folks raised me to shoot hoops, not deer. Racks were things you put balls on. Trophies stood on shelves; they didn’t hang on walls.

While Mom generally maintained a gun-free zone, I recall a gleeful day when a water gun passed her inspection. Feeling empowered, I pushed my luck with a rubber band gun made from wooden blocks and a clothespin. She soon hung me out to dry.

Needless to say, weaponry doesn’t come naturally for me. Though I’ve shot a few dove since reaching adulthood, I’m not accustomed to warfare. I was reminded of this recently.

My 10-year-old had received an invitation to a paintball birthday party. According to the Evite, dads were welcome to play. Covering my uncertainty, I donned a mask, picked up a gun and feigned confidence. Some kid then told me a paintball was lodged in the end of my barrel. Did he think I didn’t know that?

Another kid, who missed the lodged paintball interchange, picked me first for his team. After one game, he asked to switch teams. I felt no insult, only the sting of paintballs that had peppered my frame.

During a break, a veteran player told me his secret: “Keep moving. If you hunker down, you’re dead.” A sheriff’s deputy at church echoed his advice. “You have to stay aggressive. It takes a killer instinct to stay alive.”

At the end of play, my son put words to my feelings: “I hope I never have to go to war.”

On Monday, we honor both those who have gone to war and those who have been willing to. It’s Veterans Day, an obscure federal holiday that should not be so.

On Monday, my Air Force vet father and his Vietnam buddies will watch Sergeant York and Midway for the umpteenth time. The rest of us will wonder why the Post Office is closed.

On Monday, I hope we’ll all remember at least one story of service and sacrifice. I’ll be thinking about Louis Zamperini, the remarkable World War II veteran whom Laura Hillenbrand profiled a few years back in her book, Unbroken.

A collegiate track star, Zamperini had Olympic hopes interrupted by war. He entered the Army, made numerous bombing runs as B-24 bombardier, survived death-defying shootouts with Japanese fighter planes and ultimately crashed in the Pacific.

He floated in a grossly inadequate life raft for seven weeks, barely surviving on an occasional bird or fish. Sharks, thirst, typhoons and Japanese bullets riddled the weeks with misery.

Landfall only brought capture and three years of progressively more debilitating torture: starvation, illness, cold, hard labor, ruthless beatings, psychological warfare.

Miraculously, Louie Zamperini endured. He kept moving. He stayed aggressive. When his body was too weak, his mind led the way. He recounted the details of delicious recipes while starving at sea. He planted dysentery-laced stool samples into the meals of his torturers.

You and I live in freedom today because millions of vets throughout our nation’s history kept moving. They stayed aggressive. In the face of unfathomable fear, they mustered incalculable courage.

Courage, G.K. Chesterton wrote, is actually a contradiction in terms. “It means a strong desire to live taking the form of readiness to die.” Sounds like a veteran to me.

 

Kevin Thompson is an opinion columnist in the Texas hill country. He can be reached at kevin@kwt.info.

What’s on your PFS?

As a banker, I’ve seen some very bright people butcher a personal financial statement (“PFS”). In finance terms, the PFS is an individual’s or couple’s balance sheet.

A balance sheet is called such because both sides of this equation must equal, or balance: Assets = Liabilities + Net Worth (another name for Net Worth is Equity). It is a snapshot-in-time picture of an entity’s financial health; the more positive the net worth, the better.

Basically, a PFS lists what you own and what you owe. If you’ve ever filled out a standardized home mortgage application, you have completed a PFS, you just may not have known it.


What You Own

The “What you own” side of the PFS includes your all your assets, i.e., things of value. “Value” can be subjective. So, it’s important we find objective sources to assign a market value to our things.

Let’s look at the most common asset categories.

1. Cash – No asset is more accurately valued on a PFS than one’s cash (checking and savings accounts, and, if you’re a conspiracy theorist, the dollar bills in your gun safe).

2. Financial Investments (e.g., stocks, bonds, mutual funds, annuities, etc.) – Under this category are two important sub-categories:

A. Non-retirement vs. Retirement – Non-retirement assets are more “valuable” than retirement assets. My 401k statement may say $25,000, but taxes and early withdrawal penalties make it really worth $19,000 (or less) in a crisis. Non-retirement accounts are only subject to capital gains taxes.

B. Publicly-traded vs. Privately-held – I know I could sell my Valero stock this afternoon for about $40 a share. But most companies are not listed on a “public” stock exchange like New York or Nasdaq. These startups or family businesses have a much smaller pool of buyers, if any at all.

Publicly traded investments held in non-retirement accounts are almost like cash with the caveat that they are more volatile.

Other financial assets, like ownership in a privately-held company, are harder to value and even harder to turn into cash. A CPA familiar with your industry can help assign a “potential” market value to your business.

3. Real Estate – Primary homes comprise the bulk of most people’s real estate assets. Estimating what your home and other real estate (rentals, land, etc.) would sell for is almost as hard as predicting what your business would sell for. We are emotionally invested. We know how much work we’ve put into them.

A place to start is the tax value. Then, you can compare recent neighborhood sales. But only a market appraiser can apply relevant adjustments to arrive at a “probable” market value.

Ultimately, an asset is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it at a given time. Under duress, things sell for less.

Therefore, be conservative in your value estimates of real estate and “personal items” like autos, jewelry and art. Your banker will be impressed by your restraint and your family will have a more accurate picture of their status should a worst case scenario occur.


What You Owe

Now for the “what you owe” side of the PFS, also known as Liabilities.

As a general rule, liabilities (debts, loans, etc.) are easier to get into and harder to dispose of than assets. It takes years to build a business that’s worth $200,000. It takes only a few signatures to get into the same amount of education debt.

One bad year can erase the business’ $200,000 value. The education debt will stick with you like a faithful spouse – through good years and bad.

Once, when my family was growing and we needed a larger vehicle, I was so proud that my good credit had gotten me a long repayment period and, therefore, a low monthly payment. Then, imagine my horror four years later when my french fry-encrusted vehicle was worth far less than the loan balance.

While assets can be tricky to accurately value, it’s easy know to know the “value” of your debts; your lenders are tracking them quite closely. What’s hard is remembering what debts we have!

“Oh, right. I did pay for those fillings with Care Credit.”

“What? Did we put the washer and dryer on the Big Bank credit card?”

“Have we paid off the ‘new’ couch yet?”

Common household debts can be separated into two key categories: secured vs. unsecured.

Secured debts have assets pledged to them that the lender could sell if the debt is not repaid (a situation called “default”). These pledged assets are known as collateral.

The most common secured debts are: vehicles and other big boy toys; houses and other pieces of real estate property; and big-ticket consumer furnishings that go into houses.

The most common unsecured debts are credit cards, education loans and personal or “signature” loans.

These unsecured loans tend to have higher interest rates to compensate the lender for the risk of not having assets to sell in case of default. An exception might be education loans that are subsidized or guaranteed by the federal government.

Two sub-categories of secured debts are those attached to appreciating assets vs. those collateralized by depreciating assets. Appreciating assets, like a home in a healthy neighborhood, gain value as the years progress. A sports car, a depreciating asset, loses value by the mile.

Generally speaking, loans secured by assets growing in value are wiser financial decisions than loans secured by depreciating assets. But at least the latter are backed by something you can sell if the sky falls. A PFS of unsecured consumer debts is the fastest way to financial ruin.


Your Net Worth

Then comes the all important subtraction. If the combined, legitimate, real-world value of one’s assets is greater than the sum of his or her debts, net worth is positive. If the debts are greater, it’s negative.

The sooner a family can get to a growing, positive net worth, the better equipped it will be to provide for landmark expenses like college educations and retirement.


Kevin Thompson is the Boerne Market Manager for Centennial Bank. He can be reached at kevin.thompson@bankoncb.com.


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