Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Too Big To Fail…And Big Enough To Screw You Over In Unexpected Ways

I want to tell you a personal story that is a genuine cautionary tale to everyone, regardless of your political stars and stripes. It’s about banks – you know, those massive financial institutions that nearly pushed our country (and potentially others, especially in Europe) into bankruptcy and have ruined the lives of millions without an ounce of corporate cooperation or compassion.

I used to have a Sears credit card – just for their stores, not a Sears Mastercard or anything like that. I got it in the late 1970s when I moved into the apartment I still live in and throughout the 70s, 80s and mid 90s, I used it extensively for things I needed in this apartment. But by the 90s, I decided I wanted to have that card exclusively as a safety net for major appliances – like a new refrigerator, stove, air conditioner, because mine were getting old. So I slowly paid off my balance and was left with a card in good standing that had a zero balance due and a $7,000 credit line. It gave me great peace of mind.

Then, during the 00s, I indeed needed a new air conditioner. I found one that was right for me on the Sears website and phoned to place the order. That’s when I found out my account had been closed by the bank that “manages” Sears’ accounts. It was closed for “lack of use” and because the bank felt I had too many other accounts and they didn’t like my credit score. I had never received anything in writing from Sears or their bank advising me that my account was in jeopardy. I spoke to several people, at the store and The Bank. I told them I wanted to make a major purpose. I was told there was absolutely nothing that could possibly be done to restore my account – but I could apply for a new account. I told them that I knew and they knew that if I applied, I would be turned down. But I applied. And I was turned down. So much for my peace of mind.

This week I got a written “Advisory Notice” in the mail from Dell Computer. I had had a Dell Preferred account since 2007, when I bought a new desktop computer with all the fixings and a new all-in-one copier/scanner/fax. The latter only uses Dell ink/toner, so a couple of times a year, I order their ridiculously expensive ink, since you can’t buy it anywhere else. At the time I got the “Advisory Notice,” it had been a while since I’d ordered ink, because I had some in reserve. Now, I had a $1,700 credit line and zero balance due on this account. They said they were (1) reducing my credit line to $500 and (2) would be closing the account completely in mid-May. They were doing this because of “lack of use” and because the bank felt I had too many other accounts and they didn’t like my credit score. For the record, credit scores range from 200 (bad) to 900 (excellent). My score is in the high 600s.

With both Sears and Dell, when I finally got to speak to someone who was an allegedly senior person in the store’s corporate customer service department (and believe me, it took many calls and lots of time to get to these Wizards of Oz), I got very sketchy answers to my questions. I asked “Was this a company decision or a bank decision?” I explained in both instances that I had been a customer of longstanding. I said to Sears I was about to buy an air conditioner. I said to Dell that since my 2007 computer was elderly by computer standards, I was planning to buy one later this year. Nothing they could do. I asked them why, if they had never had a problem with me and my payment history, why were my accounts being closed. No real answer.

I told Dell that I would never buy another Dell product again (except for the ink…); that I would do everything I could to spread the word about this unwarranted customer punishment; and reminded them that they were by no means the only game in town. Nothing. I finally said, “If this action was taken by your bank on their own authority rather than it being a corporate decision, you are not running your company, your bank is running your company and this should be a matter of some concern to you.” No reply – but I heard a little gasp.

If you’re blessed with various kinds of assets, financial resources, and a great credit score, then lucky you, you probably have nothing to worry about. But if you’re low on assets and cash and your credit score is considered Fair (like mine) or just Good, beware. Because if at any time in the near future you need a new job, a new home, a school or other loan, or if you’ve been (responsibly) keeping a credit card unused, should you need something to fall back on, think twice.

And think about the fact that since the Crash of 2008, banks and other financial institutions have gotten larger, not smaller. Some have re-paid their bail-out funds and some have paid fines for poor practices. But not one single responsible person has been indicted, let alone imprisoned. And in many instances, poor (dangerous!) banking practices have only gotten worse – because nobody’s watching and any fines they might eventually have to pay cost far less than the profits they’re making.

Think about the number of houses that have been foreclosed, rather than banks working with homeowners to save their homes. Think of how many loans have been denied. Think about how much increasing power banks have in the companies with whom you do business. Think about the usury-level interest rates banks impose on consumers (26% to 30%) and the miniscule rates they pay when they borrow money from the Fed. Think about how easy it is for anyone – a prospective landlord or employer, for example – to get your credit score, and the fact that credit scores now play an unprecedented and powerful role in employment and housing.

Think about the insane power banks increasingly have in our lives and the damage they can cause if what’s “too big to fail” actually does fail.

Or, if you prefer, worry about Benghazi.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Old Passover, New Passover

Tonight, Jews around the world will gather with family and friends to celebrate one of Judaism’s three most important holidays, Pesach, which translates as Passover. They will share the traditional Passover dinner, a seder. There will be a seder at The White House, once again. President and Mrs. Obama have held seders there since the President took office, and it is a non-political event: personal friends and staff only. The Obamas are the only First Family to honor this Jewish tradition.

As detailed in the Old Testament’s Book of Exodus (chapters 1-15), Passover commemorates the escape from ancient Egypt of “a nation of Hebrew slaves.” For about 100 years (give or take...), Biblical scholars and archeologists have argued about whether or not The Exodus (said to have been led by Moses and lasted 40 years in the desert), really happened, where it happened, and how many people were involved – although the archeologists acknowledge that only a fraction of ancient sites have been found (many of them having been destroyed over the ages) and only a fraction of those have been minimally excavated.

The estimated head-count of The Exodus (from religious and secular sources) varies from approximately 600,000 men, women and children to anywhere from one to three million. But whether or not the Exodus actually occurred, it has been regarded as real and holy by Jews for thousands of years – including the world’s most famous Jewish rabbi (teacher), Jesus Christ, whose holy Last Supper was a seder. This is why Passover and Christianity’s Holy Week (from Palm Sunday through Good Friday and Easter) are religiously/historically linked. Speaking of which, here’s a bit of Americana trivia: Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 15, 1865 – the first night of Passover, which always begins on the 15th of the Jewish month of Nissan (usually April). (Jewish holidays traditionally begin the night before, which is why the 15th is considered the first day.)

Passover celebrates a number of other things and there are many rituals and traditions. But most important is Passover’s celebration of freedom from bondage, from slavery, which may be why, his sensitivity and respect for others aside, Passover is meaningful to our country’s first African American president and his wife, who is a direct descendant of American slaves.

So, while Jews along with non-Jewish relatives and friends celebrate Old Passover, it is urgent to remember that a New Passover is desperately needed, because slavery is alive and sick as ever worldwide, including here in the USA. Now it’s called by other names: human trafficking, sex trafficking, indentured servitude, debt bondage, attached labor, restavec: it amounts to the same thing. Slavery.

When people are held against their will, prevented from moving about freely, forced to live in disgusting, horrible conditions, beaten and tortured, forced to do unspeakable things (like making an eight year old girl have sex with more than 20 men a day), are bought and sold like inanimate objects, and are paid nothing for the misery they endure, they are slaves. And there are 21 to 30 million slaves in the modern world, suffering terribly and serving as the backbone of a $32 billion (annually) industry.

The U.S. has 60,000 slaves, ranking us 134 out of 162 countries with slaves. Many of these are women, teens and very young girls who are trafficked for sex (men and boys, too). So we’re not #1 in the slave business – India has 14 million and 4% of Mauritania’s population of 3,796,141 is enslaved – but how many is okay? Anywhere? For any reason? This is 2014!

I genuinely wish all of you happy holidays. I’m sure you and your families and friends deserve them. While our lives may not be the nightmares of slaves, many still-so-called-middle-class and working class Americans have been struggling since Katrina, Sandy, other natural disasters and the 1%-created Great Recession of 2008. I don’t have what I used to or live like I used to. But I am very grateful for my life as it is, because so many people have it so much worse.

I encourage you to keep today’s slaves in your hearts, thoughts (and prayers, if you’re so inclined) this holiday season. Then, as soon as you can, do some Internet research about modern day slavery and get the full awful picture. Figure out what you can do to help. It may start with simple things like not buying certain brands or shopping in certain stores. It may include contributing to an NGO or non-profit you trust to help support active work on the ground around the world.

But most of all, be aware of this issue and talk about it with others. And keep an eye on the people around you – your apartment building, your neighborhood, your place of work. If you see something or someone that doesn’t look right, feel right, call the cops. One or more of America’s 60,000 slaves or their slave masters may be somewhere near you. Don’t look away. Look trouble or evil in the eye and do what you can.

If our religious observances or secular social consciences mean anything, this has got to be  part of it, doesn’t it?

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Surreality of Now

April has always been a melancholy month for me, but this year the craziness of the present has overcome the wistfulness of the past, because some of the social and political events going on have left me laughing and crying at the same time.

Let’s start with a little item out of Pakistan. A nine-month old baby was officially charged with attempted murder, because he, along with his father and grandfather, were part of “…a mob protesting against gas cuts and price increases [that] stoned police and gas company workers trying to collect overdue bills…” according to an NBC News affiliate. As pictured above, the baby cried while being finger-printed; later tried to play with reporters’ microphones while the media interviewed his father; and is now in hiding in an undisclosed location. My favorite line was that this incident “…has thrown a spotlight on Pakistan's dysfunctional criminal justice system.” Yeah. And these people have the bomb…

There have been several recent articles about the growing increase in sexual desire and activity among the aging and elderly – which has resulted in an increase in STDs, but also hope for folks in their 60s (like me) and 70s and 80s, too. But my favorite story on this phenomenon came from a CBS News affiliate about a nursing home in West Babylon, NY, that was being sued by the son of one of the residents after a male stripper performed there. “A 16-member resident committee had requested the September 2012 performance and the nursing home paid the $250 fee,” explained an attorney for the home. This is a picture of one of the old ladies stuffing money into the stripper’s briefs:

I could show you a photo of the U.S. Supreme Court, but why bother? You know what that 5-to-4-Right-leaning-crowd looks like. What I can’t show you is what’s been going on in their heads lately. Their most recent decision on money in politics, McCutcheon Et Al vs. Federal Election Commission, on top of the previous Citizens United decision, as well as their gouging out a core portion of the 49-year-old Voting Rights Act, breaks my heart and blows my mind.

How can these people (the five Conservatives) truly believe that allowing more money into the already overpriced and corrupted political process is a good idea – or harmless at worst? After the blatant and still ongoing efforts in many states to make it harder to vote for young and old people and people of color, how can they think that any portion of the Voting Rights Act has become obsolete? I know that none of the justices is stupid. So what am I, or any American, to think: that they’re uninformed, or racist, or mean, or on the take? If the top court of the land is fucked up, where do we go from here?

I’ll tell you where: from Democracy to Oligarchy. If for some reason you don’t know what that is, it’s a form of government in which all power rests in the hands of a small group or class…like, say, the very, very rich and their friends: the very rich and the plain old rich. And the first order of business of an Oligarchy is to suppress the will (and possibly existence) of the vast majority that isn’t them. The second task is to make sure that the different members of that majority see each other as the enemy, the problem, rather than join forces against the tiny minority with all the money and power. The third task is to make day-to-day survival so difficult for the vast majority that they focus the rest of their time just trying to put food on the table. It also helps to do things like gut social programs as deeply as possible, keep basic education mediocre and higher education unaffordable, and turn your own religious beliefs into laws, so that people are more concerned with being sinners than citizens (that only partially works).

And whatever you do, make it harder for people to laugh – because as all survivors know, laughter makes fighting the good fight easier.