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Superhero

My brother lost his long battle with cancer last week.

Happier Days

I was three years old when my brother Tim was born, and my earliest memories include the excitement about the arrival of a “bicentennial baby” in July 1976. For those who knew him later in life, it might come as a surprise that Tim was a pudgy little kid. He was a playful and loyal younger brother. In 1978 our family moved from New York to Seattle. We settled in the suburb of Renton, and our brother George was born there in 1979. We grew up in a tight-knit suburban neighborhood called Rolling Hills. It was a time when kids spent days playing in the backyard, riding bikes around the neighborhood, playing ball in the cul-de-sac, and wandering through the nearby woods. In most ways, ours was a pretty ordinary 1980s suburban existence. But the hints of the man that Tim would become were there when he was a kid.

Our neighborhood’s signal feature is a competition-length neighborhood pool, and from ages six through eighteen, we were all part of the neighborhood swim team with scores of other kids. George and I were decent swimmers, but Tim outshone us in and out of the pool. Eventually my younger brother broke every one of my records and many others. But far more than a competitor, Tim was a natural leader. Kids of all ages were naturally drawn to his enthusiasm, kindness, and goofy sense of humor. By his teen years, Tim could often be seen at the pool with a half-dozen kids draped all over him in some kind of game. When he became team captain, Tim knew each kid by name and had inside jokes with most. His penchant for industry and enterprise were also evident early on. He rode a paper route on his bicycle every day and socked away the money he earned. So beloved was Tim to the neighborhood kids ​that they’d often line up on curbs and doorsteps to receive their daily papers or ride along with him for fun. One neighborhood parent called Tim the “Pied Piper of Rolling Hills.”

And indeed, teenage Tim’s almost supernatural way with kids reflected something kind of magical about Tim’s entire life. Children were attracted to Tim for the same reason so many others were. He had natural empathy and an instinct for others. He had the politician’s gift of making every person he met feel important and valued.

Tim’s way of winning easy friendships was a kind of super power that amazed and perplexed me as his stern and socially awkward older brother. Later in life I came to understand the secret to Tim’s interpersonal superpower: Tim made people feel valuable because he genuinely valued them, wanted to know them, and wanted to help them.

Kids understood that about Tim intuitively.

Eventually, so did everyone else.

Those qualities carried through Tim’s teen years. He was a standout two-sport athlete in high school, was band president, homecoming king, and general big man on campus. Like his brothers, Tim eventually went to Seattle University where he graduated with a degree in finance in 1999. He was on the swim team and played varsity soccer at Seattle U. He competed in the national championship swim meet, and played on the soccer team that won Seattle U.’s first national championship in 1997. Tim formed deep and lasting friendships with classmates and teammates in those college years. He spent summers working and coaching youth swimming and soccer, which he continued into his early working life. After graduation, Tim worked in insurance and finance in the Seattle area.

Uncle Tim with Tess & Tony.

​I got married in 1997 while Tim was still in college, and when I became an expectant father I was anxious. Although he was my younger brother and still just a college student, I looked to Tim for confidence. Brother Tim became Uncle Tim in 1998 when my daughter Tess was born. Like every child, Tess adored Tim, and Tim adored her right back. My son Antonio was born two years later and soon was just as smitten.

When we moved from Seattle to Michigan in 2001, Tim sent my kids an Advent Calendar. But instead of angels, or shepherds, or stars, or crosses, or the usual Christmas stuff, each day had a picture of Tim’s face on it. Beneath each picture was a piece of chocolate. “I want the kids to associate me with good things,” he said. Tim’s trademark loving attention and goofy humor endeared them for life.

Following the old Alcoholics Anonymous advice to “fake it till you make it,” I learned to be a father by imitating my younger brother. His silly, playful and patient love for my kids helped me gain confidence as a young father—and presaged his own remarkable fatherhood.

 It turns out that making others better was another one of Tim’s superpowers. In the week since his passing, I’ve heard from more and more people stories of how Tim helped them become better human beings.

In 2004 Tim moved to San Diego. When he made the move, he told me that he fell in love with this city years before and felt drawn to it. He learned the joys of fish tacos and took up surfing. He told me once: “The best part of being a surfer is walking up and down the beach looking like a surfer.”

​To support his beach lifestyle, Tim first worked at Nordstrom before moving into mortgage banking. His combination of financial acumen and interpersonal grace made him a successful mortgage banker.

​While working at Nordstrom he​ met Lisa. Having fallen in love with this beautiful city, it should be no surprise that Tim fell in love with one of its most beautiful women.  They struck up a friendship, and then a romance, and then a marriage in 2012.

Falling in love in San Diego

In 2013 Tim finally got the chance to fulfill the role that he was meant for when Audrey Grace was born and Tim became a dad. He got to be a dad for the second time when Hannah Faith joined the fun in 2016.

Everything that made Tim the Pied Piper of Rolling Hills, an inspiring youth soccer coach, and beloved Uncle Tim emerged a thousand fold in Tim the silly daddy. Tim was a hands-on dad: reading stories, down on all fours playing with his girls, bouncing them on his knee, and generally being his attentive, affectionate self. Tim would compose silly songs extemporaneously to lend fun to everyday life. He was utterly devoted to his daughters.

Up to the highest height!

Tim became a father and a cancer patient almost simultaneously; it is impossible to appreciate what an extraordinary father he was without the context of that horrible disease.​

​Tim got his cancer diagnosis at age 36, with his first baby on the way. The cancer was quite advanced by the time it was diagnosed. Physicians gave him little hope after initial treatment, but Tim was determined to find a way to live. For the next seven years, Tim sought every angle and avenue to survive. He read voraciously. He sought second and third and fourth opinions, traveling to specialists in Seattle and Houston to help him fight his disease. At least four times over the past seven years Tim was given grim warnings that he had just months or weeks to live. Each time he defied the odds, seeking out another treatment, another therapy, another surgery, anything to keep himself alive.

​Through it all he kept an almost unbelievably positive, optimistic attitude. Privately, I know my brother was often plagued by fear and doubt, but to his friends, to me, and to my children, he was cheerful and resilient. For his girls, he was still silly daddy: trips to the beach, pool, playground, and zoo filled their days.

Selfie with Silly Daddy!

But that resilience ​carried a terrible cost.

The cancer treatments that Tim received were physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. Discomfort, fatigue, pain, and loss of strength and mobility were his daily reality. These were difficult adjustments for a man who had been vigorously athletic for virtually his entire life. It’s impossible to overstate just how much devotion to family kept Tim fighting cancer. As Tim was struggling to recover from another round of treatment, he told me more than once that if he were alone, or in his seventies or eighties, he would never endure the pain and indignities of cancer treatment. But in his daughters he had a reason to keep at it for the chance at another birthday, another silly song, another moment with the family that he loved so much.

​Watching him these past seven years, I learned that Tim had yet another super power: an inexhaustible reservoir of courage and will to endure where most others would give up. Paternal love was the wellspring of that courage.

Lullabies with Silly Daddy.

Last September I visited my brother in San Diego for a few days. While I was here, he got some bad news from his oncologist. Tim and I had lunch on the last day of my visit and he told me: “I’ve been dodging bullets for six years. I’m just going to have to dodge another.”

​That image stuck with me ever since. Every time someone asked me about how about Tim was doing, I told them he was dodging bullets. Tim was so strong, so resilient, so graceful and athletic—I’d smile as I imagined him dodging, weaving, dancing, almost playfully evading cancer to the squealing delight of his daughters.

​Two weeks ago I came to San Diego when Tim had been hospitalized again.​ This time there were no more therapies, no more surgeries, no more room to dodge or dance.

Among the many cruelties of coronavirus, children were forbidden from visiting the hospital. That made Tim desperate to return home where he could be with Audrey and Hannah, even as he saw the end approaching. Thank God, he was finally given permission to let us care for him at home.

​Only when I began to help care for Tim at home did I come to appreciate the true costs of Tim’s devotion. His strong, athletic frame had been decimated. In his prime, Tim was a strapping 200 pounds; in his last days I held him in my arms and he could not have been more than 130. His body was riddled with more than two dozen scars from seven years of surgeries and treatments. The terrible truth became clear: Tim had not been dodging bullets; he’d been taking them.

​Martial metaphors are cliché when describing people’s struggles with disease, but seeing, touching, and holding Tim in his last days revealed a man who had indeed been fighting in every way he could with everything he had. He wasn’t dodging or dancing, he was standing and fighting desperately for every moment another moment with his family.

​Each scar on Tim’s body was a monument to that devotion.

In his last days, Tim’s only thoughts were for his family. At times he felt like a failure for leaving them behind. In reality, Tim was victorious in creating two precious new lives and building a community, weaving a blanket of love around his family that will care for and sustain them always. In his last hour on this earth, I told him so.

Three days ago we laid my brother Tim to rest in a COVID-era service that gave a strangely sparse sendoff to an intensely social life. He was a son, a brother, a husband, and a friend. He was a leader. He was a courageous father and a silly daddy.

Tim's burial during COVID-19

And he was my hero.

​Rest easy, brother.


Perverse incentives

Devils (and angels) in the details, Part 2

It’s always about the money.

In early January the California Water Board released its draft proposal for a statewide low-income water bill assistance program. My last post summarized the path-breaking proposal and its promise for addressing affordability in the Golden State. It’s an admirable piece of work on a challenging and complex issue. The next couple posts wade into the tall policy grass in search of snakes. This one looks at the volume of water to be subsidized under the proposal.

Assistance for how much water?

An assistance program for water implies that there is some level of water consumption that is socially important, and that without assistance, water consumption would either fall below that level or force households to sacrifice other essential goods in order to pay for water. What is that level of water consumption? How much water is so important that taxpayers should subsidize it?

For California’s draft assistance proposal, the answer is 12 ccf (about 9,000 gallons) monthly per household.

Consumption in context

Not all residential water use is the same. Public policy discussions of water affordability are mostly concerned with essential needs like drinking, cooking, cleaning, and sanitation. We’re not generally concerned with the affordability of watering lawns, washing cars, or filling swimming pools.

Probably not worth subsidizing

The proposal’s 12 ccf price guideline implies 75 gallons per capita per day (gpcd) for a family of four. To give some context, California utilities average about 100 gpcd, which makes 75 gpcd seem pretty low. But it’s much higher than California’s 55 gpcd water efficiency standard (set to drop to 50 gpcd by 2030), and higher than typical water use in many California communities today. My own past affordability analyses have assumed 50 gpcd for essential use*; conservative San Francisco already averages just 42.4 gpcd for overall demand (not just essential use).†

There’s nothing magic about any of these numbers; in the end, the level of water consumption that is deserving of public subsidy is a decision to be made through the democratic process. But 12 ccf is a lot of water if the policy’s aim is to provide for essential water use. The draft proposal notes that the 12 ccf level is intended to allow for larger households and “modest amounts of outdoor irrigation.”

A perverse incentive

Why does any of this matter? Beyond the normative question of whether taxpayers ought to subsidize outdoor irrigation, a 12ccf standard may have the unintended effect of pushing water utilities toward less affordable, less conservation-oriented pricing.

Low fixed rates and low prices for essential water use make water affordable for everyone, whether or not they participate in an assistance program. Coupled with progressively higher volumetric prices, such rate structures help keep water affordable and encourage conservation. Unfortunately, many utilities have recently responded to falling average demand and revenue volatility by raising fixed rates and imposing higher costs for low-volume use. That’s good for utility revenue, but bad for affordability.

That’s where the perverse incentives creep in. A 12 ccf standard for assistance is likely to exacerbate the trend toward utilities raising fixed charges and low-volume rates. With the state’s assistance program providing aid to low-income customers, utilities can raise rates on volumes below 12 ccf with less concern for affordability impacts. That will naturally dampen the conservation incentive, as higher priced water becomes less expensive. Less obviously, higher prices for lower volumes will exacerbate affordability problems for anyone who is not enrolled in the assistance program. The draft proposal assumes an 84% participation rate; for the 16% of households who don’t participate (for whatever reason), affordability will probably get worse.

A footnote acknowledges a danger of strategic rate-setting (told you I’d get into the weeds!), observing that systems could respond to the assistance program by “shifting the rate burden to consumption levels below 12 CCF, and thus elevate the benefit for eligible households.” Apparently the concern is that utilities will game the assistance program as a means of channeling more state money to local customers. But from an affordability perspective, the more worrisome prospect is that the state’s assistance program will incentivize regressive pricing that ironically makes water less affordable for many.

This perverse incentive will exist no matter what volume is subsidized, but the greater the volume subsidized, the more perverse the incentive will be. If an assistance program is supposed to support a human right to water, then a more modest 6-8 ccf standard for support is more defensible and less susceptible to rate design gamesmanship.

 

 

*My January 2018 article on affordability measurement prompted a grouchy email from a San Francisco official who complained that 50 gpcd was an unrealistically high essential volume for evaluating affordability

I chuckled when typing: “conservative San Francisco.” Our language is funny, sometimes.

 

 

California’s bold proposal for statewide water bill assistance

Devils (and angels) in the details, Part 1

Governor Newsom (nice haircut in the black jacket, back to the camera) dragged his cabinet down the Central Valley to hear what folks had to say about drinking water.

In 2012, to great fanfare, California governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 685, which declared a “right to safe, clean, affordable, and accessible water adequate for human consumption, cooking, and sanitary purposes.” Last spring I observed that the crucial but unglamorous task of turning the lofty rhetoric of rights into a pragmatic program fell to the California Water Board staff under AB401.

Fast forward seven years: the Golden State now has a new governor, and he’s eagerly established himself as a champion for water access and affordability. Earlier this month the Water Board published its draft proposal for a statewide low-income water rate assistance program with an estimated annual price tag of $606 million. As with so many other areas of public policy, California is blazing a trail that other states and communities could follow. There are lots of interesting things about the proposal. Mostly, though, it’s big and it’s bold.

The proposal

The proposal is complicated. At its heart is a three-tiered assistance program that would provide different discount of 20%, 35%, or 50%, depending on the combination of household income and monthly water prices at 12 ccf (about 9,000 gallons). Customers could qualify if their household income is less than 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL).

The proposal is vague about how customers would enroll in the program, how often renewals would be required, who would make eligibility determinations, and who would be responsible for collecting and distributing benefits. The proposal smartly lays out several options for how the program would deliver benefits to participants. Eligible customers could get a water bill credit, an energy bill credit, a tax credit, or a direct payment via Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT).

To pay for these benefits, the proposal calls for “progressive revenue sources,” including an increased tax on income over $1 million a year and sales taxes on bottled water. Under California law, these would require a supermajority vote in the legislature and a ballot referendum, respectively.

Go big or go home

The Water Board’s proposed program is remarkable in its breadth and boldness. The federal government’s LIHEAP has provided home energy bill assistance for decades, but the proposed California plan would be the country’s first statewide water bill assistance program, promising benefits targeted at low-income water utility customers (as opposed to subsidies for the utilities that serve them). The proposal envisions reaching as many as 4.3 million households. The three-tier eligibility and benefit framework is an admirable effort to match benefit levels to customers’ needs.

The proposal is also unabashedly redistributive in its aims, using tax revenue to subsidize low-income households’ water bills. This sort of redistributive approach is important for an assistance program in a state as large and economically diverse as California. The benefit levels are modest but significant, and although they provide percentage discounts, the three tiers smartly designed with absolute cost burdens in mind.

On the other hand…

Some aspects of the proposal are worrisome. Some bits are merely (and probably intentionally) vague, others could be addressed with some minor tweaks; but others are more fundamental. In the next few posts I’ll look at that other hand.