Monday, March 29, 2010

Why We Need Consumer Protection From Banks (Chapter Elebenty)

We've all heard the stories. Here is one more.

I just got my Visa statement. Visa is my backup card, usually when I forget to put the other one back in my wallet. I didn't have any charges on it this month. However, I did in the previous month.

The current statement shows the payment made in full but also shows finance charges of $1.50 tacked on after the payment was received. When I called to inquire about this balance, I was told I had no balance. Why does my statement show a finance charge? It's a mystery.

It was easy for me to spot the extra charge because it was the only charge. How many people simply send off the check or use automatic bill pay without noticing extra charges?

If there were a consumer protection agency that covered banking and financial products, that would be my next call. As it is, the worst I can do is cancel my card and send a letter to the auto club, through whom I got the card, and explain how Bank of America lost them a credit customer.

Monday, March 22, 2010

When Bad Information Happens to Good People

Sunday night on C-Span between the first and second health care votes, the House opened phone lines so people could weigh in on the bill.

The yeses and noes were pretty much what you'd expect. Yeses had personal stories to relate of relatives or friends whose lives would be materially changed by reform. Noes cited Fox talking points.

Mixed into this group, one undecided caller stood out.

He spoke softly, hesitantly. Perhaps he hadn't expected to be on live TV. He admitted he wasn't very knowledgeable about the details of the bill. He thought it was a good idea and important to extend health care to all Americans. He only wondered if it really had to cost ten trillion dollars to do it.

Ten trillion dollars.

I wanted to hug this caller. His highest priority was to do right by his fellow Americans, even though he had somehow gotten the idea it would cost nearly the entire national debt to do it. Perhaps he had no idea what the numbers meant except that it was a lot. Either way, he understood it as a sacrifice, and one he was willing to make.

The caller said he was from Bakersfield, California, the repressive buckle in the central valley farm Bible Belt whose state congressional representative, Roy Ashburn, the conservative, "family values" homophobe, was recently outed as gay when he was arrested for DUI leaving a gay bar with a young male passenger. A few years ago, Bakersfield coughed up a teen-girl band called Prussian Blue who openly sang white supremacy songs.

It is easy for someone in an environment of hate, whether it's racial, religious, gangs or something else, to simply absorb and parrot the hate. This caller heard the misinformation, but he didn't absorb the negativity that came with it. He is a flower that broke through the concrete sidewalk. People like this deserve to get the right information.

There are many more of these good-hearted Americans than the hatemongering horde that attract cameras. These other Americans are shy, hesitant. They are not highly educated. They don't think they have anything important to say. They don't want to "waste time" asking "silly questions."

They want to do the right thing. But they are susceptible to bad information. They don't have the time or the means to sort the facts from the faux when each sounds plausible. This, of course, is what misinformationists count on. Misinformationists don't have to convert people to win; they just have to confuse people.

I have noticed that a lot of liberal discourse tends to be at a college level. It is technical, precise, and eloquent, but it can also be intimidating. We need this policy-level discussion, but we need to do a better job of reaching the Americans who want to know the truth but don't want to wade through Paul Krugman, Ezra Klein, or even Keith Olbermann.

Stanford honors graduate Gretchen Carlson, for all her playacting at ignorance, creates a safe environment for asking and answering "dumb questions."

We need to write bullet-point articles for Reader's Digest, Parade, People, US, Cosmopolitan, and USA Today. For financial reform, we also need articles in Money. We need to appear on the morning network news shows.

Over and over until misinformation is beaten back.

These articles should focus on how proposals help people right now. Obama's speech for the signing of the health care bill did a good job of ticking off the benefits in plain language. Instead of saving this for the signing, we need to lead with it.

Instead of going through the whole sad history of deregulation or try to explain what derivatives are, explain that "too big to fail" will no longer exist. Explain that there will be a new agency whose sole job will be to prevent investment products and schemes that prey on individual investors.

We need to make it easier for good people to get the good information they need to do the right thing.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Road to Hell is Paved With Words

Following the announcement that CNN hired Erick Erickson as part of their news team, some people started putting together a compilation of his worst spewings to make the case that CNN had made a huge mistake by hiring a raving hatemonger and should henceforth be boycotted. I helped by doing what I figured no one else would do--I read old blog entries from early 2005, right after Bush was elected to his second term. I chose this period because the Republicans were firmly in power, and I figured a conservative would feel secure showing his true colors. I think he did, but not in the way I expected.

I started reading Erickson's blog from January 2005 through about the middle of March and posted some interesting excerpts here. His posts were clearly conservative, particularly with regard to business, which he prioritized over the environment, archaeology, and human rights. However, there was no hatespew, and no hyperbole. He expressed Christian charity, condemned a group that protested against gays, distanced himself from religious fundamentalists, and called out bullshit on both sides. He complimented a left-thinker's willingness to debate, and Erickson seemed like he would be a reasonable, courteous debater, too.

So what happened?

I am a recent addition to political blogging, but I have been a writer for many years. I am also a member of the California Bar. In law school, I took a class--the name escapes me now--that required a long research paper. To challenge myself and entertain my professor, I decided to attempt to argue something utterly untrue and distasteful.

It started out as an abstract exercise; law school is full of them. After all, law school trains you to argue either side of a debate dispassionately.

But as I wrote, I realized I was able to build a very convincing case. There were lots of sources that supported me, and I knew how to argue it. It was the kind of argument you know is wrong, but there are no obvious internal flaws to attack.

This became more than a lark. It was an epiphany. This was the moment that I realized the power of words and my own responsibility in wielding them. Until then, I think that in the back of my mind, I believed that when it came to moral arguments, right and truth would always be more convincing. Lies and unfairness would only win when corruption was involved. Yeah, I was young.

I realized I have a choice--and the power to shape people's lives. Everything I write is an opportunity to make the world a little better or a little worse, from simple business letters to essays about the stock market written for anxious and uneducated investors. I never forget that this power is a responsibility, and I am reminded often that real people believe and act based on what I write. This is no abstract exercise.

So here's where we come around to the present. Rush Limbaugh has always been what he is now. You can go back to his early days in Sacramento (where he was initially viewed as a RWNJ), and the message is the same. Whatever demons plague him, whatever drives him, he is consistent.

But Erick Erickson is different. To read his blog in 2005 is a different experience than reading things he says now. In 2005, he used his blog for good. I don't agree with all of his positions, but I think he was sincere. I felt his sense of responsibility to words in both the topics he chose and the measured prose.

In 2005, Erickson acknowledges that he was already a very influential conservative force in Congress. In other words, power alone had not corrupted his writing.

However, then his audience was only Congress and other bloggers. Erickson with a wider audience seems to be enacting the pro wrestling version of political discourse. But this is neither sport nor an abstract exercise. This is political hatespew that affects real people. He knows the difference, and he has chosen to turn his back on responsibility for his words.

Instead of playing to Congress and the blogosphere as he did in 2005, Erickson is now playing to "the masses" (his term, and not a complimentary one) and using what he considers the appropriate tools for that audience. This excerpt from January 31, discussing a book by Mark Levin, supports this theory (emphasis mine):

"Mark Levin has done an impressive act of research and has shown, whether you disagree with him or not, that he is a true legal scholar. His work, with copious quotes, citations, endnotes, and appendices clearly makes the case that the Supreme Court has overstepped its bounds. Unfortunately, also being a talk show host, Levin sometimes crosses the line separating passionate discourse and emotional hyperbole."

Somehow, between then and now, he started portraying a talk-show guy. And now he is one.

Erickson has the potential to be worse than Rush Limbaugh. He has proven that he knows not only the power of words but the difference between "passionate discourse and emotional hyperbole," and he has chosen the road to hell anyway.

(part of this was recently posted on DumpCNN's Facebook page)

Saturday, March 6, 2010

If You're a Liberal, Show Me!

Has the left withdrawn from all feeling and holed up in dry, polite, measured discourse as this article and others would argue? Is the elected Democrat a mere husk mouthing policy jargon? Are liberal commentators imprisoned in soft restraints of gentility that preclude a good, rousing disapproval of Republicans?

In two words: hell, no.

With a few exceptions, the liberals got the creative people. We are passionate, heartfelt, and moving. We argue forcefully, sympathize easily, and tell the most inspirational stories. If you're a regular patron of liberal thought, I'll bet that without trying too hard, you can name five people who write or televise passionate content. They are everywhere.

We also got the best arguments: equality, fairness, quality of life, and the love and transcendence side of any major religion. We know that fear and greed are man's strongest motivators, but we choose not to bring out the worst in people in order to manipulate them.

Liberal passion did not die out in the 1960s. What did die out was inane followers chanting slogans they didn't understand, people going to protests they didn't care about just to get laid, and belligerent mobs using radicalism as an excuse for vandalism. All this only gave liberalism a bad name.

Who yells? Who threatens and carries out physical violence and vandalism? Bullies. People who have run out of things to say or never had anything to say in the first place. If you want to call me an elitist because I don't want to recruit stupid and violent people, I'll wear that label proudly.

Liberals also stand up to bullies, whether they are harrassing us or someone else. Whether it's one passive-aggressive person on the street or the Attorney General of Virginia. Just because we choose not to act like thugs and manipulators does not mean we are wimps.

If anything, liberals bow under the weight of decision. We feel responsibility too much. We need to remember that even a misstep lends momentum for the next step. Inaction is entropy. We need to move past Yes We Can into Yes We Are and then Oh, Yes We Did (gestures optional).

What liberals don't have is the money to create a media network to deliver our message. It's not elected officials on the right like John Boehner and Jim DeMint delivering angry, rousing, inspiring speeches to their electorate. It's Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and the Armey of tea party astroturfers. That is where we are outmatched on the left: the dissemination muscle.

And those teabaggers? They are not yelling to support you, Mr. Trickledown.

Astroturfers are hired--one way to create jobs, eh? But real grassrooters have to come in their free time. The most politically active are seniors (helped by AARP) and college students. Why don't we hear from the mainstream of the middle class, those who have lost so much under Republican rule?

During the 1970s, the average individual workweek was around 35 hours, and the average family workweek was around 40. Today, the average individual workweek is still around 35 hours, but the average family workweek has jumped to 65-70 (BLS). That's a lot of potential volunteer time stripped away.

Did your father teach you to be quiet and detached? Mine taught me to be suspicious of anyone who urged me to feel instead of think. Like Glenn Beck. And like Clancy Sigal, who argues in favor of an atmosphere where "everyone had an opinion and voiced it full-throttle." Yeah, that's the way to get things resolved.

I am also suspicious of people who argue that we must sacrifice our ideals to succeed. The way forward is not giving up on reason and logic. It is not embracing shouting, rage, tea-party anger, or emotional manipulation. And it is definitely not a return to the days of burning down the Bank of America.

So from now on, if you consider yourself a good liberal, quit whining about how ineffectual the left is. Show us how it ought to be done. Show us what a passionate, reasoned argument looks like. Because if you persist in painting us as effete, weak-minded, and depleted, I will have to assume that you want to harm, not help, the left.

And then you'll really see some liberal anger.