No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Just MarriedLast night, New York State made history on a couple of counts.  Most prominently, it became the sixth and largest state to legalize same-sex marriage.

Secondarily, the passage of the bill happened because four Republicans crossed the aisle and signed on to the legislation in the State Senate.  These people should be lauded as they will doubtless face repercussions for stepping out of party ranks.  They did what they believed was right, without regard to their political futures.

However, while these two accomplishments are overdue and encouraging, the late night Albany session also produced approvals of several other policies which are going largely unnoticed in all the hoopla.

Buried on page two of this story is a brief mention that also approved was a tuition hike for SUNY Schools that will result in a 30% increase over the next five years.  For parents of teen children, this is not small potatoes.  This means a year’s expenses that currently cost $19k would rise to almost $25k by 2016.

Also approved was Governor Cuomo’s property tax cap.  The cap limits property tax growth to 2% or the rate of inflation in any year.  There’s no doubt that New York’s property taxes are ridiculously expensive, but as I’ve written about before, the tax cap is an ugly solution.  It virtually guarantees preemptive maximum tax increases every year because local governments and schools can’t take the risk of keeping taxes low and then not being able to cover expenses in future years.

So while marriage equality and non-partisan action are things to feel good about, plan to have your wallet drained for college tuition and property taxes.

One nation, easily divided

Kids Saying PledgeMashable reports, “Soon after NBC aired a pre-taped segment for a golf tournament that twice omitted the words “under God” from the United States Pledge of Allegiance, the Twittersphere erupted into a fury of controversy.” (See the video here.)

Meanwhile, my better half wondered aloud on her blog today why we consistently manufacture mountains out of mole hills.  There’s little to suggest this was an overt message as much as a poor editing choice.  As she notes, “one nation” and “indivisible” also get left out at points.  And no one is screaming that NBC is advocating a new civil war.

Yet I’d approach the question somewhat differently.  What if NBC did do this on purpose?  I doubt that’s the case, but so what if it is?  The majority of the outrage seems to be coming from Christian groups who are apparently maligned, abused, and oppressed because the phrase “under God” was left out.  Really?  Just because you can’t force everyone to be like you doesn’t mean you’re being discriminated against.  Despite Michele Bachmann’s efforts, this is (not yet) a theocracy.  The very fact the words “under God” are in the Pledge are a nod to the reality that some 90% of Americans worship God in one form or another.  But it’s not a requirement to be an American.

Even as an atheist, I don’t and won’t advocate for the return of the Pledge to its pre-1954 godless state.  This is primarily because “under God” is a harmless and somewhat meaningless phrase when spoken the the context of a mass pledge.  It has personal meaning to many people when they say it because they know what they mean by it.  Fine. No harm done.  But hearing the person next to you say “under God” doesn’t remotely mean they share your meaning.  By “God” they could be referring to Shiva, Odin, or the rabbit’s foot in their pocket they happen to worship.  Or they might just be reciting it they way they learned in school and the words have no meaning whatsoever.  It might be just a rote saying.  And if hearing someone say something is meaningless, can it really be meaningful when they don’t?


Taking the Sheen off of Reagan

President Reagan
Who knew Reagan was a MaSheen?

I was reading a somewhat interesting article on my computer called “The Backfire Effect,” when my 16-year old son wandered into the room.  He did what he always does… made a lazy circle around behind me and perused whatever was on my screen.

It just so happened, I was far enough down the page that the picture of Reagan (shown to the right) was on the monitor.

It was at that moment I became comforted my boy had not fallen in with any Young Republican groups at school, nor had he been sneaking out at night to attend Tea Party rallies.

He looked at me and said, “Is that Charlie Sheen?”

And I have to admit, there is a resemblance.  Maybe that’s why Reagan has become a sacred idol of the Conservatives.  He’s got tiger blood too.

Chase can kiss my pasty white ass

Artist's rendering of me on the phone with the bank.

Oh, it’s on.  These sociopathic banking bastards are tap dancing on my last remaining nerve.

At the beginning of May, my automatic payment to Chase for my credit card statement balance failed to post. I caught this quickly, reported it, and electronically transferred the $463.20 I owed to them.  The root cause of this was a glitch in one of Chase’s own systems.  But the fact remained, it was 18 hours past the due date.

I soon discovered I had then been charged $33.39 in fees and interest.  That works out to 9.6% interest PER DAY.  Being robbed at gun point and pistol whipped would have been a better feeling.  But I had the inner peace and satisfaction that comes from knowing you’re right, and the maniacal determination to make that reality known to the cadre of clueless meatbags that stood between me and my squeaky clean credit history.

The next few weeks involved more phone calls and faxes than I care to mention.  At one point Chase required that I actually had to print documents off of the Chase system and fax them back to Chase as evidence of my claim.  This sort of bureaucratic bullshit is not incompetence.  It’s a carefully crafted strategy to frustrate and abuse the opposition in hopes they give up and walk away.  Not a chance.

They finally relented, and agreed to credit me the $33.39, which was damn sporting of them considering their computer caused the problem in the first place.  I was frustrated, but contented.  I got my due.

Today my June statement dropped.  I opened it only to find a new interest charge on there.  I grab the phone, dial the number and punch zero until the IVR cries uncle and connects me to a human being.  I explain that I want to know what this interest charge is.  The agent informs me he’d be happy to help me with that today.  I somehow suspect he’s going to change his mind.

He cheerfully drops into a canned script about how interest charges are calculated, and I cut him off at the dangling participle. I explain there should be no interest at all as they credited me the $33.39, and otherwise the card is paid off.

He clicks away at his keyboard for a moment, and announces he has an answer.  There were almost 3 weeks that went by from when the $33.39 was charged to me and when they credited my account for the same.  This was the interest I owed on that overdue charge, prior to them issuing the credit.

I left the line silent for a moment assuming the insanity of what he just explained would trigger a follow-on statement, or at least a satisfying “splat” as his head popped and the gelatinous goo dripped from his monitor.  But nothing.

“Let me see if I have this right,” I offered. “You’re charging me interest for failure to pay you money you agree I didn’t owe you?”

“Well Sir, the system doesn’t remove the charges, it merely credits you.  And according to policy you are still responsible for the initial charges and any late fees or interest on those charges.” He spoke with a straight face, however improbable that may seem.

Donning the face in the illustration above I roared back, “This is completely unacceptable!  Chase agreed I was not liable for initial problem.  That’s why they credited the charges in the first place.  I will not be held financially responsible for the vagaries of your internal accounting system. You agreed to credit the charges. I expect that to be all of them.  And I do not expect to have to waste my time or yours having to explain this all over to someone else next month.”

Another long silence loomed on the line.  Then much to my surprise, “Yes Sir, I’m going to go ahead and credit that interest charge back to your account.”

This should have been a good outcome.  I ultimately got my justice (at least until next month).  But at what price?  Financially, I’m in way over the $33 limit if I remotely try to factor in the time devoted to this.  And I’m sure they’ve spent way more dealing with this resolution as well.  Yet I suspect that for every one of me who goes to the wall over this stuff, hundreds of folks just pony up the extra fees in the interest of keeping it simple.  And that’s why banks do it.

I’d like to even think this was strictly a Chase problem, but it’s not.  I’ve already stopped doing business with Citi and Capital One because of different situations where I was treated like somehow I should consider it a privilege to do business with them.  Somewhere along the line the whole equation got inverted.

It’s not that these banks are too big to fail… it’s that they’re too big to give a flying f*#k about their customers.


The GOP may be running out of feet to shoot

National Lampoon Cover
Don't make us resort to drowning kittens!

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell continues to stand by his claim that Job 1 for Congressional Republicans is to defeat Obama in 2012.  Yet the question looms, how far are they willing to go to make that happen?  Recent history suggests, pretty damn far.

To understand what’s going on, you have to first recognize that the GOP is beholden to two major groups.  On the one hand they are funded by big business and the wealthy businessmen created therein.  The interests of this group define the overall agenda and goals for the party.

On the other hand, the foot soldiers at the polls are largely made up of blue-collars, religious fundamentalists, and seniors.  This group is necessary because, come November, you have to have lots of bodies show up to vote for you.  But they are ultimately fodder as far as the policy agenda goes.  They get tossed a rousing speech, a few sound bites, and an occasional red meat issue and it keeps them fired up and loyal. I’m somewhat reminded of Dennis Hooper’s line from Waterworld where he launches into a motivational tirade for his crew and they all storm off below decks to row their hearts out.  He’s asked, “So which way we rowin’?” And he replies, “I don’t have a goddamn clue. Don’t worry, they’ll row for a month before they figure out I’m fakin’ it.”

Now consider, the GOP won handily in 2012 on their promise of jobs, jobs, jobs.  Then, once in office, immediately focused on Obamacare and abortion.  Why?  For starters, creating jobs is hard. Especially when the economy is in a demand slump and the interest rates are bumping the zero-bound. The only solution is federal deficit spending, and they sure as hell weren’t going there.  After all, deficits are bad.  Not for the reasons often touted, but because ultimately deficits have to get repaid through taxes—something their corporate benefactors are not fond of—especially when corporate profits and CEO salaries are soaring.  Which brings us to the second point.  Among their fodder constituents, abortion and Obamacare are both reviled.  So the strategy was essentially to distract one group while appeasing the other.

Next up is the Paul Ryan budget.  No one in the GOP thought the plan had a snowflake’s chances in hell of passing, yet they lined up behind it in droves.  Why?  Two reasons.  First, the plan was a message to the corporate benefactors.  This was a wish list for the privatization of government programs and tax cuts that all serve to line the pockets of the folks who in turn fund the Republicans.  By standing behind it, they were assuring the benefactors they had their backs.  Secondly, the plan was political.  Actually passing a plan means you can be evaluated down the road for its efficacy.  Proposing a plan that can’t pass puts you in a position down the road to say that things suck because nobody listened to your ideas.  Politically this was a much more powerful position to be in.

However, the GOP underestimated their fodder constituents.  You’d think they’d have learned from Bush’s crash and burn on Social Security privatization, but not so much. They tried to couch the language, but the public saw through that.  The result being that Ryan’s budget is now enormously unpopular because it is recognized to fundamentally change Medicare.  It turns out that when fodder folks talk about support for smaller government and less spending, they don’t mean to include programs from which they benefit directly.  The message sent to Republicans in NY’s 26th District special election was overwhelmingly, mess with Medicare and we will vote your ass out.  This was the GOP’s first shot to its own foot.  It’s limping, and looking for a path back to hale and healthy. (Gee, I hope they can afford medical insurance.)

Still, the scary specter on the horizon is the debt ceiling.  If the Ryan budget was a pistol shot to the left foot, the debt ceiling is a hacksaw poised above the right knee.  All the sane people (which is not all of the people) on both sides of the aisle agree the ceiling must be raised.  To not do so would be economically disastrous with long-term consequences.  Even Wall Street is saying this has to happen. Both sides also recognize the Republicans are simply taking an opportunistic hostage to gain political advantage.  This is a dog they clearly don’t want to shoot, but if you think they just might be crazyenough, maybe you’ll buy the magazine anyway.

Again, why are they playing it this way?  And again, there are a couple of forces at work here.  On the one hand, the debt ceiling is enormously unpopular.  In fairness, understanding the nuances of the impact of the debt ceiling on the macroeconomic health of the U.S. economy is hard to capture in a sound bite, and most people lack the interest or the time to delve into the details.  Besides, the GOP has already established with the fodder constituents that deficits are bad. So selling a refusal to move on the debt ceiling is duck soup.  Besides, if they can get major concessions from Democrats, they will be in the politically favorable position of being able to crow about their accomplishments.  But there are more subtle and insidious forces at work here.

Everyone acknowledges that Obama’s reelection hopes hinge on the economy.  The last thing the GOP wants is for the economy to make any demonstrable progress, especially in the area of jobs, wages, or anything felt directly by their fodder constituents, prior to 2012.  Obama’s demise (Job 1) is directly contingent on the majority of Americans feeling substantive economic pain going in to the election booth.  The GOP is talking about needing $2 trillion dollars in cuts as ransom to get them to release the debt ceiling.  Those cuts cannot be achieved without significant job losses (both government and downstream private sector jobs as well) in addition to major entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.  This exacerbates the demand slump the economy is in, and pretty much guarantees pain for middle America, and what will border on inhumanity to the poor, disabled, and unemployed.

The gambit here is that Republicans can successfully hang the 2012 economic conditions on Obama—that their fodder constituents will blame their plight on “Obama’s wild spending spree” rather than on Republicans draconian budget cuts.  And you can bet there will be additional tax cuts for corporations and the rich included in any debt ceiling as well, which will seal the love of the GOP benefactors.  This is arguably the sweet spot for the GOP going in to the elections.

However, the downside is they are playing chicken with investors by holding the debt ceiling hostage.  Wall Street and foreign investors alike certainly recognize individually that raising the U.S. debt ceiling is a matter of when, not if.  But what the investors realize is that the market behaves like a herd of buffalo rather than as a single rational actor.  Everyone may realize that long term there’s no danger, but if one animal spooks and heads out, the herd will react and follow, trampling all of us in its wake.  This means the benefactor constituents are justifiably nervous about this brinksmanship.  They can’t control all the buffalo, so everyone is tip-toeing about hoping to keep everyone else calm.  Should someone spook, the results will be disastrous.  But the devastation will not be just to our economy.  The benefactors will doubtless bail on the GOP, who’s political ploy just cost them billions.  If this happens, the Republicans will have effectively lopped off their right leg.

This is high stakes poker.  The GOP may win at the polls.  The corporate benefactors may win, lose, or break even.  The rest of us will lose.  The only path here on which we win would be if Democrats refused to bargain, called the Republicans bluff, and got them to fold.  It’s pretty clear that won’t happen.

Is this view overly cynical?  Perhaps.  Maybe the GOP is not behaving with this much premeditation.  Perhaps they are instead just ignorant and reckless or opportunistically sociopathic.  But any way you slice it, unless you’re in the GOP’s corporate benefactor class, you voting for a Republican is like a chicken voting for Col. Sanders.