Last Flights of the Season

Santa drop-off, burgers with friends, and the special apple delivery.

I don’t care what the calendar says — winter is definitely upon the Wenatchee Valley where I live. After an early snowfall not long after Halloween and a subsequent thaw, the typical winter weather moved in, with four days out of seven filling the valley with fog. Sometimes my home, which sits about 800 feet above the river, was under it, other times it was in it, and a few times it was above it. The temperature hovered between 25 and 35 degrees day and night, so it wasn’t that cold. But it could be dreary, which is bad medicine for a sun-lover like me. I honestly don’t understand how people can live on the west side of the Cascades where it’s gloomy far more often than sunny all year around.

I normally go south for the winter and this year is no different. But I had some business to take care of at home, including my annual Santa flight, and couldn’t get back to the sun until after that. Scheduled for December 4, I fully expected it to be my last flight of the year. But sometimes I get lucky. Here’s a quick rundown of the three flights I finished the season with.

The Santa Flight

Pybus Public Market is a venue on the waterfront near downtown Wenatchee, WA. Once a steel mill, it was completely renovated about five years ago and now houses several restaurants and shops and hosts indoor and outdoor merchants for seasonal farmers markets and other events. It’s a really great public space, and a destination for locals and tourists, with plenty of events and things to do and see. Anyone who visits Wenatchee and doesn’t stop by Pybus is really missing something special.

Me and Santa
Here I am with Santa in 2012. Penny came along on the flight — she loves to fly in the helicopter. Note the polo shirt I’m wearing. Even with Santa’s door off, I wasn’t cold in December in Phoenix.

When I lived in Arizona, I was one of several helicopter owners/operators who volunteered to fly Santa in to the Deer Valley Airport restaurant in north Phoenix. The restaurant — which I highly recommend if you’re in the area; get the gyro sandwich — was privately owned by a Greek family and one of their sons would don a Santa suit on Saturdays and Sundays. For the four weekends leading up to Christmas, he’d get flown in by one of the local helicopter operators where a crowd of parents and children waited and cheered his arrival. We’d take turns picking Santa up at one of the FBOs at the airport, flying him north out of the airspace, and then turning around and returning — so it looked like we were flying in from the North Pole — and landing in front of the crowd. Once inside, Santa would sit on a big chair and kids would sit on his lap and tell him what they wanted for Christmas while parent cameras snapped. Then, I assume, the whole family would stick around for lunch. I blogged about the first time I did this, back in 2011; my wasband came along and took photos and you can see them in the blog post.

N630ML at Pybus Market
My helicopter is parked on display inside Pybus Public Market back in 2014. You can read the blog post about that here.

So when I moved to the Wenatchee area and fell in love with Pybus, it made sense to offer up the helicopter for Santa’s big arrival the weekend after Thanksgiving. Usually, Santa arrived in a fire truck, but most people agreed a helicopter would be way more exciting. I worked with Steve, the manager there, and set up a safe landing zone — or “heliport,” if you go by the definition that the county illogically clings to (long idiotic story there) — at the south end of the building. I picked up Santa at the airport and flew him in while a small crowd looked on. That was in 2013, the year I bought property for my new home in Malaga.

In subsequent years, Santa and I repeated the performance with bigger crowds every year. Weather was usually a factor though, and I remember one year waiting until the last possible minute to decide whether the flight was a go or no-go. But we made it each year and, when the weather was bad, I departed as soon as the crowd was inside the building so I could get the helicopter put away before the weather closed in again.

In 2016 — last year — the helicopter was in Arizona for its mandatory overhaul so I couldn’t do the flight. There is another red helicopter based in Wenatchee, however, and I knew the owner. I asked him to do it and he was game. But the weather did not cooperate at all and he couldn’t make the flight. Santa arrived on a fire truck that year.

This year, however, the helicopter was back in Washington and ready to go. I watched the weather all week and found it hard to believe the forecast for Sunday was as good as it was. On Friday morning, I went with Steve to the local radio station and talked up the upcoming flight. Steve said some really nice things about me and the other person who’d come along for the radio spot. Afterwards, I suggested that if the weather was good, Steve and I would go down to Blustery’s in Vantage for lunch. Bring a friend or two, I suggested. I was in no hurry to put the helicopter away if the weather was going to be good.

When Sunday arrived, the weather was perfect for a flight: clear, no fog, light wind. I picked up Santa at Wenatchee Airport and we touched down in the parking area — “heliport”? — there right on time. Here’s a video of my arrival on the Wenatchee World’s Facebook page.

Santa's Arrival by Helicopter at Pybus
Here’s Santa stepping out of the helicopter at Pybus. I have a sneaking suspicion this Pybus website photo is from the 2015 flight because I don’t remember anyone being in the doorway when I arrived this year.

After Santa and most of the crowd went inside, I shut down the engine so a few of the onlookers could come closer to the helicopter. I gave the kids postcards that featured an air-to-air photo of the helicopter over a lake that could be along the Columbia River. Kids got their photos taken with the helicopter. I answered the usual questions about speed and fuel burn and how long it takes to become a pilot.

Onlookers Checking Out the Helicopter
The helicopter at Pybus Public Market after last Sunday’s Santa flight. I like to give kids a chance to see the helicopter up close.

Will Fly for Food

Once the crowd around the helicopter broke up a little, we cleared the landing zone and Steve and a friend climbed on board. I started up and, a few moments later, took off over the river.

I cannot stress enough how perfect the weather was for flying. The cool air and recent engine overhaul worked together to give me amazing performance; cruising at 110 knots was easy. With very little wind, the flight was smooth and I could easily steer the helicopter anywhere I wanted to go. It was my first day flying in over six weeks and it really reminded me why I’d gotten “addicted” to flying and why I loved it so much. I felt as if I could have flown all day, stopping only when I needed fuel, and exploring every bit of the area that I loved.

We flew downriver over the two bridges and along the shoreline. I detoured to the south a bit to fly past my home, which Steve had never seen. Then we got back over the river and continued down toward our destination, about 30 miles (as the crow flies) away. It was nice flying with friends again — I haven’t been doing as many pleasure flights as I like these days — and seeing familiar terrain through their eyes. We saw the fire damage from the two early summer fires, one of which had come frighteningly close to where I live, new orchards and vineyards going in near Spanish Castle, and rock formations along the river. I dropped down low for a better look at the two huge herds of elk on West Bar, then flew up the Ancient Lakes side of Potholes Coulee and down the Dusty Lakes side. We went “backstage” at the Gorge Amphitheater, which was buttoned down for the winter, and past the Inn and yurts at Cave B Estate Winery. I flew past the rock climbers at Frenchman’s Coulee and pointed out the sand dunes near there that are virtually unknown to the folks in the area because they can’t be seen from any road.

Around then is when the wind picked up a little bit, adding some mild turbulence to the flight that made Steve a little nervous — unless he was just kidding? As I descended toward Vantage, I could see some whitecaps on the water surface below us. I crossed over the top of the I-90 bridge and made a right descending turn to my usual parking spot — or “heliport”? — at Blustery’s, crossing over the freeway just 100 feet up. As I set down — rather sloppily in a strong crosswind — I wondered if it was open because there was only one car there. But as I cooled down the engine for shutdown, we saw the OPEN sign. A few minutes later, we were inside, placing our orders.

Steve and Annette at Blustery's
Steve and his friend Annette with the helicopter at Blustery’s in Vantage, WA.

The folks who work in Blustery’s know me and always seem glad to see me. I know they know the helicopter is out there in the parking lot when I come, but none of them have ever said a word about it. One of these days, I’m going to take them up for a quick ride.

I ate my favorite three-meals-in-one-burger: the Logger Burger. It has two burger patties, bacon, ham, cheese, and a a fried egg. It’s huge and very tasty. And messy. I didn’t think I could finish it all, but I did. I pretty much skipped the fries. Steve picked up the tab, of course. That’s one of my rules: when I fly you for a meal on my dime, I fully expect you to pick up the tab for that meal. Folks who don’t get that, don’t get a second flight.

It was about 3 PM when we headed out on the return flight. The wind down there was still blowing pretty hard — it’s almost always windy on the river there — but I pointed the helicopter into the wind and let it help us climb out. I flew along the cliff face on the west side of the river, looking for the bighorn sheep I knew might be there. When I spotted one, I made a 360° turn to loop around and make sure my passengers could see it. It turned out that there were two of them, running off to the west with their white butts making them easy to see among the golden grass and sagebrush. We continued onward over the tops of the cliffs there, looking for more wildlife but coming up empty. This time of year, the elk move to lower elevations along the river, which is why we’d seen so many at West Bar, across the river from Crescent Bar. We descended closer to the river near the old Alcoa aluminum plant, where I made my radio call for landing at the airport. A short while later, we were on the ground.

I put the helicopter away, thinking it was the last time I’d fly it for the year.

The Apple Express

I was toiling over my to-do list at 7:30 AM on Tuesday when my phone rang. It was the helicopter pilot for one of my clients. I’d done such a good job flying them around a few years back that they’d decided they needed their own helicopter and had bought one. Tyson, a vet who’d learned to fly in the Army, had been hired to fly it and we’d become friends. I still flew for them occasionally, but not as often as I’d like to. They’re really nice folks and I always learn a lot about agriculture when we fly together.

Tyson’s helicopter was in pieces in Hillsboro, OR, for some scheduled maintenance. Normally, that was fine — his employers rarely flew in the colder months. But this morning, they had an emergency. They had to get 240 pounds of apples to a packing plant in Pasco, WA and had a tight deadline. Making the 2-1/2 hour drive was not going to get them there on time. They wanted to fly them. Could I take them on my helicopter?

After a miserable Monday, that day’s weather was perfect. There was some patchy fog low over the river here and there, but a quick check of the weather along my flight path showed it was good to go. So I said yes, got dressed, and hustled to get the helicopter ready for departure.

Tyson came with me, mostly because he knew the landing zone — “heliport”? — better than I did. We left Wenatchee Airport together and landed at the landing zone his employer had set up behind their facility in Wenatchee. On our descent, we spotted a bald eagle perched on a pole beside an empty osprey nest.

Apples in Helicopter
The boxes of apples filled the back seat area of the helicopter.

The apples were in 20-pound boxes and they absolutely filled the back seat area of the helicopter. Honestly, I didn’t think they’d all fit. But we got them in, closed the doors, strapped ourselves back in, and headed southeast on a direct course for the packing plant northwest of Pasco Airport, 86 nautical miles away. That meant an immediate climb to clear the cliffs just south of my home. I hadn’t flown that way in a long time; I prefer following the river whenever I can, but when a client is paying for flight time, you go direct whenever possible.

Just beyond the ridge, the valley was filled with low clouds. I maintained altitude as we flew over them, crossed the river again, and cut across the Quincy basin. The clouds disappeared. The air was calm and the flight was smooth. Tyson and I chatted about all kinds of things. It was nice to have company on the flight. We crossed Saddle Mountain and I maintained altitude to cross the Hanford Reserve, which has been in the news too much lately. The chart requests that pilots maintain 1800 feet MSL over that area and I’m all for that, especially since our flight path took us pretty darn close to the nuclear power plant at the south end of the reserve. The clouds were over the river there again and visibility at nearby Richland Airport was down to 1 mile. I exited the reserve area and started my descent, flying over those clouds.

I called in to Tri-Cities Airport for permission to land. Even though we weren’t landing at the airport, our landing zone was within Tri-Cities’ airspace so communication with the tower was required to enter the space. We saw the facility when were were still a few miles out and Tyson guided me to the landing zone on the southwest side, a gravel parking area. I flew low over some wires and set down smoothly in the middle of the area.

I was expecting someone to come out and receive the boxes, but no one appeared. So Tyson and I offloaded them ourselves, setting them out in a row on the gravel so my downwash on departure wouldn’t knock over a stack. Tyson walked off toward the building and found someone to talk to about the boxes while I took a few photos and secured the back doors. Then he climbed back on board and we departed to the northwest, after chatting with the Tri-Cities tower controller again.

Helicopter and Delivered Apples
Before departing, I took a photo of the helicopter in its landing zone with the apples we delivered. I have a lot of photos of my helicopter in various unusual landing zones. (Or do I mean “heliports”? I’ll have to ask the folks at the Chelan County building department, since they apparently know more about helicopters than I do .)

Track Log
Our track log for the apple delivery flight. I use Foreflight to automatically track the exact path of all of my flights these days.

We returned by almost the same exact route, although I did pass on the west side of the nuclear power plant on my way back. By then, just about all of the low clouds had cleared. It was still calm and smooth. I flew much higher than I usually did, even after leaving the Hanford area, and was treated to unobstructed views of Mount Rainier and Mount Adams. The only other interesting thing we noted on the way back was a C-130 transport flying below our altitude on a practice run for a drop zone east of our flight path. Tyson knew the frequency they’d be talking on and we tuned in. Soon, we heard air traffic control notify the huge plane about traffic 10 miles west at 3300 feet northwest bound — us. Tyson and I kept an eye on it until we were well clear of the area.

I crossed the ridge behind my house again and started the steep descent to the airport. When I set down, I had mixed feelings. I was sad that this would definitely be my last flight of the year — I had meetings on Wednesday and was leaving town on Thursday — but happy that I’d gotten this unexpected flight on such a great day for flying.

How Debt Service Prevents Financial Prosperity

Understanding what debt costs.

Last night, in the middle of the night, U.S. Senate Republicans voted in a tax bill that would add an estimated $1.4 trillion to the deficit over the next 10 years (per the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report). The bill was long with many handwritten amendments and no one was given enough time to read and comprehend the entire thing. There was no debate in the Senate; Democrats were not even allowed to ask for enough time to read it all. Despite all this, almost every single Republican voted in favor of the bill.

Democrats did not. I like to think it’s because they want to fully understand something they vote in favor of, which I double many Republicans did. Or perhaps they actually believed the data in the CBO and Joint Tax Commission reports, which both indicated that the middle class would be harmed by the bill for the benefit of the wealthiest of Americans — many of whom just happen to be the biggest donors to Republican candidate campaigns.

All politics aside, however. This blog post isn’t about politics. It’s about the financial impact of living in debt.

My Qualifications

Before I dive into the numbers, let me take a moment to explain what makes me qualified to write about this.

First, my education and early work experience. I graduated from Hofstra University with a BBA with Highest Honors in Accounting. From school, I went right to work with the New York City Comptroller’s Office — and no, that’s not a spelling error — Bureau of Financial Audit. My job was to audit various organizations that had contractual agreements with the City of New York. I started as a Field Auditor and, within two years, became a Field Audit Supervisor responsible for overseeing up to 13 auditors. When it became apparent that the only way to move up in the Bureau was for someone to retire or die, I moved into private industry. I wound up in the corporate headquarters of Automatic Data Processing (ADP) where I was a Senior Auditor and then a Senior Financial Analyst. I audited various divisions of the company all over the country and later crunched numbers for executives who needed numbers to say certain things.

Second, my own experience with debt. It happened right out of college when I got my first credit cards. It was easy to buy things so I did. Trouble is, I had a lot of credit cards and I carried a balance on all of them. After a while, I could only afford the minimum payment on most of those cards. And if there’s one thing you must know about credit card debt is that it will take years to pay off a credit card if you only send in the minimum payment every month. I learned this lesson the hard way. I was able to avoid bankruptcy by simply cutting up the cards, reducing my spending, and putting more money toward my balances until they were all paid off. These days, I only have two credit cards — one for personal use and one for business use — and I pay the entire balance in full every single month before the due date. (More on the amount of money this saves in a moment.)

Third, my second career as a freelance technical writer. Writing 80+ books gave me plenty of experience explaining somewhat complex topics to readers. Among my books are about 10 editions of Quicken: The Official Guide for Osborne/McGraw-Hill. We wanted a book that went beyond simple software how-to and actually provided good financial advice for readers. I wrote sidebars and created downloadable worksheets for readers to use to help them improve their financial situation. A lot of them dealt with debt. (More on this in a moment.)

So yes, I know a little about finance and debt and I have the skills to write about them. If you need to learn, read on and be educated. If you think you already know what I have to say, read on and let’s compare notes in the comments section that follows. Fair enough?

Debt Service

The online Financial Dictionary, has several definitions for debt service. I like the second one because it applied to both businesses and individuals:

The amount of money required to make payments on the principal and interest on outstanding loans, the interest on bonds, or the principal of maturing bonds. An individual or company unable to make such payments is said to be “unable to service one’s debt.” An example of debt service is a monthly student loan payment.

So let’s take that student loan payment as an example — especially since student loans are in the news so much these days.

I was fortunate; I only had to borrow $5,000 and I had 10 years to pay it off. My payments were about $60 per month. (And no, I won’t tell you how long ago this was.)

Let’s do the math on a more realistic modern example. Suppose you graduated from college with $50,000 in student debt. While there are many types of repayment plans, let’s go with a simple one: 12 years at 5% interest. This spiffy loan calculator template in Excel does all the math for you on monthly payments, and interest paid:

Loan Example
Not only does this Excel template calculate the amounts for a loan, but it charts the percentage of interest in your debt service.

In this example, your debt service for this loan would be $462.45 per month for 144 months. Over that time, you’d pay off not only the $50,000 you borrowed, but an additional $16,592.11 in interest.

Now imagine you have a Visa card that you just used to pay for a much needed — in your opinion, anyway — vacation to the Caribbean. You’ve got decent credit and the issuing bank gave you a $10,000 line of credit. But when you called to ask if you could raise that limit, they graciously popped it up to $14,000 — which is a great thing because you managed to charge up $8,459 on top of the balance you were already carrying for that big screen television you bought for the Super Bowl and last year’s trip to Hawaii. Now you’re looking at a balance of about $12,500. But when the bill comes, you’re relieved to see that the monthly minimum payment is only $273.33 per month.

But let’s take a moment to take a closer look at the numbers. As this extremely helpful Minimum Payment Calculator explains, credit card companies calculate your minimum payment based on either a percentage of the balance or your interest plus 1%. (You can get the details for your credit card in the fine print in your bill or credit card agreement. You did read that, didn’t you?) For this example, I used the details for my Chase Amazon Visa card: currently 14.24% interest (tied to prime so it could change at any time) plus 1% of the balance plus any interest, late fees, or unpaid amounts due. If all that adds up to less than $25, then my minimum payment is $25.

Minimum Payment
The minimum payment calculator explains just why it’s so dumb to send in just the minimum payment on your credit cards every month.

Going a step farther with the math on this, you’ll learn that it will take 305 months to pay off the debt if you only pay the minimum payment. Why is that? Simple: each payment you make goes mostly to pay off interest so the debt is reduced at a very slow rate. If you stopped using that credit card and paid just the minimum payment every month for 305 months, you’d pay nearly $14,000 in interest on the original $12,500 debt.

Minimum Payment
The CFPB — yeah, that’s the government agency that Trump says is hurting banks — added what’s in the red box to every credit card bill in an effort to educate consumers about credit card debt.

A side note here. Because so many people don’t understand this, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was created during the Obama administration in part to help protect consumers from deceptive lending practices, began requiring credit card companies to make it clear how long it will take to pay off your credit card with just the minimum payment each month. Here’s an actual image from one of my Amazon Visa statements.

If you put all this together, you can see why it’s easy to get bogged down in debt when you have a bunch of credit cards and only send in the minimum payment. The debt never goes away unless you pay more than the minimum and stop using the credit cards.

Remember this: The money you spend on debt service is money you can’t spend on anything else. It should be considered mandatory spending, not discretionary. This is an important concept to keep in mind, not only for this discussion but for the way you manage your personal or business finances. The more debt you have, the less choices you have on how to spend your money. And the less money you’ll be able to save to get ahead.

Paying Down Debt

One of the things I recommended in my Quicken books was to pay more than what’s due on a debt — especially a large debt like a mortgage or a high interest debt like a credit card or consumer loan. That spiffy Excel template I showed earlier makes it easy to do the math. Suppose you pay an additional $100 per month toward that loan. Here are the results:

Loan Example 2
By sending in an additional $100 per month in this example loan, you can knock nearly 3 years off the term and save about $4,000.

Of course, it isn’t always easy to send more to pay down a loan. Maybe you can’t do it every month. But sometimes you can. Maybe you’ve sold a motorcycle you never ride for $1000 or got a $1500 holiday bonus. Or maybe this month’s commissions were better than expected. Send the extra money to a debt you want to pay down. It will make a big difference.

True story: When I was married, I was in charge of household finances. Whenever there was extra money in our joint checking account, I put that cash towards our mortgage. The result? We paid off our 15 year mortgage in 11 years, savings thousands of dollars in interest. (Yes, at the age of 50, I actually owned my home. And here’s a secret: I own the home I’m in now, too. Life is very good without a mortgage payment.)

My final piece of advice about personal credit is this: there is no reason to have more than one or two credit cards. Cut up the department store and gas credit cards. Get yourself down to just one or two MasterCard/Visa accounts. These cards can be used anywhere and some of them will earn you nice points or rebates. My Amazon Visa accumulates dollars I can spend on Amazon and, since I buy a lot of stuff there, I use them as they are accumulated. My AOPA MasterCard earns rebate dollars I apply to my account. Neither card comes with an annual fee and I pay balances in full every month so I don’t pay interest. This is free money, folks. It takes a lot of willpower to spend only what you can afford to pay off every month, but it is possible — I’ve been doing it for about 15 years now. Keeping your debt under control is the best way to stay financially secure when weathering unexpected hardships.

The Big Picture

What prompted this particular blog post is the news that the new tax plan will add an estimated $1.4 trillion (with a T) to the budget deficit. To understand what that means, let’s look at what a deficit is.

According to the Financial Dictionary, a deficit is:

A situation in which outflow of money exceeds inflow. That is, a deficit occurs when a government, company, or individual spends more than he/she/it receives in a given period of time, usually a year. One’s deficit adds to one’s debt, and, therefore, many analysts believe that deficits are unsustainable over the long-term.

(Again, I like that second definition because it applies to government, businesses, and individuals.)

Let’s look at an individual first. Supposed your take-home net pay is $3,000 per month. Every month, you pay $1200 for rent, $250 for utilities, $500 for groceries, $462 for your student loan, $100 for gas for your car, $80 for car insurance, $273 for your credit card-funded trip to the Caribbean and other stuff, and a total of $195 in payments toward your other credit cards. That’s a total of $3,060. Without even accounting for small miscellaneous expenses, pocket money, and the countless things I didn’t think to include here, you’re already running a $60 per month deficit. (Good thing your health insurance is a benefit that’s already taken from your paycheck; some of us aren’t so lucky and have to pay that out-of-pocket, too.)

So you increase your debt with cash advances or payday loans to see you through to the next month. Or maybe you’ve got some savings and you’re dipping into that to make up the difference. But eventually you’ll max out your debt and your savings will run out. What happens when it does? What happens when your monthly expenditures exceed income and you simply can’t pay what you owe anymore? Eviction, auto repossession, bankruptcy, homelessness. These are all possible.

This is the little picture — what happens when one person has a deficit. It’s easy to imagine it on a larger scale, like for a business. Think of a local retail business. The owner has to invest a bunch of money up front to set up the store with fixtures and get it properly decorated. He might have gotten a loan for that. Then more money to buy inventory. Rent, utilities, advertising, insurance. Then employees, with or without benefits but certainly with wages and employment taxes. He’s already at a deficit before he opens his doors. The business opens and he slowly builds a customer base. But what happens when/if revenues don’t cover monthly expenses? Or if a Walmart moves into town and half of his customers decide to shop there instead? More loans can help in the short term, but as the definition of deficit that I quoted above says, “many analysts believe that deficits are unsustainable over the long-term.” Of course they aren’t. When you spend more than you take in, you will eventually lose the ability to pay for what you’re spending.

CBO 2017 Budget Numbers
The CBO 2017 Budget numbers.

Now let’s look at the very big picture: the United States economy. The Congressional Budget Office has the numbers for 2017; the U.S. government spent $700 billion more than it took in for 2017. That means that the government added that $700 billion to its debt. And, according to the CBO, the country now has $14.7 trillion (yes, with a T) of debt.

(Suddenly, that $12,500 of credit card debt doesn’t seem so bad, eh?)

It’s hard to imagine $14.7 trillion in debt, but a few infographics show its impacts. First, here’s one from the CBO for 2016:

CBO Income and Expenditures for 2016
The CBO prepared this infographic for 2016. Can’t read it? Click here to download the big picture in PDF format.

I know it’s hard to read here — I had to reduce it to get it to fit in my blog page format. (You can download a PDF that’s easier to read.) What I want to draw your attention to is the number at the top of the chart on the left: Net Interest: $241 billion. So in 2016, the U.S. government spent $241 billion dollars on interest for its debt.

This next chart puts interest paid in perspective to various categories of spending. It’s from the National Priorities Project and is based on Office of Management and Budget (OMB) numbers for 2015. You can find it on the site’s Federal Spending: Where Does the Money Go page. I assume that this data is updated regularly, so if you’re reading this in the future, you may see different numbers. Here’s the spending chart that illustrates my point:

Total Federal Spending 2015
Here’s a breakdown of spending based on actual services provided. I think it’s tragic that the United States spends more money on interest for its absurd debt levels than it does for vital services that really can make America great again: education, energy, science, and food and agriculture, to name a few.

My point is this. Because we’re so deep in debt — and have been for a very long time now — we spend a huge amount of money just paying interest on our debt. That money could be going to education or health care or science. It could be doing so many things that actually benefit the American people — just like the interest on your credit card debt could be paying for a gym membership that might make you healthier or piano lessons that could develop your kid’s talent for music. Or any number of things that could make you or your family’s life better.

Why Are We Making this Worse?

These are the numbers. I know I’ve presented data from three different years, but it really doesn’t matter. We’ve been in this deficit/debt situation for a very long time now. Despite efforts to reduce the debt with a budget surplus as President Clinton managed to do during his term, the situation gets worse every year.

And now the Senate has approved a tax plan that will cut taxes for big businesses and the country’s wealthiest individuals, banking on a disproven “trickle down effect” to bring up the economy as a whole so more taxes can be collected. The CBO has already said that this budget will increase the deficit by $1.4 trillion over the next 10 years. Can we really afford debt service on that? What will we be giving up in order to pay interest on that debt?

Personally, I’m sick of Fox News-brainwashed right wingers complaining about Democrats increasing the deficit and debt. The truth is here for anyone interested in knowing it: the Republicans are even worse about budgeting. Last night’s ill-informed vote on a hastily prepared tax plan proves it.

Americans already pay among the lowest tax rates for individuals in a developed nation. We pay taxes for a reason: to pay for the services we get. When my house catches fire, I want the fire department to show up. When I drive to Seattle or Portland or Arizona, I want to drive on smooth roads and cross bridges that won’t collapse. If I had kids or grandkids, I’d want them to go to a school where the teachers were well paid, happy, and effective. I want the FDA to make sure the food and medications I take are safe. I want the FAA to make sure the planes I fly in are safe and that pilots I share the sky with are properly trained and certificated. I want to be as proud of my country today as my parents were when we put the first man on the moon.

US Taxes Compared to World
Pew Research study of U.S. taxpayer burden in 2015 compared to other developed nations. Get the details here.

None of this is possible without the revenue to cover the expenses of these services. Revenue comes from taxes. I’m willing to pay my fair share and I know that many others are, too. Why is that so hard for Republicans to understand?

As a fiscally responsible individual, I want this deficit budgeting to stop. Don’t you?

How can we ever expect our country to become “great again” if we throw away so much money on debt service?

Breathing New Life into Old Hardware

If it still works, why not use it?

Since moving into my home, I’ve been looking for a speaker solution that would allow me to play music or podcasts throughout my home and garage. I did all the wiring for my home, but I (sadly) did not think of wiring it for audio. Repeated Googling and Amazon shopping did not give me the kind of system I wanted: a wifi-based speaker setup that would work with my phone. All I could find was Bluetooth solutions, which were a real pain in the ass — every time I moved out of range, the sound would cut out, sometimes requiring a manual reconnect.

I was on Apple’s website this morning looking for a Homekit-compatible light switch. That’s a whole other story and I’ll try to tell it briefly: I have high ceilings in my living space and my heating ducts are pretty high on the wall. Two of them are actually up on my loft. Heat rises so, in the winter, it gets pretty warm up on the loft (and high up in the living room and bedroom). I have a temperature sensor in the loft that works with a smart plug to turn on a fan there when the loft temperature exceeds 74°F and shut off the fan when it drops back down below 71°F. (It also stays off at night since it isn’t exactly quiet and I don’t want to listen to it when I’m trying to sleep.) The fan pushes the air out into the living room where two standard ceiling fans push the warm air down into the room. It works great and keeps the furnace from running all day long, but I have to manually turn on those two ceiling fans. I want smart switches that’ll use the temperature sensor in the loft to turn them on and off automatically. So that’s why I was at Apple’s website: to see what smart switches they offered.

While I was there, I reacquainted myself with Airplay, which I actually blogged about way back in 2005 when it was called AirTunes. Back in those days, I was writing books about using Mac OS and had to buy all kinds of hardware to write about it. I’d bought an AirPort Express base station and later bought another one. I think I used them for music or printers or both. I don’t remember. It was a long time ago.

Well, I still have both of those old AirPort Express base stations. For a while, I was using one of them for remote printing from my color laser printer, which I kept in my loft. My office is up there now and the printer is directly connected to my iMac so I don’t need the AirPort Express. I started wondering whether I could still use it for speakers.

The short answer: Yes.

Of course, it wasn’t easy to set up. Even though my desktop Mac is now about 6 years old and is running an old version of Mac OS — 10.10.5 Yosemite — the version of the AirPort Utility I needed to configure a 12-year-old AirPort Express would not run on my computer. I even fired up my old MacBook Pro, which is running Mac OS 10.9, and it wouldn’t run on that, either. I knew I’d configured it just a few years ago for the printer and had to do some Googling to remember how I’d done it. That’s when I found the ZCS AirPort Utility Launcher. This free utility fools AirPort Utility v5.6.1 into thinking it’s getting launched on an old version of Mac OS. That gets it running so it can configure the old base station.

An Old Version of AirPort Utility
Here’s AirPort Utility 5.6.1 running on a Mac with the Yosemite OS installed. Both of my old AirPort Express base stations are configured for speaker duty.

Even then I had trouble getting it to see the base station. I had to use an Ethernet cable to connect the damn thing directly to my ACUS router. And reset the base station by pressing in the tiny button with a pen point.

But once the software could see the base station, it configured it without any problems. I had it connect to my 2.4 G network. Then I hooked up a pair of cheap powered speakers that I used to use with my Mac, and got it playing music from my iMac and, later, from my iPhone. Success!

I went down into the garage and tracked down the other AirPort Express. I set it up the same way. I hooked that up to a stereo clock radio in the bedroom that I rarely use. I might even put it by the bed.

I still have an old Time Capsule somewhere; if I can find it, I’ll set it up for the living room and move the Express down into the garage. I’ve got an old boom box down there with great speakers; it should work fine with AirPlay.

Of course, the next hurdle to jump was being able to play music on multiple AirPlay speakers at the same time. After all, I wanted my music all over the house and garage when I was playing it. My phone could only stream to one device at a time.

More Googling. This time, I learned about an Apple iOS app called Remote. I could install it on my iPhone, pair the phone to my computer’s copy of iTunes, and be able to access my computer’s music from my phone. It works. And it sounds pretty damn good coming from speakers all over the house.

I know this blog post makes me sound super geeky. Deep down inside, I am. I especially love taking old computer hardware that most people would have thrown away by now and use it for a new purpose. Sure — I could go out and buy new AirPort Express base stations at a cost of $99 each. But why should I when the old ones I have still work?