Category Archives: Politics

Well That Didn’t Take Long, Usurious Banks

Now that the most predatory practices of credit card issuers and banks are being zapped by regulation, banks are working overtime to figure out new, even scummier ways to drain the money from your account:

Given the billions at stake, consultants are urging banks and credit unions to hire them to help. “Your fee income will take a substantial ‘hit’ if you don’t start getting consumers to ‘opt-in’ for POS/ATM overdrafts NOW!” Mike Sobba, president of Strunk & Associates, a financial institution advisory service, warned banks in a pitch on the company’s Web site.

Link: Banks Pressure Customers on Overdraft Fees

New Credit Card Regulations Go Into Effect Today

A mere five and a half years since I started posting about the usurious business practices of consumer credit-card lenders, the new federal regulations on credit card lending go into effect today. Thanks to our most excellent congresswoman Jackie Speier for this link to a summary of the new regulations.

There are still a few loopholes that industry lobbyists were able to get into this law (such as no restrictions on late payment fees), but as a first step, there’s a lot to love here. I’m hoping as a next step we’ll look at a junk mail ban on all types of consumer lenders, but I guess now that corporations have the same free speech rights as natural persons, that’s too much to hope for. Maybe we need a few more debt-generated brushes with the collapse of civilization before we get serious about this kind of thing.

Anyway, I’m very excited to see that elements of the design mockup I did in 2008 made it into the final law. Now,  when you receive your credit card bill, your lender has to do the calculation to determine what it will take to pay off your entire balance (both with the ridiculous “minimum payment” and with a more realistic payment that will get you out of debt in three years). I am sure that the credit card issuers will triple the number of frequent-flier junk mails and other inserts to take your attention away from this important part of your monthly bill, but still, it’s a step in the right direction.

The regulated payment notice goes beyond my design in a few effective ways: it describes the minimum payment trap with the word “warning,” tells you how many years the “minimum payment” will keep you in hock, and calculates how much money you’ll save if you pay off the debt sooner.

Private Companies Like SpaceX Look to Take Over From NASA

I guess I was confused; I thought that Republican legislators believed that free enterprise was the panacea for all of society’s problems. That must only be the case when the free enterprise happens to be in the congressman’s home district.

Aerospace giants like Boeing and Lockheed Martin will almost certainly also submit bids for the new NASA contracts, but SpaceX has drawn much of the attention, both positive and negative. Senator Richard Shelby, Republican of Alabama, the home of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which has led development of the Constellation rockets, has strongly defended the current program and discounted potential commercial competitors like SpaceX.

via Private Companies Like SpaceX Look to Take Over From NASA – NYTimes.com.

Forces Pushing Obama on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

“In the middle of two wars and in the middle of this giant security threat,” Representative John A. Boehner of Ohio, the Republican leader, said Sunday on “Meet the Press” on NBC, “why would we want to get into this debate?”

It’s telling that Boehner believes that simply debating the status of gays in the military will somehow add to the “security threat” our country faces. And as one of most disingenuous liars in Congress, I am certain that Boehner is not actually looking for an answer to his question, but I’ll supply one because the writer of this piece, the Times‘ Elisabeth Bumiller, didn’t. It is precisely because we are fighting two wars that we need every solider we can get. We simply don’t have the luxury of running certain types of soldiers out of the military when we are fighting two wars at once.

Since its inception, our policy toward gays in the military has cost us thousands of soldiers. Bigotry has cost us more than any single enemy action. It’s time to stop this, if not because it’s the right thing to do, then for the sake of national security.

via Forces Pushing Obama on ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ – NYTimes.com.

Anonymize Political Donations

Just read the dismal news that the Supreme Court has gutted the McCain-Feingold restrictions on campaign contributions that have been in effect for 20 years, thereby once again permitting corporations to make unlimited contributions to political campaigns.

The toxic influence of campaign donations on politics should be something that Republicans and Democrats could agree on, but it seems like reinstating these kinds of restrictions would require a constitutional amendment at this point. I’m in favor of an amendment that says that contributions should only be permitted by natural persons and limited to something very low like $100 per candidate per election cycle, but good luck getting something like that passed. Without a rule like that, we’re basically conceding that America is a plutocracy, only permitting the wealthy and powerful corporations to have access to political influence. This is a tragedy for our society.

There is a possible alternative that might mitigate the quid pro quo effect of campaign contributions: anoymizing campaign contributions. To make this happen, we would set up an independent government corporation, a payment processor which would be the sole legal way to contribute to any federal campaign. The payment processor would take in donations, verify that they are legal, then lump the funds together and disburse them to candidates on a monthly basis during a campaign. It would be illegal for candidates or anyone working for them to handle contributions except the money given to them by the independent payment processor. Records pertaining to contributions would be kept and released — but only after the candidate leaves office.

This would enable people and organizations to contribute freely to candidates, protecting their (apparently) Constitutionally-protected right to engage in institutional bribery, but it would remove the appearance of quid pro quo. Influence, not money per se, is what’s so gross about large campaign contributions (particularly where corporations are concerned, since we can assume that nearly 100% of their donations are an attempt to buy influence). But by disconnecting the donor from the money, you go a long way toward reducing the potential that a particular donor will influence a particular candidate.

One other thought: I think it would be important to limit the anonymizing function only to candidates in national elections (as opposed to extending it to state ballot initiatives). We’ve had a few problems in California in recent years with various out-of-state interests screwing up our state Constitution with various scummy ballot initiatives; we should continue to be able to find out who’s funding these attacks.

Provide an Efficient Market for Pay TV

I’ve been following the News Corp vs. Time Warner Cable standoff over retransmission pricing, not because it affects us (we are longtime DirecTV satellite subscribers) but because it calls out how inefficient the market for pay TV is. The basis of the conflict is that News Corp (the content provider) is trying to shake down Time Warner (the delivery system) for a huge increase in the fees it pays, far more than any other delivery system pays. Time Warner is threatening to kick Fox stations off its system unless they’re priced more reasonably. They’re in a standoff at the moment, with the retransmission contract being extended hour-by-hour while the negotiators negotiate. A number of New Year’s football bowl games hang in the balance for anxious New Yorkers who are into that kind of thing.

News outlets like the NY Times are focusing on the standoff drama of the whole thing and barely touching on the consumer choice angle. To me, it seems absolutely crazy that the channels that appear on my TV are being randomly turned on and off by teams of lawyers meeting in a conference room somewhere in New York. The whole reason why this is happening is because of content providers’ insistence on acting like a cartel. Right now pay TV customers have very limited choices in terms of pricing and selection — cable and satellite providers price channels in bundled packages as a way to sell you more than you need. For example, we never, ever watch ESPN, yet its retransmission cost has been tacked on to our monthly DirecTV fee since the beginning of time. Why are we forced to pay for something that we never use?

It’s clear that left to their own devices, content providers and delivery systems will never work this out themselves — quality of product will become poorer and the number of choices will become smaller over time. So this situation should be dismantled, using the FCC’s regulatory authority (or federal antitrust statutes), if necessary.

Rather than forcing customers to choose from two or three expensive programming bundles containing mostly stations they don’t watch, it would make way more sense to give customers the ability to pick and choose the individual channels they want. This isn’t a new idea; it’s called a la carte pricing and it’s been batted around for more than five years, although it doesn’t seem to have gotten anywhere during that time, possibly because the idea came about during an administration that was all about throwing consumers under the bus in favor of the whims of big business.

But there’s actually something for the big businesses in this if the unbundling is handled fairly (through regulation instead of through a million drawn-out conflicts and back-room negotiations). Some chaotic evil delivery systems such as Comcast seem opposed to unbundling, while the neutral good systems such as Cablevision see the potential and are in favor. Using our family’s viewing habits as an example again: We probably wouldn’t spend an extra $10 a month upgrade to a premium satellite package with 100 extra useless channels just to get the two or three kids’ channels we don’t get today, but we might spend $0.50 a month per additional channel if channels were offered that way. That way, DirecTV would make an extra $12 a year from us that they wouldn’t otherwise see. And at the end of the day, if the content providers went crazy and decided to charge $97 a month for QVC, they could, with the understanding that the cost will passed directly on to customers, who will then have the choice to cancel the channel or not.

Content delivery systems (cable and satellite providers) have argued that they don’t have the technology to enable each customer to create their own custom package of channels. This is nonsense. All they need to do is extend custom pricing today, and then figure out how to restrict content when they get around to it.

Stop Responding to Terrorism with More Security Theater

Over Christmas we were following the story of the loon who attempted to set off some kind of incendiary device on an airplane. Today, this:

According to a statement posted Saturday morning on Air Canada’s Web site, the Transportation Security Administration will severely limit the behavior of both passengers and crew during flights in United States airspace — restricting movement in the final hour of flight. Late Saturday morning, the T.S.A. had not yet included this new information on its own Web site.

“Among other things,” the statement in Air Canada’s Web site read, “during the final hour of flight customers must remain seated, will not be allowed to access carry-on baggage, or have personal belongings or other items on their laps.”

This is a profoundly stupid rule, even dumber than the rule that prevents passengers from carrying an unlimited number of three ounce containers of liquid aboard airplanes. The rule is not intended to protect passengers; it’s intended to protect politicians, to inoculate them from criticism the next time a bad terrorism incident occurs in the future. There are rules in place to prevent this kind of thing, right?

But it’s utterly absurd to think that these airport security rules will never prevent a single act of terrorism. (What’s to prevent the bad guy from doing his thing one hour and one minute before the plane lands?) What these rules will do, though, is to eternally memorialize every half-cocked would-be terrorist who manages to stick something flammable into his shoe or into his pants. And that is precisely the terrorists’ objective.

via Restrictions Rise After Terrorism Attempt – NYTimes.com.

Update: My favorite gadget blog, Gizmodo, has been doing a lot of good blogging on airline security mindlessness. They have their own post on this topic.

Dan Savage: “Fuck Garrison Keillor”

Columnist Dan Savage, who is without question the foremost writer and speaker on behalf of marriage equality, flames the mindless scumbag Garrison Keillor hairless in this awesome blog post:

People opposed to same-sex marriage are just fucking addicted to double standards. Marriage is about children—unless you’re straight, in which case you can get married without having children. Marriage is about monogamy—unless you’re straight, in which case you can get married and swing and cheat or have threeways. Marriage is about a life-long commitment—unless you’re straight, in which case you can marry multiple times, like Keillor.

via Fuck Garrison Keillor | Slog | The Stranger | Seattle’s Only Newspaper.

Notes from a Polite Mob

Last week I got an email from Organizing for America, the internet organizing project of the Democratic National Committee. Normally when they send these out they’re asking for money (Q: “Can you commit to donating $10 a month until health care is passed?” A: “We’d love to, but sorry, we’re too poor after we get done paying for our health care”). But this time they were asking people to show up and pester senators at their offices about health care reform. Because I never pass up an opportunity to be part of an angry mob or to pester authority figures, I readily agreed.

In the email they sent me, OFA specifically targeted Sen. Dianne Feinstein, I assume because she’s more on-the-fence about health care than California’s other (and more progressive) senator, Barbara Boxer. They also used an interesting tactic — they had you fill out a form where you specified a time to show up at the senator’s office. It was sort of like you were making an appointment, except — and here’s the really fun-filled part — the DNC didn’t actually notify anyone from the senator’s office that this was going to happen. Now that’s some fancy organizin’ right there!

I’m pretty sure this was orchestrated this way intentionally, as a subtle way of pointing out to centrist Democrats like Feinstein that the angry mobs we’ve been seeing in the red states in the past week can break both ways. It definitely seemed to catch them off-balance (one of the three fresh-faced staffers who turned out to manage us said that they’d only heard about this through the grapevine on Sunday — don’t they read DNC email?). A few of us mobsters were testy that the staffers had relegated us to meeting in the lobby of the building (particularly the woman who said she’d driven an hour to get there), but then again, angry mobs should not expect the red carpet treatment, because that’s not what being an angry mob is all about.

So about forty or fifty people turned out to hear the staffers gladhand them. Every person who spoke up was in favor of health care reform with a strong public option, by which we meant a publicly-run insurance to compete with private insurance to keep costs down. Attendee ages ranged from 20s to 60s, about evenly split between men and women. I was particularly interested to see how sophisticated people’s opinions were regarding the nuances of the debate — most people wanted Sen. Feinstein to understand that their definition of a “public option” isn’t these bogus-sounding insurance co-ops the Republicans have been pushing at the behest of their medical-industry overlords. (The staffers wouldn’t say which version of a public option Feinstein supports, but promised that her office would put out a position paper on health care within a few days. Awesome. Have a nice day.)

The staffers did do a creditable job handling the mob; the mob, for its part, was polite but insistent. (At one point a staffer tried to blow off a prickly question by saying “there isn’t even a bill yet,” a scummy rhetorical tactic that Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri also tried to use in a TV interview yesterday. I called bullshit on him — there are actually several health insurance reform proposals floating around at the moment, and this debate has been going on for more than twenty years overall — there shouldn’t be any reason why any senator can’t at least subscribe to some opinions on what health care reform should look like by now.)

And that led the group to question another interesting nuance of this — if Feinstein is really in favor of reform with a “strong public option,” as the staffers asserted, why won’t she come out and say it already? Where is her voice in this debate? Why isn’t she going on TV to talk about how she feels? Her silence is really deafening, and the mob gave her staffers an earful on this point. One woman pointed out that there’s a lot of education to be done, even among progressives, to get all the aspects of this fairly complicated debate straight, and one reason why people are getting so bent out of shape over this across the country is because there isn’t a lot of good, straightforward information out there to counter the lunatic assertions that government regulation of health insurance will instantly turn all Americans into zombie vampire British communists. (Along those lines, I would refer you to this terrific series of back-of-the-napkin explanations of the health care debate — thanks to my pal Amy for the link.)

Update: Feinstein has found the time to complain to the White House about these irksome, pesky constituents coming by her office to talk about this important issue. Yet she hasn’t yet found the time to put out the position paper on health care that her staffers promised last week.

Update 2: Ten days later, still no sign of the promised position paper from Sen. Feinstein.