Author Archives: J.S. Chavez

About J.S. Chavez

J.S. Chavez writes about social issues, politics, and health care. He is engaged in public health research and analysis.

I Feel Threatened (Part 2)

7 April 2015

Viagra for Bullies

J. S. Chavez

Let’s talk about the NRA, an organization of real men, though many of them appear to be craven cowards. How could they be anything else? Most of them live in neighborhoods where, like Oscar Pistorius (I Feel Threatened Part 1), the likelihood of their lives being threatened is miniscule.  Way more likely that they will die in a traffic accident or from heart disease or at the hands of a member of their own households who gets his/her hands on an unsecured firearm.  Look it up.

This is a favorite bumper sticker/t-shirt theme among the 2nd Amendment set.

Gun owner victim

I wonder where a reasonable person fits into this false dichotomy. For the NRA it appears that you are either predator or prey.  I don’t know about you but…

I Feel Threatened. And it’s time we Stand Our Ground.

Gun owners strike me as a particularly insecure lot. Unable to reasonably assess a threat they see every situation as threatening. And, tending toward cowardice, they are impotent to deal with these perceived threats unless they have at the ready a means of exercising deadly force. And it emboldens them—as it did Zimmerman, Dunn, and Reeves. 

Nobody picks a fight with someone he isn’t sure he can beat.

Bullies, for that is all that killers are, are nothing unless they have the advantage of force. Is there any question of what these men would have done had they not had deadly force at the ready? Does anyone believe that these men felt so cornered that they would have fought back with their bare hands, their fingernails even, because the situation was that dire? Far from it.

Not only did these killers fail to make an effort to mitigate the situations in which they found themselves, each man actually escalated the situation—each with the perfect knowledge of the excessive force he had at the ready. Is this not premeditation? “I don’t have to back down from this punk because I know something that he doesn’t know.” Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law relieves an individual who feels threatened of the obligation to retreat.  Does it also relieve him of the responsibility of being controlled or reasonable? Is feeling annoyed, disrespected, uncomfortable, frustrated, impotent, the same as feeling threatened?

Just after the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary, where 20 school children lost their lives to a psychotic gunman, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre declared that  “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” The NRA’s reponse to the Sandy Hook tragedy was to put armed personnel in all the schools. They blame video games, movies, the liberal media, and mental illness for gun deaths. (It certainly couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that there are 88 guns for every 100 Americans, right?)

They want a mental illness database. All mental health practitioners would be required to forward patient files to the “jack-booted government thugs” who conduct background checks for potential gun owners? No, that can’t be what they mean because the NRA is staunchly against strengthening background checks in any way.

Small wonder.  Consider this statement made by Wayne LaPierre (interview on FOX news, July 2012) regarding a supposed UN treaty which would regulate the global arms trade and, according to LaPierre, “says to people in the United States, turn over your personal protection and your firearms to the government.” What? That sounds a bit delusional—and  paranoid. Are you sure you want a mental illness database, Wayne? Really?

LaPierre has also famously said “by its lies and laws and lack of enforcement, government polices are getting us killed, and imprisoning us in a society of terrifying violence.”  It would seem that everyone is to blame for gun violence except he people with the guns. But LaPierre seems to be asking law enforcement, “the government,” to step up and assume a stronger role in curbing gun violence.  Is he advocating for a stronger police state? Isn’t the 2nd Amendment the NRA’s fortress of solitude, so to speak? Isn’t the main point of owning personal firearms supposed to be as a protection against an overzealous, overbearing, overreaching, over-muscled police state?

The NRA can’t have it both ways.  They can’t claim that citizens need free access to assault rifles and huge magazines as protection against the excesses of the state and then turn around and blame the government for the results of citizens exercising that free access. Granted, Wayne LaPierre is a lousy spokesman but, it’s difficult to see how the most  articulate debater could spin the nonsensical arguments the NRA promotes as logic.

What are these NRA people are so frightened of?

Just how terrifyingly violent is the life of the average NRA member, because I suspect that the lives of the NRA elite, the ones we always hear from, are quite comfortable indeed. They say they’re not afraid-just prepared. And men who take Viagra don’t actually have erectile disfunction? They’re just prepared?

To be fair, a large majority of NRA rank and file members say they would support more stringent background checks. Why is it, then, that those who govern the organization are so far out of step with their members? As always, follow the money. 

The NRA receives many millions of dollars every year in corporate donations and a lot of that money comes from gun makers. Also, the governing body of the NRA operates very much like the Central Politburo of the Communist Party of China; both are a one party system. The committee decides who runs so it’s no surprise when one of their own wins.  As far as the NRA elite 1% are concerned, I guess the 2nd Amendment trumps the 1st Amendment.

More Information

Bureau of Justice Statistics       NRA Membership  The Real Terrorists

I Feel Threatened (Part 1)

30 March 2015

It’s Hard to Tell the Good Guys from the Bad Guys

 “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”

Wayne LaPierre, National Rifle Association Executive Vice President

   To paraphrase:

The only thing that stops someone from exercising his God-given right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is an intolerant guy with a gun.

There are over 30,000 gun deaths in the US every year.  Put another way, that’s about 10 times the number of US citizens killed by terrorists—ever—or 4.5 times the number of US troops killed in the Global War on Terror (Iraq and Afghanistan). Keep in mind, these 30,000+ deaths occur every year.  And small wonder, with over 88 guns for every 100 US citizens it’s not hard to get your hands on a lethal weapon if you are so inclined.

Shockingly, the large scale tragedies, such as the shooting deaths of 26 elementary school children at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012, do not spur us to take any substantive action. But let’s consider a few of the recent, high profile one-on-one examples of excessive force, abetted by intolerance. Of these, Florida seems to have more than its share. The brief summations that follow are captioned in the names of the victims.

Trayvon Martin February 2012

Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old visiting his father in a gated community in Sanford Florida, was fatally shot by George Zimmerman, local neighborhood watch coordinator and police officer wannabe. Zimmerman began following Martin, who is black (yes, it probably matters), while “on patrol” and continued following him after phoning the police about a suspicious person. The police dispatcher advised Zimmerman not to tail Martin. He disregarded that advice, and wound up in a struggle with the teenager for the pistol that Zimmerman was licensed to carry.

Zimmerman may have figured Trayvon Martin could be managed easily when he profiled him; a skinny teenager slurping down a soda on a rainy night. The police report on the night of the shooting lists Zimmerman’s weight at 200 lbs. Zimmerman knew he had the best hand when he dealt it whereas Trayvon Martin didn’t even know there was a game on—or that he was playing for his life.  I mean, really, who was the aggressor here?  Who was the hunter and who was the hunted? 

Zimmerman wasn’t standing his ground, he was stalking. Apparently Zimmerman got more than he bargained for—less than he deserved but, more than he expected. Zimmerman probably didn’t set out to shoot Martin, but could any reasonable person believe that he would have pursued the teenager if he hadn’t been carrying a loaded gun?  Seriously?

Chad Oulson.  January 2014

Curtis Reeves fatally shot Chad Oulson in the chest after an altercation over Oulson texting his daughter’s babysitter during previews at a movie theater just outside of Tampa. Oulson, 43 was at the theater with his wife, sitting a row in front of Reeves and his wife.  Reeves 71, is a retired police chief who reportedly never shot anyone during his career in law enforcement. After demanding that Oulson stop texting Reeves left his seat, some say to contact the management of the movie theater, but quickly returned, by which time Oulson had ceased texting.

Oulson’s wife claimed that Reeves then taunted Oulson even though Oulson had put away his phone. Oulson became upset and threw a container of popcorn at Reeves who immediately pulled out his .380 and shot Oulson in the chest at point blank range. Reeves said if he had it to do over again he wouldn’t have shot Oulson.  Reeves’ wife said they should have just changed seats. They sound like reasonable people.

At his bail hearing Reeves had no problem coming up with witnesses who testified as to what an upstanding citizen he had always been. (Aside from the recent unpleasantness.) Reeves insisted he had been defending himself. It sounds more like he picked a fight knowing full well that he had the upper hand.

Jordan Davis  November 2012

Jordan Davis, 17, and black (yes, it probably matters) was shot 3 times as he sat in a friend’s car listening to music in a convenience store parking lot by Michael Dunn, a 47 year old (white) computer programmer. Dunn then fled the scene, ordered pizza, walked his dog, spent the night at a motel with his girlfriend, and was arrested the next day when he returned home. 

Dunn claimed the 17 year-old victim had a shotgun but none was ever found.  His fiance, who was in the convenience store as the shooting occurred, said Dunn never mentioned to her that he saw a shotgun. After firing several shots at the victim and his friends Dunn exited his vehicle as the teenagers hastily drove away and fired several more rounds at them.  In a routine recording of a jailhouse telephone call  Dunn declared that he was the victim.  A jury didn’t see it that way, sentencing him to 60 years, the minimum he will be required to serve. 

Reeva Steenkamp February 2013

It seems that the fatal insecurity that is so prevalent in the male psyche transcends geopolitical boundaries. Reeva Steenkamp, the striking model and girlfriend of Oscar Pistorius, the South African paralympian known as the “Blade Runner,”  was shot and killed by Pistorius while staying at his home in an exclusive gated community in Pretoria, South Africa. He shot her four times through the closed, and locked, door of the bathroom.  Pistorius claims he awoke during the night and thought Steenkamp was an intruder.

How plausible is that? He awoke in the night, thought he heard something, said, “Hon, I think there’s someone in the bathroom…Hon?”  Or, he awoke in the night, thought he heard something, reached out to find his girlfriend, “Baby, you there?…”

OK, so it’s not at all plausible.  Pistorius, who is currently on trial for the murder of Steenkamp, has a history of “inappropriately” discharging firearms.

Pistorius is something of an odd-man-out in this line-up of gratuitous killers. For one thing he’s not American. More significantly, he knew his victim—intimately.

How is it that one so readily, and so casually, leaps to the use of deadly force?

All of these men had training and were experienced in the use of firearms. Clearly they were aware of the power they wielded. So aware of the power and yet so oblivious of the consequences.

The thing is, it’s never a fair fight.  In these four murders, there is no evidence that the shooters gave their victims even half a chance.  Not one of them pulled his pistol and said “I feel threatened and if you do not run away/turn down your music/stop texting/get off of my bidet, I may shoot you.” At no point did any of these killers take any action to defuse the situation.

Zimmerman stalked Trayvon Martin to the point where Martin surely must have felt threatened. Reeves, at one point, actually taunted Oulson, after Oulson had put his phone away, asking him if he was “scared.” And Dunn stepped out of his vehicle to fire 10 rounds at a fleeing car—after, he claims, he saw a shotgun.

Oscar Pistorius, the “courageous paralympian,” seems to have been the most risk averse, firing at his lover, indisposed, who could not even see the threat through the locked bathroom door. (The door was locked because?) These are not the actions of men trying to avoid trouble. These are the actions of bullies who are in the possession of deadly force and itching to use it—which they did.

J.S. Chavez

The Morning After (Part 2)

16 March 2015

The Health Care Plan Republicans Always Wanted-Until They Got It

J.S. Chavez

As Robert Reich noted (link below) Obamacare is almost exactly the sort of health care reform that Republicans have said they always wanted, going all the way back to President Nixon. (Yes, that Nixon and yes, the situation is really that bad.) Reich points out that it is Republicans who have always insisted on private insurers rather than a Medicare-Social Security based system. 

It was Republicans who came up with the idea of an individual mandate, which Mitt Romney successfully carried through in Massachusetts. Reich concluded by noting that since Democrats had to pass the ACA without Republican support they could have held out for a single-payer, Medicare-based system that would have actually worked.  Possibly. But Republicans would surely be apoplectic over any health care plan that Obama (or any other Democrat) came up with. And there’s the problem, for both the Republican party and the people of the US.

Just about everyone you ask, Democrats and Republicans alike, will tell you that universal health care should be a right. 

So, if the ACA is essentially the plan Republicans would have come up with if they had to come up with a plan, how come they’ve lined up against it as though it were the anti-Christ? Follow the money: Health care in the US is a business—a very good business.  Average per capita spending on health care in the US is over $8,000 per year. Republicans don’t want health care reform, many even claim it isn’t needed.  They also claim that if market forces are given free reign then competition will drive costs down.

Medical care in the US is basically a cartel.

Insurance companies, not patients, are the consumers. And they’re part of the cartel.  They don’t care if Big Medicine charges exorbitant prices.  They can just raise their premiums.  Their cut comes off the top so they always get paid.

Try calling up a hospital and getting a price for a surgical procedure.  Ask about something  simple, like a hernia operation.  They won’t tell you because the real answer is “it depends.” (See the “possible exception to the rule” link.) Mostly, it depends on your insurance (like whether you even have insurance). If they were to be honest with you (they won’t be) they would tell you that the price is “as much as we can get.” In other words, it’s a negotiation—but not with you, because you aren’t the consumer. 

The negotiation is with your insurance company. Your insurance company decides what your co-pay will be.  Your insurance company decides which hospital you can use.  This is based on the deal the insurance company worked out with the hospital. You have no say in the matter, even though you’re paying for it.  There is no other business arrangement in the world where this would be tolerated.  Would you hire an electrician to rewire your house if the price he quoted was “it depends?”

There is a critical point that most people do not seem to understand:

Insurance companies are not in the business of paying for health care.  Insurance companies are in the business of collecting premiums.

Insurance companies are the consumers of medical care.   The insured (you) are the consumers of insurance.   All the money that goes into the pockets of insurance companies comes from you, whether you pay them directly or your employer pays a share. 

And about that; any insurance provided by your employer is part of your compensation as an employee.  It is not a gift provided out of the goodness of your employer’s heart.  When Hobby Lobby claims that they shouldn’t have to pay for contraceptives because it runs contrary to their religious beliefs, what they’re really trying to do is foist their religious beliefs onto you, forcing you to adhere to their religious principles as a condition of your employment. 

That’s the conservative version of religious freedom. You, as an employee, are free to adopt the religious beliefs of your employer.  Conservatives complain about the nanny state but they’re fine with the fundamentalist feudal state.

It’s pretty simple: Republicans hate Obamacare, mostly because Obama, a black Democrat, got it passed. The Affordable Care Act is deeply flawed, precisely because it is more of a Republican plan than a Democratic one—but it’s a start—an essential start. Republicans don’t want to talk about any kind of health care reform because they know that the only one that makes sense (based on our own experiences and those of just about all the OECD countries) is a single-payer system. 

Medicare, our Medicare, (the so-called “entitlement program” that we pay into all of our working lives) is way more efficient than private insurers, doing a much better job of containing costs.

Just prior to the implementation of the ACA, our “system” of health care was financially unsustainable.  And Republicans couldn’t have cared less.  They’re happy to ride us all into the ground and bleed us of every last dime.  That’s the Republican version of health care reform.

The fact is Republicans offer nothing.  Nothing. They are the party of “No.” The party of No obstructs, obfuscates, obliterates and offends.  The party of No does not solve problems.

The party of No is the problem.

So, why does health care in the US cost so much?  The graph below tells a big part of the story. Mid-life and end of life (EOL) care costs are far higher in the US than anywhere else.  In 2011, 28% of Medicare spending was for care in the last 6 months of life. Just what are we getting for these insane expenditures? Has anyone ever gotten out of this life alive?



Do you suppose that these huge EOL expenditures buy us more time and better quality of life?  It doesn’t appear so.   The US ranks about 33rd in life expectancy in the world (not far behind Costa Rica and Cuba). Average life expectancy in the US is 78 years.  Average per capita health care spending in Cuba is about 1/20 what it is in the US. Most Americans say they would prefer to die at home but 75% of us die in hospitals or nursing homes.

  Source Links and More Information: 

Robert Reich  Obamacare is a Republican Plan / Robert Reich Blog /  Kaiser Health Care / Co$t of Dying / Bloomberg / Rand /NIH /Bitter Pill /Exception to the Rule?

The Morning After (Part 1)

9 March 2015

Credit where Credit is Due: Senator Ted Cruz Saved Obamacare

By J. S. Chavez

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), a.k.a. Obamacare, website was in shambles in November of 2013 as technicians worked 24/7 to fix the hardware and spinmeisters in the West wing worked 24/7 to shore up its image. Millions of dollars intended to fund an advertising blitz to drive people to the website were (understandably) on hold.  Secretary of Health and Human Services,  Kathleen Sebelius, took a well deserved drubbing from Congress for her part in the debacle and the site continued to limp along, harassed by higher-than-expected traffic and inadequate administrative and technical support. It was ugly, but they muddled through, and somewhere along the way Obamacare arrived. Still, this is not how you treat the signature legislation of a two-term presidency. You don’t leave your first new car, the one you bought with the money you scrimped and saved by working three part time jobs, forgoing parties, forsaking friends, and denying yourself a single new outfit for a whole year, parked in the street next to the crack den on Saturday night with the doors unlocked and the keys in the ignition. You wouldn’t do that, right? You’d pamper that car.  You’d drive five miles per hour under the speed limit, avoiding potholed streets and fresh asphalt. You’d lovingly scratch the squashed bugs off the windshield with your own self-manicured fingernails. You’d wash it everyday, with warm water and mild soap and carefully chamois the water off. You’d be sure to keep the tires properly inflated and you’d park it in the shade so as not to fade the interior or age the paint.   


President Obama, Kathleen Sebelius, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the rest of the hapless hacks whose job it was to launch the Affordable Care Act (ACA) should be lining up to give Senator Ted Cruz a big, sloppy wet kiss. That the Obamacare team should find itself in bed with Cruz after the collapse of the Obamacare site is one thing but that they should be grateful for his company would have been impossible to predict when they hooked up in October of 20113. They should take pictures of themselves screwing the ACA pooch while Cruz looks on. I’m not sure this would rise to the definition of bestiality but it works as evidence. Ponder the alternate political reality we would all be living had Cruz not put his own self interest ahead of that of his party and his country, and had Speaker John Boehner actually led the House rather that pandering to it’s basest elements. Right, too far-fetched but, suppose, just suppose, that Republican House members had agreed to a reasonable budget in time to avoid a shutdown. The site would have imploded anyway and Republicans, instead of doing the walk of shame, would look like the reasonable, responsible legislators they so often pretend to be. Given how difficult it is for them to “effectively connect with voters” (see 16 Days in October, Part 4) they are not likely to get another opportunity like that for, well, ever.  I mean, what the hell was the administration thinking? The White House spent weeks dodging, weaving, spinning, vacillating between mea culpas and passing the buck, but generally having to acknowledge that they screwed up, if not quite owning the screw up. Seldom have we seen so much freely given political capital (the shutdown) dissipated so quickly, wantonly, and extravagantly. And so it went as one of the most profound unforced errors in the history of American social policy staggered through its painful, incompetent debut. 

However, the Obama administration seems to have gotten away with it, as a practical matter.  ACA enrollments are ahead of predictions, premiums are being paid, costs of premiums are not going through the roof, enough young people are signing up to ensure the viability of the program, and a healthy majority of people who have taken part, including those who identify themselves as Republicans, have been satisfied with their coverage.

As a political matter, it seems unlikely that the Right  will move on from here.  On the other hand, few seem to believe that the ACA is likely to be undone, even at this early stage.  By 2016, the prospect  of going back to the way things were is not likely to be any more tenable. Still, the Tea Party is alive, if not entirely well, and still flexing their muscle. 

One day soon, the passage and implementation of the ACA may go down as one of the greatest political achievements of all time. And we have Ted Cruz to thank for that.

The Real Credit Card Frauds

23 February 2015

 You Can’t Afford Not to be a Deadbeat

Last summer I had the dubious pleasure of having my credit card declined—at a laundromat. Not so long ago such a scenario would not have been possible for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that laundry machines only accepted quarters or tokens.

But we live in a new age, the age of smart phones and bar codes and instant digital communication. Back in the day, credit card authorization required a long distance call and a tense, awkward wait at the cash register; it is now completed in seconds without any contribution from a live person.  And while I’m not suggesting this state of affairs is all bad it’s not without its drawbacks. 

If you’re younger than 25 or so (I’m not) you might not remember how things used to be “back in the day.” In the day I’m talking about, merchants were not inclined to accept credit cards for small purchases so they often, arbitrarily (and illegally), posted  “minimum purchase” requirements for their  customers paying with a credit card.

This practice was most common among low volume merchants and those whose profit margin was low (grocery stores, convenience stores, etc). You can see their point; credit card companies charge merchants a small percentage of each transaction and maybe even a flat transaction fee. On a small purchase, where there is a thin profit margin, the merchant could conceivably lose money on the transaction. Even so, until July of 2010, it was illegal for a merchant to impose a minimum purchase amount for credit card users.

I don’t believe that most consumers felt that this was a huge problem.  We had a different mindset back then.  We actually carried cash. (No, really.) Most people I knew would not have considered paying for a small purchase (say, under $10) with a credit card. Was this only because  the merchant would not like us for it?  I don’t think so.  For most of us there was a feeling that you shouldn’t use a credit card for things such as a cup of coffee (and it was nowhere near as expensive as it is today).  We tended to save our credit card accounts for larger, more significant purchases.

So, what happened to change our collective mindset? As always, we should follow the money.  After all, that’s what the banks do.  And if you think banks don’t understand how to separate you from your dollars then I suggest you give your credit card agreement a thorough, critical read through.

Bank fees net banks well over $150 billion annually, which comes out of your pocket, dear consumer, one way or another. ATM fees, late fees, overdraft fees, minimum balance fees, a monthly fee that relieves you of paying ATM fees (They create the fee then create another fee that gets you out of the first fee? Should we feel grateful?), a paper statement fee, lost debit card fee, returned mail fee, even a fee for using a human teller. (Google “bank fees.”)

Banks may still be reluctant to lend money but they’re creative enough to come up with other ways to squeeze a buck out of their customers. But credit card transaction fees are a different animal since these are charged to the merchant. They generally range from 1% to 3.5% of the purchase. Sometimes there is an additional flat fee per transaction as well.  These are mostly based on the volume of purchases so they are most onerous for small businesses.

Banks promote the use of credit cards for small purchases as a convenience. And it relieves the consumer of carrying around cash, which could be lost or stolen.  But hold on a minute.  While I would  not be happy about losing $500 cash through a hole in my pocket, that really isn’t what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about very small purchases. Rather than carry around five hundred or a thousand dollars to buy, say, a new computer, I’ll gladly put that purchase on my card.  Less hassle, less risk.

Think of it this way; would you prefer to lose the twenty you shoved into your pocket (the one with the hole you didn’t know about) on your way to Starbucks or would you prefer to lose your credit card? Your liability for the credit card charges would be limited to $50 in most cases, so maybe you feel like that’s a reasonable price to pay for years of convenient purchasing. 

But what about all the phone calls you’ll have to make? The monthly accounts with Netflix, iTunes, Hulu, etc. that have to be re-established? What about the rather  large copay to your OB-GYN that will now be denied and most likely incur a hefty penalty when the charge comes back on your doctor’s billing service?

And that’s only your personal stuff.  Who do you think pays the transaction fee the banks charge the merchants?  Do you think the merchants pay for that? Or do you think the merchants might, possibly, sneakily, hide those fees in the inflated cost of the item you just charged? If you’re one of those people who think that most merchants wouldn’t lower their prices if, suddenly, the transaction fees went away, well, you’re probably right.  If they can get that extra 3% now they will continue to try to get it. 

But this system has been in place for decades so it isn’t really fair to postulate a counterfactual. Look at it another way.  If the price of Florida oranges suddenly went through the roof because an unstoppable bacterial pathogen was decimating the orange groves (citrus greening) do you think that your local grocers would hesitate to pass on their higher costs for orange juice? Production costs matter—no matter where they come from.

Fortunately, I guess, when my credit card was declined I was at the laundromat and not checking into a five star hotel on the first leg of a European vacation—in which case I would have been in big trouble.  Another merchant whom I paid with my card had been hacked and my identity, or part of it, had been compromised, along with the identities of some thousands of others. This is no longer such a rare event and a lot of the responsibility for the problem of identity theft lies squarely with those who benefit from the (over)use of credit cards.  Banks, and merchants too, (think Redbox) have brainwashed us into believing that the convenience of card purchases is worth the cost. 

And the banks are winning. The percentage of small purchases (under $10) that are being accomplished with credit cards is steadily rising—as are the fees we’re paying to the banks.

You think inflation is someone else’s responsibility?

Don’t kid yourself.  Banks only value you as a customer while they make money from you. Google credit card deadbeats.” That’s how banks refer to cardholders who pay off their balances every month. What, you thought you were being responsible?  (Google “naive.”)

So, the next time your bank fails to honor a transaction because it is “outside your normal pattern of spending” and then when you frantically call them up, humiliated for being made to look like a real deadbeat, and they tell you that they refused the transaction “for your protection,”  remember who you’re dealing with.  They’re not your friends.

Things worth knowing:

  • Low utilization” using a smaller proportion of your available credit looks better to creditors (your credit score)

  • Minimum $10 purchase part of Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act

  • Beginning Jan 2013 merchants can charge swipe fee up to 4% (except in ten states)


NYTimes article July 2, 2013. Some employers are now paying lower wage workers with debit cards. This forces the workers to pay a fee to get get cash or accomplish other transactions. Saves the employer some payroll costs.

16 Days in October (Part 4)

9 February 2015

The Party of God, Profanity, and Anarchy

“The white establishment is now the minority…The demographics are changing. It’s not a traditional America anymore.”
-Bill O’Reilly, FOX news commentator, 2012.

So-called moderates in the Republican party will occasionally talk about “adjusting” their message so as not to alienate—well, everyone—except middle-aged, upper class white males. 

“It’s not about nominating less conservative candidates, moderating our messaging or changing our principles. It’s about effectively connecting with voters on issues they care about,”

-Phil Cox, executive director of the Republican Governors association (2 November 2013, Politico), a few days before the Virginia Governor’s election. (The Republican candidate lost.)

How, exactly, do you go about “effectively connecting with voters” when your message is racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, and elitist? How do you spin bending over backwards to deport 11,000,000 Hispanic immigrants, denying minorities their voting rights, intruding on women’s rights to make reproductive decisions, and denying equal rights to homosexual couples? And climate change isn’t real? Still? What about gravity? When you deny the laws of physics even your friends will shake their heads and walk away.

Over the last 30 years, Republicans, with the complicity of many Democrats, have systematically gutted the financial regulatory system while securing major tax advantages for the 1%, all the while whining about how government regulations are ruining their lives.  Please. They’ve never had it so good.  In fact, it looks like they’ve already won.  But no, they find themselves to be sorely abused. They portray themselves as victims, invoking the notion of “class warfare.”  They think we can’t tell we’re losing?

The GOP has stoked the largely religious Know Nothing wing of the party to such a fevered pitch that they can no longer be controlled.  The Know Nothings are not going away, but the problem for mainstream Republicans is not that they disagree with the views of the Know Nothings.  Rather, it is the opposite.  O’Reilly is right. He also said that, 20 years ago, a Romney-esque candidate would have defeated Obama.  Right again. 

And so long as O’Reilly, and most of the rest of the GOP, continue to wax nostalgic for the days when their party was the party of the white establishment, they are likely to continue their frustrated decline, kicking and screaming perhaps, into irrelevancy. People adopt conservative values when they are comfortable with the status quo. The majority of blacks, Hispanics, women, gays, and perhaps just young people in general, are anything but comfortable with the Republican party.

Democrats should not see this as good news.  Given the early promise of the Obama presidency many liberals feel disappointed, even betrayed. Then again, the Know Nothings’ sole aim since Obama assumed office has been to obstruct.  Obstructing is not leadership. The 80 Know Nothings who signed the shutdown letter sent to John Boehner care little for democratic process.

They claim to be Constitutionalists but run roughshod over that sacred document when it suits their purpose. They do not contribute; they only proscribe. They do not negotiate; they only blackmail. They preach God and country while practicing profanity and anarchy. They feel disconnected from the world and from their countrymen who defend their right to behave irresponsibly. They are a minority, but they are a force to be reckoned with because they have the unreasoned self-righteousness of religious zealots who know the true way.

International observers exercised their prerogative to look down their noses at us as they contemplated the wisdom of the US dollar as the default world currency. Writing for Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, Liu Chang suggested the need for a “de-Americanized world” and writers from Athens to London wondered that the world economy could be placed at risk by an unsophisticated minority of US lawmakers who don’t seem to “get it.” The opinions of others matter—outside the bubble.


16 Days in October (Part 3)

 30 January 2015

An Incestuous Bubble of Babble

 The 47% Majority

“Is this just math you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better?”
-Megan Kelly, FOX news anchor’s on-air question to Karl Rove, Republican strategist, on election night 2012. Rove was insisting that Romney would win the election. (Rove didn’t care for the question.)

The technology that moves data across the country at near light speed facilitates such an orgy of available information that consumers are overwhelmed by venues of content. Unlike the plain vanilla media landscape of the 1960s, when news was read by distinguished, Midwestern, middle-aged white males, cloned from Edward R. Morrow, today we can choose to receive our news content from a veritable rainbow of humanity.  If their presentation offends our sensibilities we can easily switch to one who will tailor the information in a way that makes us feel good about ourselves.

The right still complains incessantly about “liberal media bias”  even though they have FOX News, The Wall Street Journal, the Drudge report and a plethora of far right rabble-rousers on talk radio and television.  These conservative “news” organizations (which conservatives claim are balanced) are “necessary to set the record straight” and “disseminate facts the liberal media suppress.”  As conservatives gained control of more news outlets they became bolder, shriller, and wandered farther from the truth in their quest to reshape the world into what they think it should be.

The mainstream GOP tacitly condones the hate-mongering and disinformation disseminated by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, FOX news, the NRA, et al.  Occasionally, they will attempt to distance themselves from a particularly offensive remark but overall they are pleased as punch to let these “unauthorized” provocateurs serve up raw meat to the homophobic, zenophobic, racist, sexist, climate-change-denying elements of their party which they are happy to welcome under their tent. The Republican Party owns these attack dogs, though they have long refused to take responsibility for them.  It seems a delicious irony, then, that their refusal to muzzle their dogs has allowed those dogs to turn on their masters.

The constant drumbeat of protest from the right over supposed liberal media bias has taken a toll on mainstream media. Mainstream news outlets, fearful of being labeled “liberal” bend over backwards to be balanced, to the point where they are afraid to call a spade a spade.  Indeed, as media outlets have become concentrated in fewer hands, and profitability of news organizations becomes increasingly elusive,  what possible motivation could there be for a liberal bias at the expense of profit? If anything, news media are indulging a conservative bias, the motivation for which would be preservation of the bottom line.

The take-over of a large chunk of news outlets by right wing provocateurs has not “balanced”  the information wars so much as it has facilitated the rise of an alternate reality populated by paranoid unicorns, revisionist historians and fiscal fairies. The Know Nothings embrace this 1950s never land, where there are two chickens in every pot, the only people of color are domestics, and wives and mistresses are destined never to meet. All the while they dutifully consume large quantities of Kool-aid brewed up by disconnected nabobs who take their orders directly from God.  Strangely, God seems to have trouble getting his facts straight.

For all their whining about the liberal media’s suppression of “the truth,” when conservatives research, analyze and disseminate their own, “unadulterated” version, it is often inaccurate.  I’m not talking about spin here.  It matters little if conservatives choose to live in an incestuous bubble of babble.  It matters little that they believe Obama is a Muslim, that John McCain works for Al Qaeda and that death panels will decide who receives medical care at the end. (We’ve had death panels for years; we call them insurance companies.)

Problems arise, though, when conservatives venture outside the bubble. Throughout the government shutdown in October of 2013, the Know Nothing Party justified their actions by saying they were representing the will of “the American People.” The true representatives of “the American people” were the ones who passed the Affordable Care Act.  These true representatives of the American people got the job by getting elected. That’s how it works outside the bubble.

It seems that conservatives would be better served if they placed their faith in, and based their campaign strategy on, information disseminated by the “liberal” mainstream media.  On election night, 2012, well-heeled Republican donors descended on New York City and DC, expecting to party the night away celebrating a Romney victory—of which they had been assured. Really. How in the world did these people ever amass enough wealth to buy so many politicians?  The mainstream, sorry, liberal news outlets, were all predicting an Obama victory.  Romney’s pollsters declared they were shocked, shocked, mind you, blindsided; no idea what happened.

Is there no one in the GOP political machine who understands the meaning of the word “fact?” Is it possible that what conservatives call “liberal media bias” is what the rest of humanity refers to as “the truth?” Conservative journalist Christopher Ruddy, in a post mortem of the 2012 election, blamed the candidate himself, the liberal media, other Republicans, the weather, et al., for Romney’s defeat.   While the extreme right rioted over Romney’s lack of true conservative credentials, most of the rest of the country (47% and then some) seized on the  faux conservative credentials he did have—and rejected them.

16 Days in October (Part 2)

 20 January 2015

There goes the neighborhood…

The Know Nothing/Do Nothing 113th Congress may have been noteworthy for their lack of legislative accomplishments but I fear that they may not suffer by comparison to their immediate successors.  The intransigence of Know Nothing Republicans is not likely to be tempered by the failed coup of October 2013.  The districts that elected the 80 Know Nothing Representatives who held the country hostage will still be safe Republican districts, probably even after the coming mid-term elections.

Yes, Republican gerrymandering played a role in 2012, but those gerrymandered districts were mostly drawn in Republican strongholds anyway.  (See Nate Cohn’s take) Our country is self-segregating.  Many aging baby boomers are migrating to urban areas for easier access to cultural venues and a less automobile-oriented lifestyle. Overall, the US is becoming more diverse, racially and culturally. But many rural Republican districts are actually becoming “whiter.” Constituents in these homogeneous communities fret about the threat to an American way of life (that never really existed), posed by illegal immigrants, abortion rights, “death panels,” government regulation, and yes, Socialists.

There seems to be a popular perception that the Tea Party sprang up, spontaneously, in 2009, shortly after the election of America’s first black president. But present day social conservatives have much in common with the late Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority back in 1976. The present day Know Nothings put politics just ahead of religion whereas the Moral Majority had it the other way around.

Back in the late ’70s there were pundits who felt that the naifs who made up the Moral Majority were being taken for a ride by the GOP establishment, that they had been seduced by a superficial conservative social agenda and were unwittingly advancing a grander agenda which they didn’t fully understand and couldn’t participate in. Some observers even went so far as to say that, eventually, the Moral Majority constituents would recognize that the political ideologies of the Democrats were more to their liking than those of the Republicans. (So, who was naïve there?)

The mainstream GOP has long and masterfully outmaneuvered the Democrats by exploiting working class, rural, and under educated voters, who realized little benefit from the fiscal policies promoted by the likes of the Koch brothers, Heritage Action, and others who spend big on the extreme right, by appealing to their latent fears and prejudices. Mitt Romney’s classically daft “47%” comment is cited by some as the deciding factor in the 2012 election. However, given the demographics of the people in that 47% group, it’s likely that most of those 47% (the ones who actually voted) voted for Romney anyway, despite his outright disdain for them.  

16 Days in October (Part 1)

12 January 2015

The Dodo is Extinct…The Wacko Bird is Alive and Well

“You do not take a hostage you are not going to for sure shoot, and we will not for sure shoot this hostage.”

Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK)

Another national election season is upon us and the field of potential Republican presidential candidates is as thick as locusts. Given Republicans’ approach to problem solving (remember the government shutdown?) does the GOP candidate exist who would not alienate the vast majority of the electorate?

There used to be a saying in national politics: Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line.  The first part is probably still true. Democrats are less likely to vote for a candidate purely because he/she is their party’s nominee if the candidate does not inspire passion. Republicans, on the other hand could always be counted on to turn out the vote, weather be damned, no matter who their nominee was, because theirs was a top-down organization. This disciplined approach to electioneering served the party well for decades and that, coupled with their fund-raising advantage and superior knack for appealing to the everyman, made them a force to be reckoned with.

Something has changed. These days the Republican party looks a lot like the maniacal melange of characters gleefully portrayed by Tony Collett, whose protagonist, Tara, suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID) in Showtime’s “The United States of Tara.” The title of the show is ironic but, then, so is the GOP, self-identified as the party of fiscal responsibility.

So, how did the party that could be counted on never to air its dirty laundry in public become the disfunctional family whose internal disagreements spill into the street and wake up the neighbors?

Dog Day Afternoon

In August of 2013, 80 House Republicans sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner suggesting that he use the threat of a government shutdown to defund the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).  (Charles Krauthammer dubbed them the “Suicide Caucus.”) The Suicide Caucus was largely composed of Representatives of southern and upper midwestern, (mostly) red states. None of these states are on the West coast or in the major population centers of the East coast and New England. These 80 House districts represented just 18% of the US population – though the US population they represent is not representative of the US.  These districts are whiter, more rural, and far more Republican than the country as a whole.  Despite widespread criticism of the tactic from the more moderate wing of the party, the Suicide Caucus, egged on by fellow “wacko bird” Senator Ted Cruz, took the US Government and the world economy hostage. Standard and Poors estimated that the shutdown cost the US economy $24 billion and substantially reduced fourth quarter GDP. True to it’s nickname, the Suicide Caucus went down in flames, though its demise was not nearly as dramatic, nor as noble, as they wanted it to be.

“We’re not going to be disrespected”
Representative Marlin Stutzman (R-Ind) to The Washington Examiner.

(He was wrong.)

The Suicide Caucus’s initial demand to defund Obamacare as a condition for agreeing to a budget was quickly abandoned as unobtainable, and the ensuing drama devolved into a deluge of disfunctional demands which decreased in relevance and legitimacy as the fiasco wore on.

The ransom note(s): (Courtesy of Rachel Maddow. The comments are mine.)

  • Defund Obamacare
  • Delay Obamacare
  • Delay the Individual Mandate
  • Deny Coverage for the President
  • Deny coverage for the cabinet
  • Deny coverage to congressional staffers
  • Deny birth control coverage
  • Means testing for Medicare (Actually, a good idea. How did that get in there?)
  • Change federal employee pensions
  • Approve the Keystone pipeline
  • Expand oil drilling 
  • Block net neutrality
  • Tort reform
  • Weaken regs for coal-fired power plants
  • Tax code changes (Also a good idea but not the way they intended)
  • Thwart EPA coal-ash regulations
  • Repeal the medical device tax
  • Change rules on debt ceiling

The GOP has long been the party of fiscal and social conservatism.  This, even though social conservatives, who tend to be religious, often don’t have a clue as to what fiscal conservatism is all about. And many country club Republicans only pay lip service to conservative social values, for the sake of party unity. Mainstream fiscal conservatives are more likely to live on one of the coasts rather than in the rural bible belt, the domain of social conservatives. Monied Republicans are only loosely tied to rural conservatives by a shared dread of change. Change is bad for your bottom line—or it might be.  (Why take the chance?) If you are socially conservative you don’t want change because things are the way God intended (else, why would they be this way?) and you are bound to follow God’s will.

The issue of gay marriage may be the quintessential example of the divide between the two factions. Does anyone suppose that the cause of gay marriage (which is near to becoming the law of the land) would have made the gains it has in the last few years without the support of many mainstream Republicans?  Fiscal conservatives, business people, have gone public, first with tepid expressions of tolerance of gay unions but, increasingly, with full-fledged endorsements of gay marriage.  Why? The short answer is that gay marriage is good for the economy.

Listening to the rantings of the Know Nothing Suicide Caucus one was struck by the other worldliness of their point of view.  The “keep the government’s hands off my Medicare” ignorance of Tea Party constituents would be amusing if it weren’t also echoed by their elected representatives—at least when it serves their purpose.   Mainstream Republicans are no better. After all, they don’t necessarily disagree with the Know Nothings’ point of view, only their tactics. Their insistence that Obamacare is a “train wreck” that is “doomed to fail,” that it will “bankrupt the country” and is “causing thousands of people to lose their jobs” before it was implemented, mind you, borders on delusional.  The plain fact is that the state of health care in the US was a “train wreck” that was bankrupting the country and causing thousands of people to lose their jobs.  Not to mention that it isn’t any better than health care elsewhere that costs a third as much.

If It’s a Class War, We’re Losing

1 January 2015

The View from the Cheap Seats

by Juan Sebastian Chavez

The history of the world is not the story of everyday men and women. What matters is conquest and domination. Ordinary women and men matter only as cannon fodder. History has very little regard for those of us disinclined to kill and maim.  The vast majority of us are no more than spectators at the big game.  And most of us are warming the cheap seats at that. 

The Right has complained incessantly for over 30 years about stifling government regulation. They have lobbied, successfully, for extensive deregulation and tax relief for business, all the while holding themselves up as “job creators,” and yet the US, once the land of opportunity, has become the most unequal of developed nations.

Since the late 1970s the earnings of the average (male) American worker have fallen by 30% (adjusted for inflation). In that same time period, the average earnings of the top 1% have nearly tripled (from $393,000 to $1,100,000 in adjusted dollars). The top 400 wealthiest individuals in the US now have more wealth than the bottom 150,000,000.

Still, the 1% see themselves as sorely abused.

 Those who believe themselves to be better than the rest of us build bigger and better fortified mansions. They refuse to pay their fair share of taxes and the infrastructure that allowed this country to become an economic, democratic, and military superpower is crumbling.

They created the myth of their own exceptionalism to justify their immoral behavior when, in fact, they are small men, who gained access to the top shelf by standing on the shoulders of giants.

The things that set us apart, that make us better, keep us stronger,  depend on a shared vision of the common good – which requires shared contributions.  As wealth and power shift to smaller numbers the few channel their resources into the defense of the status quo.

  • They shift their tax burden to the middle class by hiding their income behind tax-protected capital gains and salting away their accumulated wealth in offshore accounts.

  • They instigate wars of choice, funded with dollars taken from our public schools and universities and fight them with volunteers who they use up like pack animals.

  • They obstruct, obfuscate, refuse to do the business of government, and systematically disenfranchise the 99%. 
  • They justify their dirty deeds by invoking God and patriotism, though they are anything but pious or patriotic.

They gutted our manufacturing capability by outsourcing our jobs overseas. They then turn around and sell their domestically designed, foreign produced devices to the very people whose jobs they have given away so cheaply.

And we don’t care—because we love our iCrap.

The 1% and their conservative minions do not recognize the social contract. There is no longer any “common good” as the interests of the Ruling Elite have diverged from the interests of everyday people. The 1% have systematically defunded the underpinnings of society; highways, bridges, water treatment systems, public transportation, health care, education, because these things must be funded with taxes.

The abuses of the rich and powerful are not unique to the US.  Around the world, governments, corporations, religious leaders, institutions empowered to do the business of the people are betraying those trusts. Peoples are rising up all over the world, in the Middle East, Asia, Russia, South America, India, in response to the excesses of the Ruling Elite.

When will we stand up?