About thirty years ago, a teenager in my church developed cancer around his knee. The doctors had no choice but to remove the diseased section, but they were able to leave him with a functioning limb by rotating the foot and turning his ankle into a knee, which is awesome. But that was the only awesome part. Eventually, the cancer spread, and young Jon died before reaching his twenties. His family suffered not only through his illness and death, but also through tremendous hospital bills from his extensive treatments.

Our pastor offered spiritual encouragement, but that didn’t pay the bills. Instead, the members of the congregation helped cover the costs through public fundraisers, and by writing personal checks directly to the family. By the time I left the church for college, I heard that all of the medical bills had been paid in full. It was a monetary fulfillment of what the church preaches through Galatians 6:2, “carry each other’s burdens.”

At some point, a few Christians with business savvy decided to institutionalize this carrying of burdens, which should throw up big red flags. And yet here I am, decades later, becoming a part of one such group. Starting in 2015, I am forgoing traditional medical insurance, and instead signing up for Medi-Share, a national organization designed to let people pay for each other’s medical bills somewhat directly, but in a way that has the look and feel of medical insurance.

A big reason for the change was cost. This weekend, I was tossing out some old bills and paperwork, and I saw that my monthly premiums had doubled in just four years. Obamacare (and the state-level regulations that preceded it) has not been kind to my family. But I’ve also never been comfortable with company-paid, low-deductible, cost-hiding insurance plans that we’ve taken for granted for decades. Medi-Share, with its focus on caring for “burdens” instead of on basic medical needs, is more in line with my expectations for medical insurance.

But it’s not insurance. Medi-Share’s web site states clearly that it “is not insurance…and is not guaranteed in any way.” It offers no coverage for routine preventative care, including annual checkups, mammograms for the womenfolk, and regular colonoscopy screenings for the older set, something I’ll need to think about in the approaching years. Also, because of the organization’s religious underpinnings, they only allow Christians in good standing with a church to join, and any medical costs that stem directly from intentional sin—injuries sustained from a car accident after an evening of heavy drinking, for example—are rejected from coverage. My biggest concern has to do with the group’s prescription program, as it only covers a given medicine for up to six months, even for chronic conditions like high blood pressure.

On the positive side, the monthly costs are lower due to the plan’s limitations on coverage. Medi-Share’s PPO network is much larger than the one I had before, and is accessible nationwide (except in Montana!). Plus, once you’ve fulfilled the fairly reasonable annual deductible, approved medical costs are covered 100 percent. I will need to shell out $200 to talk to my doctor each year about routine stuff, but a $60,000 hospital charge for a heart attack isn’t going to lead to a second stress-triggered infarction.

I must admit that I’m a little uneasy about giving up familiar insurance for a no-guarantee program. And the plan itself might anger some, with its religious tests and its indifference to daily medical concerns. I’d love to see other groups spring up that target different audiences or that offer expanded coverage, but that can’t happen for now. The same Obamacare legislation that includes an exception for Health Care Sharing Ministries (section 1501 of the ACA, pages 147-148, “Religious Conscience Exemption”) also restricts the practice to religious groups, and only those that have offered pseudo-insurance services since December 31, 1999.

Despite my qualms about this change, I’m optimistic about what Medi-Share has to offer. Replacing traditional coverage with “sharing” is certainly a risk, but not necessarily more than I had before. It’s a confusing time for medical care in America, but the idea of freely donating money to others in need has never been confusing.

This article was posted on January 5, 2015. Related articles: Off Topic, , , .

Footnotes for “Sharing Instead of Insuring”

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When my son signed up to take the SAT test, one of my first thoughts was, “I glad I don’t have to go through that nightmare again.” And yet here I am on December 7, taking the N3 level of the 日本語能力試験 (nihongo noryoku shiken, the Japanese Language Proficiency Test). N3 is the middle of five levels, inconveniently arranged from 5 to 1 based on the difficulty level of the test. This handy list shows you the expectations for each level.

  • N5 — You enjoy the taste of sushi.
  • N4 — You took one semester of college-level Japanese, or nailed that Japanese for Wandering Americans book on the flight east.
  • N3 — You took two or three years of college Japanese.
  • N2 — You spent two or three years running a college in Japan.
  • N1 — You play go with Emperor Akihito.

Clearly, I’m going to stop with N3. I started Japanese studies 25 years ago, but found myself stuck at the same second-college-year level. Taking the JLPT, I hoped, would spur me to study with more rigor. It worked in part. I finally made it through my kanji book with its 2,200 glyphs, and I probably added 1,000 to 2,000 new words to my vocabulary. But I skimped on new grammar points, which is of course the only thing covered by the test.

This year, the test takes place on the campus of California State University Los Angeles (“Motto: No, you want UCLA. Let me get you a map.”) I’ve scheduled this post to appear at the apex of my stress level, just as I sit down to begin the test. If you’re reading this right when it comes out, then you missed your chance to take the once-per-year exam. But if you enjoy Japanese food or are looking for a challenge beyond your weekly go games with the emperor, then this might be the test for you.

This article was posted on December 7, 2014. Related articles: Off Topic, .

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In a free society, there is no such thing as a “fair share.” The freedom that individuals have to create or squander their wealth and resources ensures that no two people will have a completely equal and fair proportion of a nation’s riches. Even for those in Communist regimes, fairness quickly gives way to power and graft. Fairness, though desirable, is elusive.

During a recent campaign and fundraising tour, Vice President Joe Biden attempted to force a false sense of fairness on the American public. “I think we should make them start to pay their fair share,” Biden said of America’s richest citizens, expressing a desire by many to “take the burden off the middle class.” Since he didn’t come right out and state an amount that the rich should pay, we will have to make an educated guess as to what he meant.

Ever since the Sixteenth Amendment made possible a national income tax, the rich have always paid more than their fair share. Just months after ratification of the amendment, Woodrow Wilson signed the Revenue Act of 1913, imposing a 1% tax on households earning $4,000 or more per year (equivalent to $96,000 in 2014 dollars), rising to a top rate of 7% for those making more than $500,000 (about $12 million today). Democrats controlled both houses of Congress in those days, so it seems likely that even a Progressive like Wilson found the tax rate he signed into law “fair.”

Today, the top rate for upper-income Americans sits close to 40%, although after deductions, the richest 10% of taxpayers pay about 19% of their incomes to the IRS. That’s still nearly triple the top rate from a century ago, and significantly more than the typical 3% rate currently paid by the bottom half of all income earners. (All data is from 2011 IRS statistics, and conveniently summarized here.)

The top 10% of taxpayers earn about 45% of all incomes in America, and yet they pay more than 68% of all income taxes. If life were truly fair, they would only pay 45% of all income taxes, in line with their incomes. But things aren’t fair, and in general, everyone is OK with that. Even the rich understand that a progressive tax system that charges them about six times the rate paid by the poor, while not actually fair, is acceptable.

When Mr. Biden called for the rich to pay their fair share, he certainly wasn’t demanding that their tax rates be lowered to match their incomes. He may have instead wanted marginal tax rates raised, but it’s hard to explain how an extra 5%—or even 20%—in addition to the current 39.6% top rate is inherently more fair. Would 100% be the ultimate in fairness?

The Vice President, as an elected official with a top-secret security clearance, has access to the same Internal Revenue Service statistics that I do. He has no excuse for tossing out the “fair share” misstatement, unless he meant something else by it. If his intent was to drive tax policy, he could have stated a number instead. But it seems more likely that his goal was to stir up emotional animosity in a way that will motivate voters this coming November. “Fair share,” it seems, really means, “Vote for Democrats.” It’s a propagandizing form of politics that is, at its heart, extremely unfair.

[Image Credits: Microsoft Office clip art]

This article was posted on October 23, 2014. Related articles: Commentary, , .

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I took four years of high school French, primarily because it wasn’t German. German was mach-uber-scarrrry, with its hundred-character words and its link to some of history’s greatest wrongs, like lederhosen. But French was soft and lyric. In my classes, I loved saying the French word for “garbage,” which is “garbage.” Only better.

By my senior year, only about a half-dozen students had stuck with the language, and as a reward, Madame Virgillo had us read two French classics that we had no hope of understanding, even in English: Voltaire’s Candide and the subject of today’s musings, Le Petit Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. She also had us watch a truly bizarre French movie called L’Argent de poche, which included young kids telling dirty jokes and a scene where a toddler falls out of a third-floor window only to jump up and play gleefully. Between the surreal movies and Voltaire’s scathing political satire, it’s surprising that we didn’t switch to the German classes and invade.

The Little Prince is one of the most published and beloved novels in all of human history, having been printed more than 140 million times in over 250 languages, including a Latin version that my son has for his own high school foreign language travails. And it is so French, filled with liberté, fraternité, and snakes that swallow whole elephants. In the story, a pilot crash-lands in the Sahara Desert—something that did in fact happen to the author—where he meets up with a diminutive prince, recently arrived from his asteroid homeland. Through their conversations, the two explore the strangeness of being an adult—at least up until the childlike prince tries to commit suicide. Bread and Jam for Frances never had a suicide scene, even with “France” in the title.

It’s been many years since I read this work, but I still recall the opening words: “Lorsque j’avais six ans j’ai vu, une fois, une magnifique image…” (“When I was six years old I saw a beautiful picture….”). It’s a simple opening for a book that is deeply philosophical and at times political. The baobab trees that try to take over the prince’s asteroid, for example, represent Nazi aggression. Naturally. It’s not a straightforward book. But if you can catch the subtle allegories, an adult can get a lot out of the text. And a child will get even more. Especially if they can read French.

This article was posted on October 14, 2014. Related articles: Other Books, .

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It was back in fifth or sixth grade that someone gifted me Merriam-Webster’s Vest Pocket Dictionary, a blue, smallish reference book of very few words, marginal utility, and if memory serves, much excitement. It was such a desirable book that, even though my mother purged it from my shelves in the Great Garage Sale of 1980, I was able to pick up a replacement used copy about a decade ago.

What drew me to this work wasn’t its depth of content. Most of the definitions top out at five or six words. It certainly wasn’t the number of entries since even with the elderly-offending font, its 370 pages leave little room for variety. (The X, Y, and Z sections together utilize all of two-and-a-half pages.) And it definitely wasn’t the pedagogical import, since I doubt I looked up more than one hundred words total while it was in my possession.

What made it a significant book can be summed up in one short definition.

grown-up \’grôn‚əp\ n: adult —grown-up adj

This small dictionary wasn’t one of those grand library editions, nor was it a childish “beginner’s” dictionary common for the younger set. This was a dictionary that mimicked the look and feel of a big people’s dictionary—each entry even included one of those incomprehensible pronunciation guides—but was still small enough to travel around with a juvenile. This book declared to an elementary school student: “You are grown up, and deserve grown-up things.”

With the advent of dictionary apps and Wikipedia, small reference books like this don’t carry the same emotional charge as they did decades ago. I asked my teenage son what he thought of the book, and his first response was, “It’s bigger than my phone.” Sigh. Kids today, once I chase them off my lawn, have ready electronic access to the wealth of human knowledge. Perhaps that makes them more grown-up than I was at that age. Yet I wonder if putting such power in their hands so early removes opportunities for simple, joyful discovery made possible through things like vest-pocket dictionaries.

This article was posted on October 6, 2014. Related articles: Other Books, .

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