Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Politics Must Yield To Cure Nation’s Ailing Economy (January 1, 2009)

Economics was never my forte. I only took a few college courses that were required to earn credits towards a degree. But, as the nation’s economy experienced a yearlong tailspin, I made an effort to understand some of the complexities of the current crisis. To a degree, I now comprehend the widespread dilemma, yet it boggles the mind how once respected corporations and institutions incited the bursting of the economic bubble, due to irresponsible fiscal management that culminated in the financial woes we now face.
Heck, the only welcome sign for consumers lately has been the dramatic decline of prices at the pump, which have fallen dramatically since a summertime high near $4.50 per gallon in these parts.
Recent figures showed that unemployment across the nation is at an alarming 26-year high. Forecasters direly predict it may well worsen and possibly hit double digits by the end of 2009. During the George Bush presidency job creation has been at its worse since the end of World War II.
That gloomy news is in addition to disappointing data on home sales and the closing of over 150,000 retail stores nationwide with more than that projected this year. Then there’s ongoing weak consumer spending, which was less than anticipated for the holiday shopping season. It was so awful during the customary post-Thanksgiving period that retailers staged a second Black Friday after Christmas slashing prices 70-80 percent in some cases. Nevertheless, it did not have spark the necessary consumer frenzy needed to stimulate the economy.
Without a doubt, Job One for President Barack Obama has got be practical policies to turn things around for the short term. Once that is established, he and his advisers must chart procedures — similar to the methods used to guide the country out of the Great Depression — to make sure there’s less of a chance of it recurring long after he’s left the White House. Thirdly, it must somehow be determined how those reputable companies failed to see or merely overlooked the warnings of the dilemma they fueled due to a careless lack of supervision and accountability.
Of course, no matter what the government does, Americans have to wise up, too. Excessive consumer debt must be whittled down. Families and individuals can’t keep amassing credit card charges that, in many cases, are going to take years to pay off at exorbitant interest levels. While free-lending banks are primarily responsible for the continuing mortgage foreclosure crisis, American Dream-seeking consumers consciously took on expenditures they knew — or should have known — they couldn’t possibly afford. Consequently, the government has to extend bailout relief to strapped homeowners — as it has for once prosperous corporations — because the more who can’t meet their obligations, the longer the economy will decline.
The Democrats had a big hand in the failing economy despite the fact they didn’t have a majority in Congress until two years ago. But the Republicans’ fingerprints are there, too. Conservatives welcomed ill-advised deregulation, ignoring the fact that the free-spending wheeler-dealers at the top of the financial food chain were, by and large, greedily seeking to remain filthy rich as they apparently maneuvered markets to their advantage.
And look where it’s got us!
No matter who’s at fault, our elected representatives should store those spats for the next campaign and shape a fresh, reliable national economic strategy. Barack Obama has a unique opportunity to assert the leadership the country sorely needs and what many Americans anticipate. He must insist Congress yields to traditional, futile bipartisan politics and urge them to chart financial reform with an aggressive, far-sighted economic course, strict government oversight and an end to lax accountability.
When Congress moved swiftly to bail out companies and institutions in order to bring stability to our troubled financial markets, it’s hard to believe they failed to nail down a pledge to account for how the Wall Street bailout taxpayer money would be spent. When I learned of this while viewing a cable news talk show, I was flabbergasted.
Would a bank ever approve a business or consumer loan without fiscal supervision? All the same, no one’s watching the money!
How could our representatives agree to such a reckless plan? What were they thinking? Or were they only thinking of future fat cat donations required for their next campaign?
Well, as the economy tanked and I learned a little about how and why it happened. I know more about how our capitalist system works than I did a year ago, but the chief lesson I came away with is that America’s economy is in poor health due to sloppy, inadequate oversight.  Still, the cure won’t be quick, painless or uncomplicated, but with the proper remedy and gradual rehabilitation, the health of the nation’s economy will be restored.
Political agendas and egos must be for the time being abandoned and our representatives have got to shape and focus on a sensible approach to resurrect the nation’s financial system, as competent economic doctors provide a prescription and treatment for what ails it.

Despite New Rules, Consumers Can Bank on Higher Fees (October 15, 2011)

If it’s a crime to rob a bank, why isn’t it a crime when banks theoretically rob consumers?
It’s gratifying to live in a free market society, but that shouldn’t give corporations and banks the right to fleece customers every chance they get. Despite robust competition, when one business increases fees, rates or prices, others are sure to follow.
Last month, Bank of America (BofA) announced that early next year it would impose a $5 fee for customers who use debit cards for purchases, but not ATM transactions, in the previous month. (A debit card fee is already being tested in some states by other banks.) While the fee may be negligible, it somehow seems like consumers are actually being charged you for using their own money.
What’s next, a fee every time customers walk into a bank to withdraw cash?
Debit card growth has flourished in the last fifteen years, mostly because banks encouraged their ease, convenience and safety. Plus, a consumer can’t spend more than the balance in a bank account, which reduces potential credit setbacks. It is estimated consumers now use them almost 60 percent of the time rather than withdraw cash from their bank’s ATM in advance of every subsequent purchase.
Recent Congressional legislation limits what banks may charge for certain transactions, such as overdrafts, but this new fee is obviously an effort to compensate for projected losses from those new rules.
The legislation the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act was hailed by consumer advocates, but objectionable to the banking industry, which views any limitations as interference with the free market. Nonetheless, it is estimated the banking industry takes in a whopping $19 billion annually from charges it imposes on merchants every time a debit card is used.
When banks face limitations meant to curb competition that affect profits, they usually resort to eliminating or reducing customer rewards. Remember when no-fee checking accounts were commonplace? Nowadays, it’s rare to find banks that offer that extra without a customer having a substantial balance, which is difficult for cash-strapped consumers to maintain.
The government passed the legislation because it felt it needed to rein in big banks that constantly impose new or higher fees, but BofA is implementing an alternative, though legitimate, means to sustain profits. The debit card fee may only be a start to the end of services banks used to offer for free.
Most banks, so far, have taken a wait-and-see approach and have not announced an additional charge for debit card customers. But, unless BofA sees a considerable loss attributed to the $5 fee, other financial institutions will surely jump on the debit card fee bandwagon.
Few want to see the nation’s banks taken over by the federal government, but if they keep finding ways to raise fees that skirt new regulations, consumers may decide to hide their money under mattresses. And, if that isn’t an option, more Americans may just join the growing protests against banks and Wall Street across the country.
When the Occupy Wall Street protest began, it was essentially ignored as a brief distraction led by a small bunch of disorderly, disgruntled, anti-government activists, who claimed they represented the 99 percent hurt most by the nation’s economic woes, which have left them powerless to get loans, repay debt and businesses reluctant to hire and reinvest, while one percent of wealthy Americans have been a lot less distressed. But that discontent has swelled into a movement that is sweeping the nation and reportedly taking place in over 250 cities and towns.
By the way, a perfect example of how our nation’s contrasting tax code benefits the wealthy, according to the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, is that though they pay some taxes, they significantly benefit from regulations that allow them to pay less, particularly the 15 percent rate on capital gains.
The OWS protests aren’t focused on new and old bank fees, yet the rallies have drawn attention to the public’s general dissatisfaction with financial institutions. They are critically viewed as businesses stimulated and saved with billions of taxpayer dollars and are largely to blame for the current crisis, which has led to lost homes, lost jobs and for some, lost hope. Banks and Wall Street firms have recovered and prospered as they distribute hefty bonuses, but salvaging them didn’t spur a ripple effect down the economic chain and the outlook is still bleak.
Remember the bygone days of Jesse James and other outlaw gangs or Bonnie & Clyde and other Depresssion-era criminals, who, according to legend, sometimes robbed banks to defend perceived social injustice? The current anti-business protests, as well as Bank of America’s debit card fee, make obvious that decades after they earned those notorious reputations nothing much has changed, as our financial institutions operate under a similar, albeit legitimate, premise.

There Can Be No Reservations Concerning Cigarette Taxes (May 19, 2011)

   In the course of American History, no one would ever challenge the fact that Native Americans have suffered terribly. The slaughter and unjust relocation of tens of millions of indigenous people, who had lived on their lands for thousands of years, was inhumane and shameful.
In spite of countless past injustices, it does not entitle Native Americans to defy current federal or local laws. Nonetheless, several New York State tribes have, for decades, avoided collecting and paying taxes on cigarettes sold on Indian reservations.
As cigarette prices have soared over the years, smokers seek cheaper alternatives and have purchased untaxed, often bootlegged, cigarettes from Indians. They are, in effect, dodging the law and New York is due the revenue.
Last year, the Albany legislature passed a law to require tribes to pay revenues for cigarettes sold to nontribal members on reservations. The regulation — which would add $4.35 to every pack of cigarettes — was supposed to take effect last September, but was sidelined when several tribes sued, claiming the law violated their sovereign rights, as they were not bound by the legislation. Consequently, a district court issued an injunction that New York’s attorney general battled to overturn.
Last week a federal appeals court — based on prior U.S. Supreme Court rulings — unanimously removed the nine-month-old restraining order and granted New York the right to collect the taxes, which some estimate could be from a half to a billion dollars annually. Four tribes and their advocates have vowed to contest this latest ruling as they continue to argue that no government — federal, state or local — has any right to set regulations for their territories.
Many politicians across the state applauded the decision, declaring that the state is entitled to the money, which would mean a surge in revenues to boost a debt-laden state treasury. Mayor Bloomberg remarked that some of the revenue could help New York City reduce losses trimmed from the state budget and avoid laying off thousands of teachers. New York’s Indians have disputed the state’s efforts to collect cigarette taxes for a long time. In 1992, when Governor Mario Cuomo tried to collect the revenue, a group of Senecas — the tribe credited with receiving the bulk of wholesale cigarette shipments — set fires along a stretch of the New York State Thruway near Buffalo. Five years later, Indians staged similar protests under Governor Pataki and even attacked state troopers who surrounded the Seneca reservation. Two years ago, Governor Paterson claimed the state would begin a campaign to end the widespread tax dodging, but the matter was never pursued.
In most cases, I advocate Native American rights because of this nation’s disgraceful record of violating hundreds of treaties that forced Indians to settle in unfamiliar regions that were, for the most part, unfavorable to their traditional lifestyles. Nonetheless, the cigarette tax issue has no correlation to treaty rights as it concerns transactions with non-Natives — not their rights to self-governing. Furthermore, the cigarettes are neither products manufactured by Native Americans nor purchased by them. Moreover, Indians freely avail themselves of some government services, so New York has the right to demand payment for the cigarette tax.
Cigarette brands manufactured by tobacco companies that have no ties to Native Americans should be taxed, regardless of where they are sold, and those revenues belong to the state. Pure and simple, it’s tax evasion.
If this issue became the norm, other businesses might devise plans to establish commerce on Indian lands nationwide to sell whatever they pleased without one cent of tax going back to Uncle Sam or state governments.
Smokers will continue to ignore the health risks associated with their habit as they seek cheaper options to feed their craving. Still, since the high price of cigarettes is primarily due to higher taxes, New York is entitled to the revenue on an estimated 30 million cartons of cigarettes sold on Indian reservations throughout the state.
Despite historical transgressions, there must be no reservations when it comes to Native Americans selling tax-free cigarettes to non-Indians.

The End of the World Was Neither Here Nor Nigh (May 26, 2011)

   Did you feel the Earth move under your feet as the seconds passed 6 p.m. on Saturday? Me neither.
We’re still here — not that I expected not to be.
Besides, if the end came, you wouldn’t be reading this.
Small groups of doomsday advocates carried signs that read, “The End is Nigh,” but in the end, the End wasn’t — last Saturday anyway.
The only place where the ground rumbled more than usual in the U.S. on May 21 was at the Pimlico Race Course in Maryland at about 6:20 p.m. when 14 horses galloped down the stretch in the 136th Preakness Stakes.
If you believe in the hereafter, Heaven will have to wait because the Pearly Gates remained shut. May 21 came and went without any catastrophic events.
(In a twist of fate, botched apocalypse notwithstanding, the Iceland volcano that disrupted air travel last year erupted on Saturday, accompanied by a series of small earthquakes.)
I don’t think anyone, except a few nuts, seriously thought a life-threatening event was imminent, despite weeks of dire warnings from doomsday prophet Harold Camping. A California radio evangelist, Camping repeatedly insisted his biblical calculations forecast Judgment Day, The Rapture, End Times, Doomsday or whatever you choose to call it. According to his analysis, the Bible guaranteed it. However, the Good Book doesn’t precisely indicate the date. That was Camping’s fantasy.
Basing his prediction on a New Testament passage, Camping proclaimed that on May 21, 2011 — beginning at 6 p.m. in every time zone — earthquakes would rattle the world as the faithful would ascend to heaven, leaving nonbelievers behind to deal with a multitude of destructive events for the next five months, when the world will be obliterated.
Incidentally, the 89-year-old preacher first predicted the end of the world in 1994, but when it didn’t materialize, he reconfigured the numbers and came up with 5/21/11. Back then, he never explained why he was off by 17 years; this time he insisted he was absolutely sure, but he was wrong again. This week he said his forecast was “off by five months” and reset Doomsday for 10/21/11.
Since his religious forecasting failed again, the rumors that Camping was going to open a chain of palm reading stores is unlikely anytime soon.
Evangelical leaders, devout Christians and anyone with any sense scoffed at the reverend’s prophecy, which has recently been a frequent source of widespread ridicule.
Religious leaders condemned Camping, stating that it was incredibly arrogant for any human to claim he could determine God’s timing for the End of Days.
If you were one of the few who paced and sweated it out last Saturday until the clock struck 6:01 p.m., you have about six months before you might get anxious again. But, if you believe in prophesies and rejoiced over this abortive event, you may want to delay long-range plans because another doomsday is just around the corner. The Mayans predicted centuries ago that 2012 would be a cataclysmic year for Earth.
Since my religious inclinations declined after my bar mitzvah, and Judaism doesn’t preach any world ending catastrophe, I presumed most religions had given up on such dire forecasts until Rev. Camping was thrust in the media spotlight.
Let’s hope, in its constant pursuit for 24/7 breaking news, the media doesn’t give Camping or another false prophet any more consideration.
Personally, the only Doomsday I foresee in 2012 is if the GOP wins the presidential election, which looks as hopeless today as Judgment Day has of being nigh.
So, for now, sing these Beatles lyrics with me, “Ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on…la la how life goes on.”

Monday, October 17, 2011

This Conservative Christian Should Be Fed To the Lions (August 10, 2007)

When author and political pundit Ann Coulter was recently asked by a CNBC talk show host, “If you had your way…what would this country look like?” she replied, referring to those at the 2004 GOP convention in New York City, “The people were happy. They're Christian…They defend America.”
Somewhat stunned, host Donny Deutsch then inquired, “It would be better if we were all Christian?” The conservative ambassador responded, “…We just want Jews to be perfected.”
No sooner were Coulter's words uttered than the Internet lit up like a Christmas tree or perhaps a Hanukkah menorah or Kwanzaa candelabra depending on your cultural preference.
But regardless of your point of view, you have to wonder why this controversial Barbie doll look-alike is at it again. Basically, it’s simple; she's trying to sell another book by putting herself in the glare of the media spotlight. So, while she’s out on the obligatory book tour, she didn't waste any time adding to her legacy of dumb statements to stir up a little controversy knowing those who agree with her contemptible point of view might be again conned into buying her latest volume of anti-liberal rants.
After all, she's had bestsellers before, after calling current Democratic presidential contender John Edwards a "faggot" and when she implied a particular group of 9/11 widows were reaping the rewards from their dead husbands' heroics. A few years ago she referred to Muslims as towel heads at some conservative gathering.
This woman seems to put her foot in her mouth more than a decent meal. She's so slender that when she stands sideways in bright sunlight, there's no shadow. If a strong gust of wind came along, she’d be blown away, hopefully to some remote desert island. Okay, enough with the Don Rickles-like abuse.
To take Coulter's comments too seriously would be a mistake. It’s as unsound as those who take George Clooney, Bruce Springsteen, Rosie O’Donnell, Sally Field and other liberal celebrity’s remarks as gospel. Celebrities just happen to have a public platform to express personal opinions on controversial matters; just as I do every week. No one, especially the personality, expects anything other than some to agree, others to disagree and most not to give a hoot.
But, to completely ignore Coulter’s biased remarks is also wrong because the choir to whom she preaches tends to bow at her feet even after she puts one of her digits in her mouth.
Nevertheless, just as black activists and others condemned morning talk show host Don Imus earlier this year for humor offered in poor taste about the Rutgers women’s basketball team, which resulted in his dismissal, the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) last week called on media outlets to stop inviting Coulter as a guest. They also strongly criticized her comments that Jews would be “perfected” by accepting the New Testament and that America would be better off if Judaism were “thrown away” and all Americans were Christian.
Imus lost his job and his reputation was fleetingly tarnished for his inflammatory words. However, after the initial frenzy, subsequent feedback about Coulter simmered and quickly became silent, proving once again that the rules and guidelines of civility are not always equitably applied. Coulter temporarily crawled away to let the dust settle over her latest imbroglio, while her book ranks a respectable 29 on the Amazon book list.
In the world of Ann Coulter, the commentator and columnist may consider herself a perfected Christian,” though I doubt her Savior would agree. From what little I know about the New Testament, Jesus Christ's teachings were about love and respect for one another, among other positive lessons. (Conservatives tend to overlook the fact that his teachings were left of center, but fundamentalists would never apply the dreaded "L" word to Jesus.) Coulter has shown time and again she lacks an ounce of respect for those who disagree with her conservative thinking.
Too bad we don’t practice what they did in ancient Rome, because Ann Coulter's one Christian I’d give a thumb up to see fed to the lions. Crucifying the contentious conservative sounds nice too.
I've never, nor do I intend to, read an Ann Coulter book unless it's titled, "Rejoice: This Is the Last Book I'll Ever Write." When I’m finished I just might burn it.