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Posted at 8:54 AM ET, 03/ 9/2011

The pigeon at the table (cont.)

By Joel Achenbach

This is the Financial Season (Mud Season, climatologically), and so I'm buried in forms and documents and bank statements and receipts and trying to figure out how I can persuade college financial aid officers that I cannot actually afford the insane tuition of their esteemed institutions. My fundamental financial problem is that I have too much money. I know this complaint is not likely to generate any sympathy -- except among those who are in exactly my predicament. They know the feeling. They understand. They have shared this pain.

Somewhere along the line we (in this category of the Affluent Poor) made the mistake of working hard for 30 years and making sensible financial decisions, and now we have enough money that the colleges will look over our balance sheets and say, "Yeah, we'll take that."

It's a kind of shadow tax. The rack rate at a college is so high, no one can pay it -- except for the schmucks who stupidly saved money for just this purpose.

Other people have ways of hiding or obscuring their situation. Those of us with no actual interest in money -- who find the subject extremely boring, fundamentally -- are thus implicitly taxed further, our payments ratcheted up as a consequence of our inability or refusal to game the system.

Remember rule one in life: If you don't know who the pigeon is at the table, it's you.

Shoulda done more than the new kitchen -- shoulda blown it all the way out the back, into the yard, with a swimming pool, hot tub, stone fountains, gazebo. You can move the money into categories the colleges can't get access to. Rule two: Never save.

My next strategy: Stop working entirely. Quit job. Because of the implicit loss of financial aid due to high income the marginal tax rate on those of us in the Schmuck Stratum is surely well over 50 percent. What we need is some strategic impoverishment.

Think about it: You chuck it all, buy a used VW bus, paint some Day-Glo flowers on it and hit the road, permanently. Just let it all go. Head straight to Humbolt County, go DEEP in the woods.

Except there are those gas prices. Dang!! Never mind.

Here's a more basic problem for everyone: None of us is as well off as we suppose. Read this piece by Tyler Cowen on the "Fiscal Illusion." There's basically no getting around it: The value of what we have socked away is lower than we think because at some point we have to made good on the debts owed. No magic wand will make the problem go away.

I'm sending that piece to the colleges.

By Joel Achenbach  | March 9, 2011; 8:54 AM ET
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Gas? There's your problem. No self-respecting New Hippie is going to use gasoline. Convert the VW bus to bio-diesel and travel the country filling up on truck stop grease traps.

Posted by: MStreet1 | March 9, 2011 10:27 AM | Report abuse

Darned if you do, darned if you don't.

Posted by: --dr-- | March 9, 2011 10:37 AM | Report abuse

OK, going off on the road trip tangent, a question for SciTim and company. If one were to cover all the up-facing surfaces of a car with solar collector film, how much electricity would be generated? Enough to signficantly extend the range of a Leaf or Volt? Or are they just not efficient enough yet?

Posted by: ebtnut | March 9, 2011 10:41 AM | Report abuse

from the last boodle

mudge- "Everyone has a random" = someone they shouldn't have, wouldn't have while sober, doesn't know a real name much less bodily fluid swapping history. Kind of a metaphor, because perhaps one personally doesn't "have a random" but by the time you get to Kevin Bacon territory...

Posted by: frostbitten1 | March 9, 2011 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Not sure I used "metaphor" correctly, but you gather the inference.

Posted by: frostbitten1 | March 9, 2011 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Canadians are skinnier than Americans:

It's either the high fructose corn syrup or the parliamentary government, because it sure ain't the poutine.

Posted by: yellojkt | March 9, 2011 10:45 AM | Report abuse

Yeah, the way colleges handle financial aid is frustrating. As you point out the behavior being "punished" isn't earning a lot of money, per se, rather it is saving a lot of money.

I would much rather have college aid based on some sort of sliding scale linked to income and liabilities rather than blindly linked to your savings account. You know, like a true progressive tax with reasonable deductions.

The way it is done now is based on the assumption that there is no more important reason for saving money than to pay college bills. It makes sense from their point of view, of course, but it does seem punitive.

Posted by: RD_Padouk | March 9, 2011 10:52 AM | Report abuse

Immaculate Conception:

Virgin Birth:

Completely different fairy tales, er, dogmas.

Posted by: yellojkt | March 9, 2011 10:53 AM | Report abuse

Hmm. Okay. Thanks for the definition, frosti.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | March 9, 2011 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Lots of factors to consider, but I seem to recall that even moderately favorable conditions only see solar energy equivalent to around a tenth of a gallon of gasoline per square meter per day.

I'm not sure how efficient are Leaves & Volts, but that doesn't sound like a lot of range-extension.

Posted by: bobsewell | March 9, 2011 11:12 AM | Report abuse

That saving for college thing worked fine for my two older kids since their high school efforts did not inspire. The two years at community college didn't raid the savings much. Now, with the prospect of a good high school student off to the four year institution, I'm gonna feel the pain of getting plucked.

Posted by: edbyronadams | March 9, 2011 11:27 AM | Report abuse

Georgia Tech has taken and electric powered Audi TT and covered it with solar panels. This produces enough power to run the auxiliary systems, but not to drive the car.

They are entering the 2011 World Solar Challenge with a design that looks far from street-worthy.

Full solar power for vehicles is at least two design generations away.

Posted by: yellojkt | March 9, 2011 11:28 AM | Report abuse

Please do not talk poutine just before lunch, the grease truck beckons.

As I was explaining to my sister who was worried about college tuition for her gifted daughter, we decided for a pay-as-you-go solutions for our kids. We reached that conclusion many years ago as we were watching ball&chain 1 and 2 sitting on a mound of topsoil and exchanging spoonfuls of dirt mixed with water. The prospect of needing college funds appeared low.

In the end it works out allright, in part because tuition fees are a lot lower in these cold parts. Witch no.1 turned this college thing into a money making venture, no issues there. And it looks like the Fungi will be graduating just as Witch no.2 will be ready for college so the pay-as-you-go strategy should work out allright.
But this policy of punishing the cautious doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

Posted by: shrieking_denizen | March 9, 2011 11:38 AM | Report abuse

I have long pointed out to the ScienceSpouse that we should spend everything as soon as possible, because the net effect of college is to debit your accounts by about $150-200K or until you're tapped out, whichever happens first. Those of us who never anticipated saving that kind of dough anyway, should spend what we have, because college resets the stored money supply to zero.

Or: what Joel said. Ditto. Megadittoes.

Posted by: ScienceTim | March 9, 2011 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Take it from me, the don't-save-a-dime-and-pray-for-aid system doesn't work too well either. You don't have make so much that you are eligible for a George Bush tax cut to be considered fabulously wealthy by the student aid people regardless of the amount (or lack therof) of liquid assets on hand. Fortunately the much feared banking freeze has not affected my ability to borrow to my heart's content. I'm still counting on that round of hyperinflation to bail me out someday.

Posted by: yellojkt | March 9, 2011 11:46 AM | Report abuse

Do what I did: have stupid kids.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | March 9, 2011 11:50 AM | Report abuse

mudge-worked perfectly for us. Should the stupidity somehow wane later, as it has somewhat in the frostfam, the responsibility for payment is all theirs.

Posted by: frostbitten1 | March 9, 2011 11:58 AM | Report abuse

I don't really have any skin in this game, so I shall demur.

And, go off-kit (as is my wont now and again (*internal snort*)). For the life of me, I simply cannot stay awake today (if, indeed, I ever did wake up this morning, wonderful shower notwithstanding). Here it is, just about noon EST, and I'm yawning and reaching for toothpicks to keep the peepers open.

I think it'll be soup-n-sammich for lunch today, followed by an apple (Pink Lady) and a huge mug of Vanilla-Almond tea.

Followed again by a nap, I'm sure.

Tomorrow is going to be horrid for those who must be outside. A great deal of flooding is predicted all up and down the east coast.


Posted by: ftb3 | March 9, 2011 12:03 PM | Report abuse

The irony, frosti, is that if someone would have told me, sometime shortly after we'd adopted our third, fourth and fifth kid, that not one of my five kids would go to college, I would have said such a prediction was absurd, insane, not gonna happen. They were raised in a household chock full of books, where learning was prized and modeled, where going to collge was "assumed," etc. We did everything right. Even more ironic, two of the five are really extremely smart (two others I rate as "average" and one just a wee tad below average, since I don't live anywhere near Lake Woebegon). To this day it is probably the single largest disappointment my wife and I share. Oh-for-five. Some days I simply cannot believe it. (At least I'm two-for-two among college-age grandkids. I think I'll wind up at least 6 for 10, minimum, in that generation.)

Of course, the flip side of the coin is that if any of them *had* gone or wanted to go, we'd probably be destitute by now. (I'm two-for-five in terms of paying for weddings, so three more financial bullets dodged.)

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | March 9, 2011 12:30 PM | Report abuse

A couple years back, Mudge provoked me to calculate the power available from sunlight in comparison to the energy requirements of an electric vehicle. The results were not pretty. I have done some recalculation, think I may have been overly pessimistic, but only a little bit so.

We receive 1.366kW/m^2 (kilo-watts per square meter) from Mr. Sun. Ignore pesky irritations such as clouds (which are hard) and the changing angle of illumination. If I leave my vehicle in the Sun for 8 hours, how much driving will I be able to cover? I estimate that my vehicle might have about 2 square meters of surface area on top for photovoltaics. Assume PV cells of futuristic efficiency -- say, 20%. Assume 100% efficient batteries (why the heck not?). Over 8 hours, I can store up about 1366 W/m^2 X 8 hours X 3600 sec/hr. X 2 m^2 X 0.2 = 15.7 MJ (mega-joules). Wow! What a lot of energy!

The main use of energy in a car is to accelerate to speed. Assuming my solar car is advanced and lightweight, let's assume it masses only 1 tonne = 1000 kg (I have to account for the batteries, which are massive). Kinetic energy = 1/2 mv^2. How fast can my stored energy make my car go, if I ignore the very real problem of aerodynamic drag? The answer is v = square root of (2 * E / m) = sqrt(2 * 15.7 MJ / 1000 kg) = 177 m/s = 638 kph = 396 mph.

That's very encouraging. Let's fix some of our more optimistic assumptions: commercially available PV cells are about 10% efficient, batteries are not superb and probably only recover about 50% of the energy put in them, and the average illumination of the PV cells on my car will average to about 50% of maximum. All of these things affect the 15.7 MJ number and drag my recoverable energy down to about 15.7 MJ X (0.1/0.2) X 0.5 X 0.5 = 2 MJ. That drags my kinetic-energy-equivalent speed down to 226 kph = 140 mph. Still not too shabby.

BUT: According to Wikipedia, gasoline has 132 MJ/US gallon. Gas engines are about 30% efficient. These are sobering facts. Our 8 hours of sunlight = 2 MJ/(0.3 X 132 MJ/gal) = 0.05 gallon fuel. 8 hours sunlight on the car surface is equivalent to powering a 50 mpg car for 2.5 mile. Bummer. Even if I assume my excellent PV's and excellent batteries, I'm only up to about 10 miles.

There is simply not enough power in sunlight to power a car using only the car's own surface area. You need a larger surface to capture the sunlight, and store it in the car -- THAT is do-able. To achieve the classic standard of 40-mile range with my realistic-efficiency car, I need 16 times the car's own surface area.

Posted by: ScienceTim | March 9, 2011 12:40 PM | Report abuse

When our Sole Genetic Investment, aka the K-chick, was a junior in HS in 2001, we had the Solemn Family Money Talk About the Future. We told her we would pay all the costs of a state university. If she wanted to go elsewhere and could swing the difference in cost through loans or scholarships, fine by us. The carrot of study abroad was discussed in connection with the state school option, since that would involve less domestic travel expense. She was considering schools in New Orleans (pre-Katrina, dodged a bullet there) Saint Louis, and New Haven, but ended up in Charlottesville and loved it, studied in Denmark for half a year, and graduated debt free. Four years at UVa cost us about $65k exclusive of travel to Denmark.

Posted by: kguy1 | March 9, 2011 12:41 PM | Report abuse

16x -- I think that's the first time I've ever heard of anyone quantifying the pfroblem with a reasonable number, Tim. I'm glad you did that math. I've never been a fan of solar power -- not because I don't want it to work, I do! -- but because the numbers just never approach anything substantially useful. It has three serious defects: output isn't enough (using current or foreseeable technology), or expense is too great, or weight (of solar collectors) is too much, or two of the above and sometimes all three. One major distinction is in fixed versus moving. There are applications where fixed panels work fine (and almost by definition fixed means weight isn't a consideration). But once you try to get locomotion of them, solar is just a losing proposition. I dearly wish that wasn't so...but it is.

You're aware that I have considerable experience with electric boats. I've run into countless people who have the same sort of pipedream about solar-powered boats as solar-powered cars. I suspect the X number for boats is way higher than the 16x number for cars, since it is so much harder to get a boat moving through water than it is to get a car (on wheels) moving through air.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | March 9, 2011 1:01 PM | Report abuse

Ohmygosh, David Broder is dead.

Posted by: slyness | March 9, 2011 1:06 PM | Report abuse

RIP, David Broder.

Posted by: talitha1 | March 9, 2011 1:07 PM | Report abuse

That's right Frosti, the Fungi reunited with long-lost grey cells after a year and a half or so of being the side-office slave in a pharmacy. He decided that pill-counting and being nice to snarly customers (mostly those on public programs that had to co-pay $5 on the $1500 of meds resting on the counter) at $11-12 an hour wasn't a career after all. It was a tortuous route but I think he'll graduate in the prescribed 4 years.

Posted by: shrieking_denizen | March 9, 2011 1:08 PM | Report abuse

Yes, RIP David Broder, age 81.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | March 9, 2011 1:20 PM | Report abuse

[slyness appeared in the blink of an eye
... like a fox.]

I'll miss Broder. When I first started reading him back in my early twenties I always saw him as an even-handed, informed and kindly uncle. He explained things in a way that made a political novice like me feel less of an idiot, whether I agreed with his opinion or not.

Posted by: talitha1 | March 9, 2011 1:22 PM | Report abuse

Nothing like those jobs to make a young person consider the alternatives, SD.

One of the great perks of living in North Carolina is the UNC system of universities; sixteen campuses to choose from, located in all parts of the state, decent tuition, excellent education. I just looked at the UNC-CH website. Current in-state tuition and fees are $6666 per year. They estimate total costs per year at $19,764. That's pretty generous.

Posted by: slyness | March 9, 2011 1:22 PM | Report abuse

The advantage of a boat is that you so rarely have to apply the brakes if your vessel is ocean-going. You could imagine paving the upper deck of a cargo vessel with solar panels, augmented by sails (which might also be covered by PV's) and just slowly cruise the ocean with low fuel cost. You'd want to have diesel generators to power your propulsion during acceleration phases and in port, but solar could do a good job for you during the uniform-velocity cruising phase.

Posted by: ScienceTim | March 9, 2011 1:33 PM | Report abuse

That's always been the standard theory, Tim: solar sails. But the fact is, you can't have all that weight that high in the air. Waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay dangerous, in terms of center of gracvity. Those things would be too heavy (in current or foreseeable technology). Then you have the furling problem, stowing them, etc. And you can't have those things way up there during a storm (even just 30 or 40-knot winds), which means one needs a way to trim and stow them fairly quickly.

It's always been a great idea...just can't be done.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | March 9, 2011 1:43 PM | Report abuse

JA - great blog entry! Nailed it - says the person who's now officially finished paying for 14 of the 32 college semesters for which he promised to pay. Unfortunately, the ol' bank account is waaaay more than 14/32 depleted, but heck, if I go totally broke the remaining kids can finish up themselves!

The thing that really peeved me (well, one of the many but we haven't got six weeks) about college funding was that they only count the kids actually in college. When daughter #1 was applying to college, all the FAFSA & CSS calculations said "one kid". We said no, wait; there are two others right behind her and the 2010-2011 school year will see 3 in college; please don't bankrupt us in 2007-2008. They said, in effect, that you can't count those other kids since they MAY NOT go to college or they MAY get full athletic scholarships or some other equally unlikely outcome. So, "one kid."

Posted by: ArmyBrat1 | March 9, 2011 1:52 PM | Report abuse

Yep. Solar radiation's good at moving large, light things around, like sizable chunks of the atmosphere. Not so good at moving smaller, denser stuff.

But with the right feedstock, you can certainly use solar energy to synthesize energy-dense chemical fuels.

Posted by: bobsewell | March 9, 2011 1:54 PM | Report abuse

Hey, Wilbrodog, the WaPo is soliciting cherry blossom haikus. Put your mettle to the petal.

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | March 9, 2011 1:55 PM | Report abuse

*patting self on back for extraordinarily good double pun reversal in pike position, with an excellent dismount*)

Posted by: curmudgeon6 | March 9, 2011 1:56 PM | Report abuse

New kit

Posted by: dmd3 | March 9, 2011 1:58 PM | Report abuse

Yeah, Wilbrod! DNA_Girl, too.
I just read through the entries and there's not an inspired haiku in the bunch.
(That's being kind to the majority)

Posted by: talitha1 | March 9, 2011 2:01 PM | Report abuse

Even though I'm still swamped with work fun, I can't ever say "No" to bc when he starts talking car stuff:

Increasing surface area also increases aero drag, as Mudge alludes.

Aero drag also increases as a square of velocity - and takes more power to move anything anywhere with any alacrity whatsoever.

Low-drag shapes with lightweight construction can work, but they're not terribly practical. And fall short of current safety standards, which is one reason why cars weigh so much more now than they used to - dragging around double steel I-beam doors, safety glass, 5-mph bumpers, and all manner of airbags costs fuel mileage. Not to mention air conditioning, entertainment and navigation systems, comfy heated power seats, doors, and liftgates, rear window washers, automatic transmissions, all-wheel drive systems, refrigerators (used to be an option on some cars, no?) and whisper-quiet sound insulation... the typical car/vehicle has between 800-2000 pounds of that stuff. Driving around with your living room will eat into your fuel mileage, for sure.

Not saying we don't want all that stuff, but motorcycles get far better fuel mileage.

A shame about Broder - I admired his work for decades.


Posted by: Scottynuke | March 9, 2011 2:04 PM | Report abuse

I have felt your pain ... and survived! But what pain it is.

Posted by: Windy3 | March 9, 2011 8:01 PM | Report abuse

I think the solar problem, so very well summarized by you folks, is why people are trying to figure out a better battery.

I will wait until I can charge my car batteries with a 16xcar surface solar array on my garage and roof.

Posted by: baldinho | March 9, 2011 8:57 PM | Report abuse

What we need is a bigger, brighter sun.

Posted by: byoolin1 | March 10, 2011 8:27 AM | Report abuse

"...the 'Fiscal Illusion.' There's basically no getting around it: The value of what we have socked away is lower than we think because at some point we have to made good on the debts owed. No magic wand will make the problem go away."

Well Joel maybe you're right, but perhaps neither you nor anyone else has figured out that the Federal Government is sitting on trillions of dollars worth of natural resources, as well as untold $$$ of real estate and a myriad of other UNUSED assets that the People's government doesn't need and just shouldn't own. Properties and assets that could be generating future tax revenue, instead of requiring the expenditure of tax funds for annual maintenance and upgrades.

Many state governments are also sitting on similar assets which if privatized would help to reduce their budget crises and create future taxable incomes.

Posted by: Hazmat77 | March 11, 2011 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Scottynuke.. "A shame about Broder!"

Surely he - like everyone else - expected to die at some point; and 81 is a pretty good run.

David had a great and long career. It was his time.

Posted by: Hazmat77 | March 11, 2011 11:19 AM | Report abuse

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