Saturday, January 30, 2010

Farewell To The People's Historian

Howard Zinn died on Wednesday at the age of 87. He was a shipyard worker, a World War II veteran, a professor, an activist, and an author. He was probably best known for writing A People's History of the United States, which was first published in 1980 and was most recently edited to cover events through 2003. More than one million copies of the book have been sold. A People's History is unabashedly leftist. Zinn said that he wanted to present a history from the point of view of ordinary people, because previously history was written from the point of view of the powerful. Instead of a "great-man history" focusing on kings, presidents, generals, and the titans of industry, A People's History focuses on farmers, slaves, Native Americans, middle class families, feminists, and miners--the 99 percent of the population that are largely ignored in traditional histories. When times were bad, it was these people who suffered most. And when change happened, it was these people who drove it.

A People's History of the United States inspired a whole series of "People's History" books--A People's History of...the Third World, the American Revolution, the Vietnam War to name a few. I just started reading A People's History of the World, by Chris Harman. On the first page of the book is a poem that I think captures the spirit of Zinn and the people's histories.
Questions from a Worker who Reads
by Bertold Brecht

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.
When I heard that Howard Zinn had died, the word irreplaceable came into my mind. Then I thought how ironic it is that many of us now consider Zinn, the people's historian himself, as a "great man" of history. But the difference between Zinn and most of the "great men" from whom he recaptured history, is that Zinn used his influence almost entirely to empower others. It's strange that it took a great a man to say, for the record, that we don't need "great men" to save us. We can change the world ourselves.

Near the end of his life, Zinn said, "I want to be remembered as somebody who gave people a feeling of hope and power they didn't have before." That's exactly what his writing did for me.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Obama and House Republicans: The Smackdown We've Been Waiting For?

Right now, both CNN and MSNBC are showing highlights from President Obama's Q&A session at the Republican caucus meeting today. Apparently it was the White House's idea for camera's to be present. Afterwards at least one Republican admitted regretting that they allowed the cameras to roll. From the coverage I've seen so far, Obama made Republican leadership look like petulant children for over an hour. It's hard to imagine another scenario where Obama could so thoroughly dismantle Republican talking points in front of hundreds of Republican representatives while also reaching out to those same Republicans. I mean, I don't know how the media interpretation of this will develop over time, but right now it's coming off like the president was a man among boys. It looks like he's bargaining in good faith while clearly showing that the other side is not. This looks like a disaster for Congressional Republicans. B.S. only works as a legislative tactic if you don't have cameras rolling while the president dismantles your B.S. for over an hour.

Everyone on TV right now is calling it "extraordinary political theater." From what I've seen, I agree.

Did anybody see it live? I have to step out for a bit, so I'm going to miss the cable TV coverage. It looks like you can see the whole Q&A here. Or, here's full video and transcript.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

State of the Union Speech Thread

Have comments on tonight's State of the Union address? Post 'em here.

Here are several things I'm looking for:
  • I'd like to see the president offer a progressive populist narrative for the country's hard times that counters the standard conservative populism. In other words, tell us that government is not the problem. Corporate power, and its influence over government, is the problem. (BTW, stop saying "special interests" and start saying, "big corporations, their lobbyists, and the politicians who curry their favor.")
  • I'd like to see Obama push Congressional Democrats across the finish line to pass health care reform. I doubt he'll get specific on the legislative details. But he could tell the House to pass the Senate's bill and then tell the House and Senate (using reconciliation and a simple majority) to pass a "fix bill" that makes it more progressive. Talk frankly about the role of the Republican filibuster in this process.
  • I want the president to speak out forcefully against the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United vs. F.E.C. He should call for a Constitutional amendment to overturn the decision and reclaim the First Amendment for people instead of corporations.
  • I would like to see the president list some mistakes he's made in his first year. Somewhere near the top of that list should be, "I wasted too much time seeking bipartisanship, even in the face of extreme Republican obstructionism, while American working families needed quick action."
Check below for updates during and after the speech.

Update 8:45pm EST: Diet Coke open, popcorn on standby.

Update 10:03pm EST: Well, he talked about the SCOTUS ruling, but called for "a bill" to fix it, not a constitutional amendment.

Update 10:05pm EST: Not a bad section, I thought, about Republican obstructionism. "Saying 'no' to everything may be good short-term politics, but it isn't leadership."

Update 10:13pm EST: "I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are." It's about time!

Update 10:20pm EST: Speech finished. All in all, not bad, I think. I like that he made obstructionism and a Washington culture that tends to bog down any big progress the enemies. It's basically a way of telling Congressional Dems to get themselves together and wield the tremendous power they have in these big majorities, a way of telling the Republicans that there will be political consequences for their obstructionism, and a way of telling the American people that, "Yes, things suck, but I'm the only one offering anything."

Update 10:30pm EST: "Democracy in a nation of three hundred million people can be noisy and messy and complicated." I liked this way of calming the panicked Left who has felt lately like the wheels are coming off. It was also a way of explaining to the less politically involved not to get so excited about the general narrative lately, which has been about Obama and the Democrats "reeling."

Update 10:34pm EST: Did anyone notice Samuel Alito shaking his head while Obama was talking about the Citizens United case? I was looking away at the moment, but I heard someone on CNN mention it.

Update 11:15pm EST: The Nation's Chris Hayes complained, "There are not enough villains in this speech." He's got a point. Obama didn't really bring the hammer down on his enemies. But does he ever? I think he did what he needed to do putting the last year in perspective, explaining what he's trying to do now, and explaining what is stopping him from doing it: a minority party that will filibuster a Post Office naming resolution and "the culture in Washington." That's basically what Democrats need to be running against...though you could certainly add some more language about corporate lobbyists. But I think at this point the White House views public optimism as its key. If people think things are going to improve, Democrats will do well. If people are generally sick of everything about politics--including the nasty language necessary for bringing down the hammer--Democrats will do poorly.

Final Update 11:45pm EST: I'm heading to bed feeling good overall about the way Obama handled this. Let's see if it translates into some momentum on the Hill to pass health care and into a change in the media narrative away from, "The Democrats are falling apart!" toward, "Wow, despite continued opposition from Republicans and big business, Democrats are getting stuff done."

A Self-Serving Explanation And Solution For Haiti's Woe

In a previous post about Pat Robertson, I mentioned that I'd show some other reactions from American "conservatives" to the devastation in Haiti. The point here is not to compile a list of cold and heartless people, because I think Robertson and today's featured conservative probably mean well, on some level at least. The point is to build a case that modern American conservative philosophy (to which many good people subscribe) is cold and heartless.

Exhibit B is David Brooks' January 14th op-ed in the New York Times, titled, "The Underlying Tragedy."

Brooks rightly identifies Haiti's poverty as the main factor compounding the death toll from the earthquake. Ok, check. The piece then attempts to explain why Haiti is so poor and what should be done about it. Ok, check and check. We're all on board. He explains that Haiti is poor because of 1) a lack of personal responsibility, 2) neglectful "child-rearing practices," and 3) "the influence of the voodoo religion." Whaaa?

It's the same old "blame the victim" mentality dressed up in new clothes. First, is it not wrong to lecture Haitian parents while they're literally still pulling their children from the rubble? It's almost like Brooks is in a hurry to prevent other reactions to the crisis, like huge outpourings of sympathy and money. I'll admit that I don't know anything about Haitian child-rearing, but I doubt David Brooks does either. Even if Brooks is right about these cultural attributes, and even ignoring the crude timing of his comments, it's disingenuous of him to act like these cultural traits are entirely causes and not effects of poverty. He just brushes aside Haiti's history of oppression, slavery, and colonialism with a few sentences. Brooks' piece is full of the same themes you hear when conservatives pundits talk about Black urban poverty in America. It's like throwing someone to the ground, kicking them in the head, and then stepping back to scold them for clearly lacking a go-getter attitude. David Brooks' column says, "Hey look, they're just lying on around on the ground!" I can almost hear the voices in response, saying, "Yes, comfortable White man writing in your big newspaper, tell me why my struggles are all my fault."

So what should American do about Haiti's poverty? First, here's what Brooks says we shouldn't do: send aid or help with development projects. How convenient! Nothing much required from us! Brooks calls for a policy of "intrusive paternalism" to promote "a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement." Just to be sure I got the nuance here, I looked it up. My dictionary defines paternalism as,
"the policy or practice on the part of people in position of authority of restricting the freedom and responsibility of those subordinate to them in the subordinates' supposed best interest."
I'd like to just close here by saying that David Brooks is literally making the old argument of colonialism. The problem is that the savages are intrinsically backwards. The solution is that we rule them, for their own good. It's strange how that works. You'd think that helping Haiti would require a sacrifice on our part. But according to the logic of David Brooks, a self-described moderate-conservative, we can only help Haiti by making ourselves more powerful and subordinating them to us. You can see now why blaming the victim is so important for thinkers like Brooks and why we see that tactic in a hundred different variations. It's meant to remove our own sense of responsibility and replace it with a sense of pride and entitlement.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Two Notes

1. Banks Looking For New Cheats?
We've known that big banks are thinking up new fees to stick us with to try to make up for some of the usury they can no longer practice. Well, yesterday Bank of America tried to stick me with a pretty lame one. I noticed that $20 had been deducted from my checking account for some bogus "monthly maintenance fee." I won't even bore you with their explanation for this, but I got the $20 credited back to me.

Point is: Be on the lookout. The banks are losing an estimated $50 billion as the new credit card rules go into effect. Who knows how much more they're going to lose from:

a) Other proposed regulations (reinstate Glass-Steagall, anyone?),
b) Other reforms (like breaking up "too big to fail" banks),
c) Consumer action (like people breaking up with their banks),
d) Obama's bank tax.

They're not going to take this sitting down. For now, they're able to make less money off your credit card, so they're going to try to make it up in your checking or savings accounts. They'll always have some excuse for a random fee that appears out of nowhere. So you might want to keep a closer eye on things. It saved me $20.

(BTW, I'm still moving out of Bank of America and into a credit union, which I still recommend. But BofA is able to hit me on the way out.)

2. BTM Programming Note
I'm going to be out of town for almost two weeks, so my blogging will be sporadic at best for a little while. I'm looking forward to returning in full force around the end of next week. It sure seems like a number of major issues are at critical points right now--backlash to the SCOTUS decision, health care reform, financial regulation, the administration's populist shift, Democrats' 2010 worries. (Man, my news addiction is gonna be hurting these next couple of weeks.) Anyway, keep the home fires burning. And keep up the good fight.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Most Important Political Story Of The Last Year

It happened today.

The Supreme Court, in response to an obscure case related to campaign finance law, ruled that under the First Amendment, corporations have the right to spend UNLIMITED MONEY to influence elections.

Now, I've known vaguely that the ruling in this case was coming. And I assumed that the conservative Roberts Court would take the opportunity to strip away some aspect of campaign finance law. But, oh my God, this opens the floodgates. The 5 - 4 ruling (*Can you guess who was on which side? Find the answer at the bottom) overturns about a century of precedent that the government has the right to limit corporate money in elections. The ruling essentially enshrines the reactionary idea that corporations have the same rights as people and that political spending is free speech.

So you have the right to contribute $50, write a letter to the editor of your local paper, and volunteer down at the local campaign office in support of you favorite candidate. And now ConocoPhillips has the right to launch a billion dollar campaign for its favorite candidate.

Remember when conservatives railed against "activist" judges? Well, what do you call these judges?

This is a kick in the gut to anyone who still cares about the increasingly antiquated idea of representative democracy. I'm still trying to catch my breath. This ruling makes elections a joke. It changes everything. And it's not just that corporations will be able to run the only election campaigns that matter. The ruling implies that even more limits on corporate and super-rich political spending will be removed.

The court's ruling says that corporations must be allowed unlimited spending in support of a political candidate. The ruling did not touch existing laws that prohibit a corporation from donating directly to a candidate. Catch that? So Wal-Mart can now run the biggest parallel, shadow campaign that you've ever seen in support of its candidate, but it can't donate directly to the candidate's campaign. Not that the distinction matters much at this point. But if corporations are people, and political donations are "free speech," on what basis do any limits on corporate political spending stand? The Roberts Court basically says, No basis at all. And on what basis can the government limit a billionaire's "free speech" if he wants to donate, oh, just a billion to his favorite candidate?

To be sure, the people's opposition to this corporate power grab is rising to its feet. But like any mass popular movement, it's going to be sloooow. A coalition of public interest organizations has already thrown together a site called and a YouTube video:
One of the best lines from the video puts the situation in perspective:
"In 2008 the Fortune 100 corporations had $600 billion in profits. Now imagine that those top 100 companies decided to spend a modest 1 percent of their profits to intervene in our politics and to get their way. That would mean $6 billion... or double what the Obama campaign spent, the McCain campaign spent, and every candidate for House and Senate [in 2008]."
So all the usual rag-tag democracy-defending organizations are going to rise up against this. But we've also got friends in high places. The White House and Congressional Democrats have been quick to say that they won't let this decision go unanswered. But with the Senate unable to do anything important these days, it's hard to see how Congress is going to do much of anything about this.

On a final note, maybe you, reader, still think of yourself as a "moderate" and you generally say things like, "Oh, I dunno. Democrats are good on some things, and Republicans are good on some things. It probably evens out." Well, this moment provides a crystal clear contrast between the core values of the two major parties. Take a look at what leaders from each party are saying, and ask yourself if there really is a "middle ground" here.

Here is Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell:

"For too long, some in this country have been deprived of full participation in the political process. With today's monumental decision, the Supreme Court took an important step in the direction of restoring the First Amendment rights of these groups by ruling that the Constitution protects their right to express themselves about political candidates and issues up until Election Day."
Yes, Mitch, for too long corporations have been deprived of their rights by the little people with their pesky laws!

And here is Democratic President Barack Obama:

"With its ruling today, the Supreme Court has given a green light to a new stampede of special interest money in our politics. It is a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans. This ruling gives the special interests and their lobbyists even more power in Washington--while undermining the influence of average Americans who make small contributions to support their preferred candidates. That's why I am instructing my Administration to get to work immediately with Congress on this issue. We are going to talk with bipartisan Congressional leaders to develop a forceful response to this decision. The public interest requires nothing less."

Hey, if he keeps talking like that, in 2012 he'll face a Republican opponent with a $500 billion campaign!
*Answer: Roberts (Republican-appointed), Alito (R-appointed), Scalia (R-appointed), Thomas (R-appointed), and Kennedy (R-appointed) in majority opinion for corporatocracy. Stevens (R-appointed), Breyer (D-appointed), Ginsburg (D-appointed), Sotomayor (D-appointed) in minority opinion for democracy.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

After Massachusetts

Well as feared, Coakley got Coakleyed.

There will be another Republican in the Senate to oppose health care reform and any other major progressive legislation. There will no longer be the magical "filibuster-proof" 60 Democrats in the Senate.

The thing is, I don't think it will matter all that much. Any bill the Democrats pass is still going to be as bad as the 41st most conservative (or 60th most progressive) Senator on any given issue. The difference is that that Senator will now be an actual Republican instead of a Republican dressed up like a Democrat.

Others have guessed, and I'm hopeful, that there could be a significant silver lining to this loss. The Democratic leadership in the Senate might just wake up and realize they need to play some hardball, use reconciliation, and pass health care reform and other important legislation with 51 votes. This could lead to a much better health care bill than we would have gotten otherwise. Think of it, the bill would only have to be as bad as the 49th most conservative Senator instead of the 41st most conservative Senator. That removes Lieberman, Nelson, Lincoln, Bayh, Pryor--all the so-called Democrats who helped water down health care reform--from the equation.

I don't know about you, but I'd much rather have a 59-member Democratic caucus with aggressive leadership than a 60-member caucus waiting around for perfect consensus on every issue while Republicans and lobbyists pick away at them.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Pat Robertson, Haiti, And Sweeping History Under The Rug

By now you've probably heard of the recent remarks on Haiti by one of the pillars of the American conservative movement.

Televangelist and former Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson blamed the earthquake on a pact the Haitians made with Satan in the 1790s. He also used their alleged alliance with The Devil of Hell to explain Haiti's multigenerational poverty and the "one thing after another" that has afflicted the country since Haitians overthrew their French slave masters. Blaming the victims right after a major disaster is nothing new for Robertson. He did the same thing after September 11th and Hurricane Katrina. But the statement on Haiti is especially evil, because not only does it wag the finger at the bleeding and dying victims, but it also tries to erase historical facts that are uncomfortable for conservatives. They are facts that might otherwise stir an even greater sense of responsibility for us to reach out and help our neighbors in Haiti. They are facts that might make us realize the causes of Haiti's sad history are neither peculiar to Haiti nor confined to history.

According to Robertson, Haiti's poverty is chiefly the result of a deal with Satan.

Never mind that for 300 years, Haiti was a slave colony of European empires--first Spain, then France. (That can't have anything to do with why they're poor, can it?)

Never mind that Haitians staged the world's first successful slave revolution in 1804 to overthrow their French masters and win independence. (Don't give them credit for that; give credit to Satan, just like the slave masters did.)

Never mind the crushing economic embargoes by the U.S. and France that followed Haitian independence. (The U.S. wanted Haiti to crumble so its own slaves wouldn't get any ideas.)

Never mind that France later forced Haiti to reimburse them for all those freed slaves.

Never mind that to pay "reparations" for freeing themselves, Haitians had to take out massive loans from U.S. and French banks--$20 billion in today's dollars.

Never mind that the U.S. occupied and ruled Haiti for two decades by force and for several more decades by propping up right-wing "anti-communist" dictators.

Never mind that U.S. and international financial institutions devastated Haitian agriculture by forcing the country to open up to unrestricted U.S. imports of sugar and rice.

Never mind the U.S.-sponsored coups against elected governments. (Come on, that happened everywhere!)

Never mind any of the stuff that actually--you know--happened. Because all of Haiti's problems go back to that damned deal with the devil in the 1790s. Or so Pat Robertson would have us believe.

It's fair to say that since Columbus first stepped foot on Hispaniola, the most powerful nations in the world have focused like lasers on extracting as much wealth as possible from Haiti. Over time, as Haitians organized and resisted, the colonial tactics changed. The tools of wealth extraction shifted from sugar plantations and slave drivers' whips to high-interest loans from international banks and "economic austerity" programs pushed by the World Bank. But all along the way, an independent, democratic, self-sustaining Haiti has been the enemy. It's a lot harder to suck wealth out of a country like that.

Anyway, Pat Robertson probably has a few screws loose. If he didn't still have a million daily TV viewers, there'd be no point in talking about him. The point is, the political movement he is a part of and the world view he preaches benefit dearly by dismissing Haiti's real history and replacing it with cartoon-like hocus pocus.

More to follow on other quite revealing American conservative reactions to the crisis in Haiti.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

How To Avoid Getting "Coakleyed" By Republicans

Tuesday is the special election in Massachusetts to fill the late Ted Kennedy's seat in the Senate. It's Democratic state Attorney General Martha Coakley versus Republican state Senator Scott Brown. This race ought to be a lock for Coakley and the Democrats. It's one of the most liberal states in the Union. And this week Vicki Kennedy, Ted's widow, was in a Coakley TV campaign ad. So why is the nation even talking about this race?

Because recent polls show the Republican Brown leading.

How is this happening? Well, Coakley has run a bad campaign, and Brown has run a good one. Yes. But there's a deeper reason the race is close, which ought to have all Democratic candidates up for reelection this year scared of getting "Coakleyed."

Put simply, the Democrats are the party in power, and the public is unhappy about the state of the country. So the Democrats will suffer. Big elections are usually referendums on the party in power. That's why as early as 2006 everyone knew that a Democrat would be elected president in 2008. It almost didn't matter who ran, because George W. Bush and his brand of Republicanism were that disliked.

Of course one way for Democrats to improve their position before the 2010 midterms would be to improve the economy in ways that are readily apparent to the majority of Americans and then take credit for it. (The 10% of the country who are unemployed are waiting.)

The other way for the party in power to succeed in bad times is to disassociate itself from the status quo. They have to say essentially, "Yeah, times suck, and we are the government. But there's a bigger, darker power that we're fighting on your behalf." When Republicans have done this in the past, it's been kind of silly, because they have to make the "bigger, darker power" some vague cultural force, like the "liberal cultural elite" or the "homosexual agenda" or something. (That reminds me: A friend once told me he knew that by voting Republican he was voting against his own economic interests, but he said it was a sacrifice he was making for a higher purpose.)

Democrats in power during tough times really do have a bigger, darker force they can point to: corporate power. The combined influence of Wall Street, the business lobby, and an obstructionist Republicans minority really can outweigh the power of a Democratic Congress and White House. (Especially since Wall Street's political influence is not limited to just the Republican Party.)

To win in 2010 and 2012, Democrats need to pick a fight with the Corporatocracy and paint Republican candidates as corporate lackeys. What would this look like?

Here's a start. "We want the taxpayers' money back--all of it," President Obama says as he proposes a fee on banks with more than $50 billion in assets, to recover money spent bailing out big financial institutions. "And we're going to collect every dime." The details of the plan are not as important as the way the president frames the fight. He talks about "the banks and the politicians who curry their favor" launching "a massive lobbying campaign against common-sense rules to protect consumers."

The president has picked a fight with the big banks, and the Republicans have rushed to the banks' side. The public needs to see this fight raging across the board on a variety of issues--a Democratic-led government battling a greedy, reckless corporate plutocracy and its Republican foot soldiers. Only then does it make sense that a Democratic Congress and tough economic times means we need more Democrats in Congress. The president and Congressional leaders need to pick more fights like the bank tax. And they've got to do it in ways that are bold and visible to the public. Or else, over the next few Novembers, they could all be Coakleyed.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Haiti: Resources and Access Should Not Be The Problem

I don't think anyone really knows yet how bad it is in Haiti. It may be a long time before there are accurate estimates on the total number of people killed. And I'm afraid the aftermath of this earthquake is going to be a rolling disaster in itself. Aid is flowing in from around the world, but there is a bottleneck trying to get supplies into a small country with a devastated infrastructure.

This is where the United States has a special responsibility. For better or for worse, the US military can bring massive force to bear at virtually any point on the globe--and do it quickly. The NY TImes says the aircraft carrier, USS Carl Vinson, will arrive near Haiti on Friday to serve as an offshore staging area for helicopters and air support for the island. There is also talk of sending about 2,000 Marines to maintain security in the capital. Landing US Marines in Haiti ought to bring back bad memories, but here's a chance to do right instead of wrong.

We should be air dropping supplies all over the Port-au-Prince region, landing as many aid workers and supplies on the beach as needed, and opening up the roads into the city. Lacking supplies and logistics should not be the problem here. It's an hour and a half flight from the richest country in the world to Port-au-Prince. We can blanket Haiti with resources. We can do a lot of good in this nightmare. We can't undo the earthquake, but the extent of the aftermath will depend largely on what we decide to do with the power we have.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Thought On The Harry Reid "Scandal"

The official Republican response to Senator Harry Reid's stupid comments reminded me of something that ought to get more attention: There are virtually no black Republicans. And black voters are nearly unanimous in their opposition to Republican presidential candidates. Still. As much as they ever were. Even more. It's 2010, by the way.

So it's a little weird reading that GOP Chairman Michael Steele wants Reid to step down as Democratic majority leader because of racially insensitive remarks. Suddenly the GOP is really interested in racial sensitivity? Great! Maybe they'll stop organizing their campaigns around white fear and resentment of brown people. But then how else are they supposed to get working people to vote against their own interests? It's hard to be the Confederate Party in 2010 America.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Credit CARD Act of 2009 and Thinking About Small Victories

I just got a funny letter from Bank of America, with whom I unfortunately still have a credit card. Let me summarize it for you.
Dear Valued Customer,

Please refer to the enclosed pages for a list of the ways in which we may no longer screw you.

Bank of America
Odds are you've already received or will receive a letter like this from your credit card company. That's because the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (or Credit CARD Act of 2009), passed by a Democratic Congress and signed into law by President Obama in May 2009, goes into effect next month. I'm not sure if the companies were mandated by law to send out these letters of if Bank of America just likes telling us what they've gotten away with up till now. If it's the latter, I bet they literally are laughing, "MUAHAHA!" Because that's how vampires laugh.

I won't tell you all the ways they can no longer screw us, because I don't want to spoil your excitement when you open your own letter. (If you like spoilers, Wikipedia has a decent summary of the major provisions.) But let me describe one provision I think is illustrative.

When the Credit CARD Act of 2009 goes into effect in February, your credit card company must apply every dollar you pay in excess of the minimum payment to the portion of your balance with the highest interest rate. So, that $100 you took out as a cash advance back before you knew that cash withdrawals were charged sky-high interest rates? It won't be sitting there forever, untouchable, shielded by the rest of your balance--a profit engine for the bank and a debt engine for you. (As long as you pay more than the minimum.)

What Democrats have done, in this one small area, is turned the credit card tiered-rate system right-side-up for Americans. Or upside down from the banks' point of view.

I consider myself one of the many lefties often disappointed that many of the big, one-fell-swoop progressive changes we were hoping for in the post-Bush era have either stalled out or crashed. There's a time for raising hell about that. And there's a time for raising hell about all the good stuff that did not make it into any number of so-called progressive, Democratic-led bills. But there's also a time for holding up the little victories for people to see. When you start looking for them, there really are quite a lot.

So, did the resurgence of the American Left and the Democratic wave election in 2008 bring us universal health care or full employment? No. But it did bring hundreds of little ways in which ordinary Americans, acting both through government and on their own, are pushing back against a system manipulated to serve the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Another Reason I'm Divesting From Bank of America

And another reason you should ditch your big bank for a non-profit, member-owned, democratically-run credit union...

Bank of America will exploit your vulnerabilities to suck more money out of you.
BofAvampires.jpg picture by betterthanmachines
A personal case in point:

My wife and I recently were victims of identify theft. Someone in the DC metro area was going around spending hundreds of dollars at a time with our credit card, even though our actual cards remained safely in our wallets. Around the same time, a Bank of America mortgage representative called me "to discuss the home loan [I had] applied for." With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I explained that I had not applied for a home loan and, in combination with the credit card fraud, this sounded like identify theft.

I will give BofA credit for one thing. They very quickly detected the fraudulent credit card use, deactivated the card, and notified us. And they made no effort to stick us with the bill for those charges. Apparently they know our spending habits so well that they had no doubt that it was not us on that shopping spree. That part worked well, even if it is a little creepy how they knew that $200 spent at a Target and $300 at a K-Mart a couple suburbs over from where we lived smelled fishy. So on the credit card aspect, Bank of America gets an A+.

But I give Bank of America an F on the broader identify theft issue. When I first spoke to the mortgage specialist and explained the situation, she said she would look into it, talk to their "fraud department," and call me back. When she did call back, she sounded exactly like she did first time she called, cheerfully wanting to discuss my loan application. This time, she even wanted to tell me why it wasn't approved. Good Lord! Had she completely forgotten the previous conversation? She had indeed. And the loan application had even advanced since we last spoke! After some frantic re-explaining, she gave me the number for the "fraud department."

Mistake: Thinking The Bank Is Your Friend

OK, good, the Fraud Department. They'll know what to do, I thought. They have specialists, I was told.

It was late in the evening when I finally got a hold of Bank of America's "fraud department." I relayed the whole story once again--the credit card fraud and the loan application. The guy on the line seemed to understand and said that we would get everything taken care of. He told me I needed to join the Privacy Assist program, where my credit files would be monitored and I would have identify theft recovery specialists on my side. OK, great, let's hurry up before the thief takes out a big loan, I thought. Then, as he continued talking through what amounted to the fine print, I heard him reference "a 30-day trial period at no cost."

"Whoa, hold on," I said. "I don't want to purchase another service from Bank of America. I don't want to buy anything. Please do not enroll me in any 30-day trial. I just want to get this identify theft situation taken care of. And if a crime was committed here, don't we need to contact law enforcement?"

"Our specialists handle that," he answered. "And sir, you would not pay anything for the first 30 days. At that point, if you like the service, you can keep it. If not, you can cancel."

"Yes, I understand how a trial period works," I said. "But I don't want to sample anything. I just want my bank to help me restore my financial identify, repair my damaged credit, and advise me if there are other steps we need to take."

His answer was probably the most honest and human thing he said in the whole conversation:

"Sir, this is really all we do for this type of situation, for identify theft cases. We direct people to the Privacy Assist program. You'll get it free for 30 days, and then you can cancel if you like."

Feeling like I had no other options and I had to do something quickly, I signed up for the program, promising myself I would cancel it on day 29. BofA certainly knew better than I did how unlikely that was. I wonder what the numbers are for that sort of thing. What percentage of people actually do successfully cancel before the trial period ends? Life happens. Other things come up. When I realized that the 30 days had come and gone, sitting around on hold to cancel this worthless service was just another thing on my to-do list.

Making It Seem Like They Need to Exist

Let me save you the same trouble and tell you what the Privacy Assist Premier service will give you for $13 a month: Bank of America will email you once a month saying they detected "no significant changes or activity" in your credit files. Of if you open a new line of credit (I bought a car during this period), they will email you telling you that you did that. (These emails begin with "ATTENTION DAVID! ATTENTION!") You can get virtually the same thing for free by calling any of the three nationwide credit bureaus and putting a "fraud alert" on your credit report. I never spoke to one of BofA's vaunted "specialists" by the way, but maybe they exist somewhere.

This is one small window into the larger truth about Bank of America and the big banks in general: They are mostly useless. They do for a price what you can get for free elsewhere.

Breaking Free of Big Banking

Yesterday I finally called Bank of America to cancel my Privacy Assist Premier service. I'm a little embarrassed to say that they billed me $13 a month for six months for something I could have gotten for free. The guy on the other end of the line was working hard to keep me in the program. When he said in passing that he could see I logged into their website that day to read the policy details of the program, it didn't help his effort at all. It was creepy. I had to tell him five or six times, in increasing volume, that I wanted out before he quit pitching me new offers and finally canceled my enrollment.

The point is not that $13 a month hurt (it didn't) or that the Privacy Assist program sucks (though it does) or that I was faultless (I made a series of mistakes). The point is that I went to Bank of America worried and in a hurry, and they profited from my vulnerability in a way that offered me virtually nothing in return. It's deception and waste. Vampire bats don't suck out all of their host's blood when they drink. They just take as much as they can without causing the host to take notice. Bank of America calculates that the 30-day trial means you won't feel the bite and that $13 a month is an unnoticeable amount of blood.

But this event helped me realize that Bank of America is a vampire in a larger sense too. Like the other big national banks, they are sucking our money away simply to make themselves fat. I do checking, savings, and credit card with Bank of America. They siphon off as much money as possible from each of those accounts. They use a lot of that money to pay their executives more than they are really worth and to lobby for more corporate vampire-friendly laws. There is nothing I get from Bank of America that I could not get simply by pooling my money with the money of lots of other ordinary people in a non-profit, cooperative financial institution.

That is why I am in the process of closing my Bank of America accounts and moving my money into a credit union. There, my routine financial transactions will no longer feed the vampires. And as a bonus, I get better rates on my accounts, precisely because my money is not wasted on vampire profit and lobbying Congress destroy the country.

If you haven't already done so, consider moving your own money out of a big national bank and into a credit union. Locate a credit union here. If you have trouble finding one, you can contact your state credit union league. Odds are, you are eligible for membership in at least one credit union. If not, has a good resource for finding the next best thing: a community bank.

It may seem like a small step, but if many of us take it, it would mark an important shift in the balance between corporate power and people power.