Sunday, June 27, 2010

Credit Card Rewards ('10)

Responding to a column by David Lazarus about credit card processing fees, I sent this letter to the Los Angeles Times in June 2010 (not published):

My credit card offers nice rewards (although a bit less than a few years ago). It's obvious that the rewards are coming directly out of other consumers' wallets.

It's ridiculous for the cash customer to subsidize my rewards, but that's the system we've got. I'd be just another sucker if I didn't get all I can, so I almost never pay cash.

Still, for fairness, I wish the credit card processing fees and the rewards they pay for would be drastically cut back.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Ivins: The Looting of America ('05)

Link: The Looting of America
by Molly Ivins

December, 2005

[Excerpted; full text at the above link. (The pictured book is just for illustration; it does not include this Ivins column.)]

I do not think it premature to conclude that the entire financial industry of this country is riddled with fraud....

Jack A. Blum, a Washington lawyer and expert in money-laundering and other forms of tax evasion, wrote the following for an academic conference held earlier this year at the University of Texas: "Corporate managers have spent the last century developing tools for avoiding regulation and taxation. They brag that acts of tax avoidance are part of corporate productivity. For them, each dollar of tax not paid because of their machinations is the added value they bring to a company. Tax avoidance is a profit center. Avoidance of regulation and supervision is an equally high priority. Corporate contributions and the personal contributions of senior corporate managers have funded anti-regulatory think tanks and anti-regulatory scholarship. Political contributions have turned theory into reality."...

The social control of corporate behavior also stops with this administration. George W. Bush's first choice for chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Harvey Pitt, famously planned "a kinder, gentle SEC."...

At the Treasury Department, John Snow, master of paying no corporate taxes and the golden parachute, is now in charge. Bush's Federal Power Commission, with one member banished by Ken Lay of Enron and another selected by him, couldn't be bothered to notice the enormous fraudulent "energy crisis" in California until $30 billion had been sucked out of that state.

Talk about the lunatics running the asylum. Former lobbyists for special interests now dominate the top of the bureaucracies -- not to regulate, but to facilitate corporate rip-offs. Michael Powell at the Federal Communications Commission thinks more media mergers will be good for the nation. At the Interior Department, it is rip and run, all-out exploitation of natural resources, leaving nothing but a trash heap behind -- a trash heap, incidentally, that the taxpayers will have to pay to clean up, since the Superfund for toxic waste cleanups has been allowed to lapse entirely.

Richard Todd, writing about the mutual-fund scandal in the Times Sunday Magazine, asked: "Were these laws and rules taken seriously by anyone -- or was it common knowledge in the industry that they were routinely flouted? Who was in on the deal? Was all this done more or less in the open with a genial nod and wink among hundreds of guys who understood the game? Or was the money inhaled like cocaine in a surreptitious instant in the back room? Did non-players know? Did 'my' broker know?"...

And the corrupt corporate culture has in turn bought the political system. Medicare "reform" is a huge boondoggle for the drug companies. The energy bill is nothing but corporate subsidies. We have seen people like Dennis Kozlowski and Ken Lay loot their corporations. We are now watching the looting of an entire country.

Friedman on Singapore, Katrina, and government ('05)

Link: Singapore and Katrina
by Thomas Friedman

New York Times
September 14, 2005

[excerpted; full text at the above link]

There is something troublingly self-indulgent and slothful about America today - something that Katrina highlighted and that people who live in countries where the laws of gravity still apply really noticed. It has rattled them - like watching a parent melt down.

That is certainly the sense I got after observing the Katrina debacle from half a world away here in Singapore - a city-state that, if it believes in anything, believes in good governance. It may roll up the sidewalks pretty early here, and it may even fine you if you spit out your gum, but if you had to choose anywhere in Asia you would want to be caught in a typhoon, it would be Singapore. Trust me, the head of Civil Defense here is not simply someone's college roommate.

Indeed, Singapore believes so strongly that you have to get the best-qualified and least-corruptible people you can into senior positions in the government, judiciary and civil service that its pays its prime minister a salary of $1.1 million a year. It pays its cabinet ministers and Supreme Court justices just under $1 million a year, and pays judges and senior civil servants handsomely down the line....

"In the areas that are critical to our survival, like Defense, Finance and the Ministry of Home Affairs, we look for the best talent," said Kishore Mahbubani, dean of the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy....

When a subway tunnel under construction collapsed here in April 2004 and four workers were killed, a government inquiry concluded that top executives of the contracting company should be either fined or jailed.

The discipline that the cold war imposed on America, by contrast, seems to have faded. Last year, we cut the National Science Foundation budget, while indulging absurd creationist theories in our schools and passing pork-laden energy and transportation bills in the middle of an energy crisis.

We let the families of the victims of 9/11 redesign our intelligence organizations, and our president and Congress held a midnight session about the health care of one woman, Terri Schiavo, while ignoring the health crisis of 40 million uninsured. Our economy seems to be fueled lately by either suing each other or selling each other houses. Our government launched a war in Iraq without any real plan for the morning after, and it cut taxes in the middle of that war, ensuring that future generations would get the bill.

Speaking of Katrina, Sumiko Tan, a columnist for the Sunday edition of The Straits Times in Singapore, wrote: "We were shocked at what we saw. Death and destruction from natural disaster is par for the course. But the pictures of dead people left uncollected on the streets, armed looters ransacking shops, survivors desperate to be rescued, racial divisions - these were truly out of sync with what we'd imagined the land of the free to be, even if we had encountered homelessness and violence on visits there. ... If America becomes so unglued when bad things happen in its own backyard, how can it fulfill its role as leader of the world?"

Janadas Devan, a Straits Times columnist, tried to explain to his Asian readers how the U.S. is changing. "Today's conservatives," he wrote, "differ in one crucial aspect from yesterday's conservatives: the latter believed in small government, but believed, too, that a country ought to pay for all the government that it needed.

"The former believe in no government, and therefore conclude that there is no need for a country to pay for even the government that it does have. ... [But] it is not only government that doesn't show up when government is starved of resources and leached of all its meaning. Community doesn't show up either, sacrifice doesn't show up, pulling together doesn't show up, 'we're all in this together' doesn't show up."

Michael Moore: To All My Fellow Americans Who Voted for George W. Bush ('05)

Link: A Letter to All Who Voted for George W. Bush from Michael Moore

September 11, 2005

[excerpted; full text at the above link]

Dear Friends,

On this, the fourth anniversary of 9/11, I'm just curious, how does it feel?

How does it feel to know that, the man you re-elected to lead us AFTER we were attacked, went ahead and put a guy in charge of FEMA whose main qualification was that he ran horse shows? ...

[H]ow do you feel about the utter contempt Mr. Bush has shown for your safety?...

Are we safer now than before 9/11?...

When men who never served in the military, and have never seen young men die in battle, send our young people off to war, do you think they know how to conduct a war? Do they know what it means to have your legs blown off for a threat that was never there?

Do you really believe that turning over important government services to private corporations has resulted in better services for the people?

Why do you hate our federal government so much? You have voted for politicians for the past 25 years whose main goal has been to de-fund the federal government. Do you think that cutting federal programs like FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers has been good or bad for America? GOOD OR BAD?!

With the nation's debt at an all-time high, do you think tax cuts for the rich are still a good idea?...

Do you believe in Jesus? Really? Didn't he say that we would be judged by how we treat the least among us?...

And on this sacred day of remembrance, do you think we honor or shame those who died on 9/11/01? If we learned nothing and find ourselves today every bit as vulnerable and unprepared as we were on that bright sunny morning, then did the 3,000 die in vain?

Our vulnerability is not just about dealing with terrorists or natural disasters. We are vulnerable and unsafe because we allow one in eight Americans to live in horrible poverty. We accept an education system where one in six children never graduate and most of those who do can't string a coherent sentence together. The middle class can't pay the mortgage or the hospital bills and 45 million have no health coverage whatsoever.

Are we safe? Do you really feel safe? You can only move so far out and build so many gated communities before the fruit of what you've sown will be crashing through your walls and demanding retribution. Do you really want to wait until that happens? Or is it your hope that if they are left alone long enough to soil themselves and shoot themselves and drown in the filth that fills the street that maybe the problem will somehow go away?

I know you know better. You gave the country and the world a man who wasn't up for the job and all he does is hire people who aren't up for the job. You did this to us, to the world, to the people of New Orleans. Please fix it. Bush is yours....


Michael Moore