Monday, June 14, 2010

News That Matters - Monday, June 14, 2010 - Flag Day

News That Matters

News That Matters
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"What is most irksome about the Tea Party Patriots is their expropriation of the word 'patriot,' with the implication that if you disagree with them, you're not a patriot, or at least you're less patriotic than they are."
- The Atlantic's Michael Kinsley

Good Monday Morning,

Today is Flag Day.

A warm welcome to our new readers this morning and to those who donated to the cause over the weekend. If you are a reader and have not helped keep us going now is the time to step up to the plate. Click here. You'll be glad you did.
Oh, and by the way, Republican elected officials receive a special discount!

Mike KaplowitzIt was one heck of a weekend for NY 40th Senate Candidate Mike Kaplowitz as he swung through the county making campaign stops in Putnam Valley and in Mahopac where he was joined by NY 99th Assembly candidate Brendan Tully.

Mike is making a run for the state Senate seat being vacated by Vinnie Leibell as the outgoing Senator makes his own way towards his coronation as Putnam's next County Executive come January 1, 2011.

Mike will face off with the winner of the Republican primary brewing between Somers' Supervisor Mary Beth Murphy and Greg Ball. If Greg hasn't fatally wounded himself through sheer hubris this could be quite an interesting affair as The RINO vs the Tea Bagger.

A hearty Mazel Tov goes out to Judy and John Allen of Putnam Valley and to Ivy Blum and Marc Pekowsky of Mahopac for their hard work, organization and excellent hospitality.

The Thirty-Eight Billion Dollar Fee.

When you do your personal checking you look at your balance and see that there's, oh... say, $1000 in your checking account. So you write check #100 for $100. and you write $900 as your balance. Then you write check #101 for $200 and you write $700 as your balance... and so on. Right? That's how everyone does it. Well, that's everyone except Bank of America.

Bank of AmericaSo, let's say you're the typical dude or dudette living on the financial edge. In that case you may, from time to time, use the bank's over-draft protection program knowing that there's a fee involved for what amounts to a short-term loan of a day or two and you're willing to accept that fee, usually around $30-$35.

Over the weekend you look at your bank's online system and see that there's $500 available in your account and you go out and using your debit card you buy gasoline on Saturday morning, some groceries after and so on through the weekend. On Sunday evening you see that each debit has been noted to your account, the available balance being lowered for each one. Now you have $300 in your account and you write a check for some bill for $600 planning to add enough to your account on Wednesday to easily cover that check - including the overdraft fee which you are happy to pay for the convenience.

Fee'd To Death

On Tuesday morning you awake to a terrible surprise to find that each of your charges over the weekend is now carrying an over draft fee of $35, even the 12 bucks you spent buying two Kids Meals at McDonalds. How did that happen? Well, see, Bank of America doesn't actually, really and genuinely tap your account over the weekend because their computers don't work even though the online banking system says that they do. So on Monday night they grab all the charges from Friday and apply the largest ones to your account first.

This is a trick the banks play designed specifically to throw your account into overdraft
so that the fees pile up rapidly becoming an onerous burden that can make or break people. In fact, its the tens of billion dollars in fees that have pushed many Americans over the financial edge and I know many of you have been there.

You call the bank and you ask them about all this and while customer service is very nice your call always ends up like this,
"Sorry you got screwed but we cannot and will not ever return your overdraft fees and we're truly sorry but hell will freeze over and the Pope will convert to Judaism before we admit we ever did anything so cruel as to intentionally mislead you. Thank you for banking with Bank of America. Enjoy your day!"
And if you elevate the call all the way up to the upper echelons of the Customer Service loop, some guy with a cryptic name such as "Jeff 1580, Central California" and with a gruff, threatening voice, will angrily call you on his cell phone from the golf course with his pet Congressman caddying, and tell you that they've made their Final Decision so please, stop trying to understand the intricacies and secret banking practices that just cost you what could be hundreds of dollars. Someone has to pay the greens fees, right? And congressmen don't come cheap.

You Are Not Alone

This happens every day to thousands of people across the nation and while Bank of America is the most hideously evil of the lot, many banks play this game and billions of dollars are pulled from the economy and go to subsidize executive bonuses, stock dividends, the purchase of Congressmen and Senators, nifty automated teller machines that work so slowly you have to shave again by the time you're done using them and which cause traffic tie-ups on Friday evenings that CBS radio reports along with, "...and it's 40 minutes to The George."

What good are your online banking account balances if they're not real? If you ask Bank of America for an explanation you'll get one that does not make any logical sense. If you call again and get a different customer service center you'll get a different but equally bizarre explanation. You could spend hours on the phone speaking to CS reps all across the nation and never get the same answer twice. In fact, it turns out that for Bank of America each CS center has different rules and different permissions.

But what's more, is that if you call to complain and they've already refunded a fee at some point since dinosaurs roamed the earth, they'll deny your request and then finagle with your accounts, signing you up for this or that, linking this account to that account, all with the promise that this will prevent future fees but that, in reality, will cause you even greater hardship in the future - and higher, much higher fees.

But this does nothing to solve the problem of the reality of how their internal accounting system works vis-a-vis what they show you on your computer screen. Those two systems will still be in disarray leading thousands of customers - each day - to believe they have available funds that they do not have, an intentional ruse by Bank of America and others, to confuse, befuddle and screw you.

Let's say you are the persistent type and you know deep in your heart that someone at Bank of America can push the right buttons and refund those unexpected fees even though you also know they are strongly discouraged from doing so. You call the 800 number and you reach a dead end. You call again, getting a different call center and you reach another dead end. You call again... wash. rinse. repeat. All in all you spend about three and a half hours on the phone before the gruff-voiced guy calls you and menacingly tells you to stop calling.

You've spent about 210 minutes on the phone which cost Bank of America a tiny $4.20 in phone charges but way more than that in employee time and you earn a bit of satisfaction knowing you are making them slowly suck up those fees.

Then reality strikes! and you realize that they would spend any amount of money to defend themselves against what amounts to immoral and unethical - but quite legal - behavior.

And right before you tell the eleventh service rep that you hope they get genital herpes from their neighbor's dog you also remember that they write the laws and so you are screwed no matter what you do or say, if you plead, beg and even cry on the phone. The call always ends the same, cheery way:
"Sorry you got screwed but we cannot and will not ever return your overdraft fees and we're truly sorry but hell will freeze over and the Pope will convert to Judaism before we admit we ever did anything so cruel as to intentionally mislead you. Thank you for banking with Bank of America. Enjoy your day!"
Mostly due to the huge public outcry and Congressional hearings on the matter, starting this summer Bank of America will stop overdraft fees unless you specifically sign up for that protection - for an additional monthly fee. If you go over your account balance they will simply deny the charge. Or, so they say. In the crazy world of US Style Capitalism(tm), the simple acceptance of your monthly bank statement could be read as agreeing to a new fee or service. Even with a team of legal experts at your side and the assistance of a scanning electron microscope to read the "small print" on the cryptic letter you will receive from them you'll, well, they'll still screw you. That's what they do.

The problem is so vast and so wide that popular websites have grown up over the past few years decrying Bank of America's systems and service and the corporation has people on staff who do nothing during the day but log on to these sites and blame their victims. Yes, they actually hire people to kick you when you're down. In public. Proudly.

Hey, I Just Bought Me a Congressman!

Moreover, this corporation spent $14.5 million in political donations in 2008 and donated more to political campaigns than any other bank receiving TARP funds which for them amounted to $40 billion. That $14.5 million bought them $2 billion in fees and overcharges that Congress refuses to control. For them, a well spent investment. For you and me? Not so good.

From OpenSecrets org:

Company   Campaign Contributions, 07-08 Cycle   Lobbying Expenditures, 2008   TARP Payment   Return on Investment  
Bank of America Corp**

The full list of TARP recipients and their congressional spending habits is here.

American Banking and Market News had this to say on May 10th:
"The Charlotte Business Journal did an analysis of Bank of America Corp (NYSE: BAC)’s giving and found that the company’s political action committee gave nearly have [sic] of its federal donations to members of the two committees which are shaping new banking regulations."

There are three immediate problems here:

For one, banks need to make the accounts that show on their online banking services display the actual, real amount in your accounts, not the fake one they put there to intentionally confuse you. Second, they need to change the way they apply charges to your account so that they are applied in the order in which they come in - even over weekends - when their computers are on the beach enjoying a well-earned rest from calculating the $38 billion they collected in such fees in 2009. And third, when you enter your PIN number in a debit transaction that money should disappear - and I mean really disappear - from your account the moment the electrons from the gas station engage the electrons at your bank.

One local credit union says this about the use of their debit cards:
  • Your transaction is debited from a designated checking account immediately.
I looked for the same information at Bank of America and found this:
Yeah. Nothing. Do you think they're hiding something? As sure as a one-legged duck swims in a circle you can bet they're hiding something. And while it should be their heads in shame, it's just the opposite: they're hiding their immense pride at being scum sucking bottom-feeders and making money doing it.

So what's really going on in the background at Bank of America?
Any transactions made between Friday evening at 8:01 PM and Monday evening at 7:59 PM are bunched together and posted together in size order from largest to smallest Monday night to be effective at start of business on Tuesday.
At a local credit union;
Any transactions made between Friday evening at 8:01 PM and Monday evening at 7:59 PM are bunched together and posted - in sequential order - on Monday night. Debit card swipes (referred to as PIN transactions) are debited and posted at the moment they happen. Even on weekends.
Last year the British government took a huge step in forcing banks to behave by enacting laws that require charges be applied to your account in the order in which you make them. In the example cited well above you would have received only a single overdraft fee, the one you planned for, and not for the $12 Kids Meal or the .99 stick of gum you put on your debit card. In fact, in certain circumstances the British law works even on past charges and banks have returned near $600 million to customers with valid complaints.

Here in the US, Congress, if you can believe it, had to step in to start correcting the unethical behavior banks have been practicing for far too long. For one, Congress has put some controls on the way banks charge overdraft fees which requires your permission but as far as I know they're not requiring banks to change the order in which they apply charges to your account. Some banks have made a switch to handle smaller charges first but they are still not applying them in the most logical way: the way they were made, sequentially.

Banks and the banking industry are united in their sentiment that ultimately it's the job of customers to handle their money better and that fees would never be applied if customers simply understood the bank's rules. While that seems fair on the surface, banks are also free to change the rules as they see fit without your foreknowledge and they do so as frequently as they can get away with it. And if someone in Congress gets uppity, they just buy them and continue on their merry way.

For example, just a few months ago I noticed the meager balance of my savings account had decreased by $5. I called the bank to find out that yeah, they started charging fees on those accounts if they didn't have at least one direct transfer a month into them. Didn't I read the notification? Now that account sits in the negative for which, I am sure, there will be a fee high enough to feed half of Uganda.

Fighting Back

Both Bank of America and Chase are the two worst offenders of these unethical practices and my advice is the following: unless a genuine Democracy arises from the ashes of this current system and the banking industry is regulated as they should be, pull your money from Bank of America and/or Chase and find someone else, someone who doesn't work behind the scenes to find craftier ways of immorally and unethically separating you from your money.

If you have ever had a run-in with Bank of America and you've been tricked or victimized by them, here are some email addresses that might tickle your fancy:,,,,,,,,,,,,,,
I can assure you that Bank of America is on a lot of people's minds these days and it's not in good way either. Here are just a few examples:

Washington homeowners file class action against Bank of America
Allegation: BofA took federal money, intentionally failed to meet its obligations

Bank America Loves You Too Much To Ever Let You (And Your Checking Account) Go

Bank Of America Misplaced Divorce Decree, Handed Over All My Money To Ex

From the British Petroleum Twitter feed:
MacGyver on scene – was given paper clip, drinking straw and sparkle glue.
Leak should be fixed shortly.
8:20 PM June 11th via web

Under water robots are lowering giant Mexican sombrero.
8:56 AM June 4th via web

Ultra absorbent tampon leaking, pulling string and re-strategizing.
12:29 PM May 8th via web

Bubble gum failing, switching to Big League Chew.
11:29 AM May 21st via web

Left message at Roto-Rooter, waiting for call back.
4:17 PM May 14th via web
What would happen if BP spilled a bunch of coffee on their conference room table? Click here to find out. (Not really safe for office... but it depends.)

And now, The News:

Fishkill Water Supply for 18,000 residents Threatened... by Town Government

By Michael Boyajian

The Town of Fishkill established a Master Building plan a few years back that called for maximum building in the town over a three year period.  The problem is that the plan did not take into account threats it posed to the pure water supply enjoyed by 18,000, perhaps even 55,000, people in the area going beyond Fishkill into nearby Philipstown and East Fishkill.
Local resident and environmental activist, Dr. David Eberle, reports that the Town pushed through the Master Plan allowing building plans to bypass normal procedures of going before the zoning and planning boards for approval.  According to Dr. Eberle this benefits a major donor to the local Republican Party, Montfort, which wishes to build 200 mobile homes over the source of this water supply, the Clove Creek aquifer which is a "sweet spot" in the water system.  The entire Town government is comprised of Republicans.

Dr. Eberle goes onto to say that the proposed building site is made up of a sandy loam soil mix and that the water table is just a few feet below the surface putting it at risk from contamination from road salt, pesticides and fertilizer.  Some speculate that run off from the parking might also allow radiator fluid and motor oil to leech into the aquifer further jeopardizing the drinking water of thousands.

Read More

Local Prison solar project gets top honors

TOWN OF SHAWANGUNK – A solar pilot project at the Wallkill Correctional Facility was honored as the Best New York State Government Solar Project of the Year by the New York State Solar Energy Industries Association.

The state Office of General Services “Project Sunshine” pilot aimed to harness sun power to improve energy efficiency and supply hot water to the 600-plus bed facility.

“I see this as one of many opportunities to include solar energy as part of our conservation efforts in state-run facilities,” said OGS Commissioner John Egan.

Project Sunshine is a pilot demonstration of solar technology developed by the OGS, the Department of Correctional Services, and the New York Power Authority.

The project became operational in January 2010 and utilizes evacuated tube technology to capture heat for hot water use in showers, laundries, and kitchens in the facility.

Read More

Tea Party 'patriots' misuse the flag

By Lisa Pampuch

We're in the midst of what I think of as the patriotic season - Memorial Day's just behind us, Californians are voting in a primary election today, and Flag Day and Independence Day are just ahead.

As a patriotic American - I love my country, support its enduring foundational principles, and defend those ideals with my words and deeds - this is one of my favorite seasons.

But this year, sadly, I'm hesitant about displaying patriotic symbols, especially the flag. And I blame that on the faux patriotism of tea partiers.

I disagree with almost every position that tea partiers advocate and would be horrified if anyone saw me with a flag and associated me with their terribly misguided, outrageously hypocritical, sometimes racist political agenda.

Tea partiers say that the government spends too much, but oppose defense, Medicare and Social Security spending cuts. Never mind that defense, Medicare and Social Security account for more than 60 percent of the federal government's spending.

Tea partiers say that taxes are too high (they claim that TEA stands for "taxed enough already"), but they ignore the fact that taxes are at their lowest level in 60 years.

Read More

Glenn Beck doesn't do his homework - Cites Anti-Semetic book as good example.

Last week, Glenn Beck held up a book called "The Red Network" and praised it for doing in the 1930s what he's doing now - outing communists and exposing the radical agenda they plan.

Except the author of "The Red Network" was Elizabeth Dilling. Dilling was a vocal anti-Semite, racist, supporter of Hitler, member of the German American Bund and was tried for sedition during World War II. Even after the war she was still dreaming up communist conspiracies not dissimilar to those put out by the John Birch Society (who Beck has also praised).

All of these things should have been obvious to Beck in reading "The Red Network," which has many shockingly racist and anti-Semitic passages. But nope, Beck praised the book and told his audience that he had spent all the previous night reading it.

After it came to his attention that he had promoted such a detestable author, he admitted to not looking her up, but didn't exactly retract his endorsement of "The Red Network."

Read More

Here's $1 Trillion To Cut -- From The Pentagon

When you think about ways to tame the nation's long-term deficit, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Slashing benefits for the old and sick? Or taking a few whacks at the spectacularly bloated defense budget?

The former option has, somehow, become the default position for Washington's ruling class, including President Obama's deficit commission.

But in April, a bipartisan group of iconoclasts in Congress led by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) formed their own task force to examine the latter possibility. The group of defense experts released their report on Friday, identifying nearly $1 trillion in defense budget cuts over the next 10 years that could contribute to deficit reduction "while not compromising the essential security of the United States."

Among the possible reductions cited in the report:

Read More

Pedal away! In Israel

An NIS 100 million five-year plan to create 4,900 km. of bike trails across the country was approved on Tuesday by the social-economic cabinet chaired by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz (Likud). The plan was drafted by the Tourism Ministry following a government decision from March 2008.

Biking tourism worldwide generates billions of dollars a year, the ministry said, and Israel has the potential to become a destination site for biking with the right investment.

To achieve that, the ministry will create 4,900 km. of mainly rural bike trails, mostly in the Negev and the Galilee, with connections to major population centers as well. At present, there are 600 km. of trails and another 1,400 km. under construction.

“Developing a national infrastructure for biking will contribute to the diversity of tourist options in the periphery and provide impetus for small-to-medium size businesses by creating more jobs. Close to 80 percent of the trails will be developed in the Negev and the Galilee, at a cost of NIS 40m., and there is no doubt that this investment will bear fruit both from a regional perspective and in terms of the economy in general, Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov (Israel Beiteinu) said in a statement.

Read More

Jewish, Arab kids team up for tennis competition

Coexistence program enables 90 Jewish, Arab players from across country to join forces for some court action. Communication is key when it comes to doubles tennis, says program's director

Elisabeth Galina

The Jaffa Doubles Coexistence Winter Regional Tournament, a program sponsored by the Israel Tennis Center (ITC), enabled 90 Jewish and Arab players from across the country to team up for some court action.

By using mixed tennis as a springboard, players from three ITC facilities participated in the event, the fourth in a series of distinctively structured competitions intended for the advancement of positive relations between Jewish and Arab children in Israel.

Yaniv Skira, manager of ITC Beersheba, whose team was joined by players from Jerusalem and Jaffa, told the media that most of the kids usually do not spend much time playing doubles so two months of training was required to prepare for the tournament. The kids were taught doubles tactics, communication and given lots of positive reinforcement.

Read More

Woman Sees Her Home Confiscated Over a Water Bill

Vicki Valentine lost the two-story brick row home after the city sold her debt to investors through a contentious and byzantine legal process called a "tax sale."

One raw day in early February, Vicki Valentine stood by helplessly as real estate investors snatched her West Baltimore home over what began with an unpaid city water bill of $362.

As snow threatened to fall, she watched a work crew hired by the new owners punch out the lock on her front door. A sheriff’s deputy was on the scene while Valentine and her teenage son piled whatever they could into a borrowed car.

Running out of time, Valentine scrambled to pack up clothing and mementos.The home had been her family’s for nearly three decades, and her father had paid off the mortgage in 1984. “It’s hard to say goodbye to this house,” she said. “It’s like someone forcing you out of something that belongs to you. I don’t get it.”

Valentine lost the two-story brick row home after the city sold her debt to investors through a contentious and byzantine legal process called a “tax sale.” This little-known type of foreclosure can enrich investors as growing numbers of property owners struggle to pay their bills.

These foreclosed homeowners are not the families making headlines for taking on mortgages they could ill afford. Families ensnared in the tax sale sometimes are unable to overcome relatively small debts owed to local tax collectors.

Read More

Toxoplasmosis and psychology: A game of cat and mouse

IF AN alien bug invaded the brains of half the population, hijacked their neurochemistry, altered the way they acted and drove some of them crazy, then you might expect a few excitable headlines to appear in the press. Yet something disturbingly like this may actually be happening without the world noticing.

Toxoplasma gondii is not an alien; it is a relative of that down-to-earth pathogen Plasmodium, the beast that causes malaria. It is common: in some parts of the world as much as 60% of the population is infected with it. And it can harm fetuses and people with AIDS, because in each case their immune systems cannot cope with it. For other people, though, the symptoms are usually no worse than a mild dose of flu. Not much for them to worry about, then. Except that there is a growing body of evidence that some of those people have their behaviour permanently changed.

One reason to suspect this is that a country’s level of Toxoplasma infection seems to be related to the level of neuroticism displayed by its population. Another is that those infected seem to have poor reaction times and are more likely to be involved in road accidents. A third is that they have short attention spans and little interest in seeking out novelty. A fourth, possibly the most worrying, is that those who suffer from schizophrenia are more likely than those who do not to have been exposed to Toxoplasma.

Nor is any of this truly surprising. For, besides humans, Toxoplasma has two normal hosts: rodents and cats. And what it does to rodents is very odd indeed.

Read More

Are You Smarter Than a George Mason University Economics Professor?

by Nate Silver

I first came across this study by George Mason University's Daniel Klein and Zogby International's Zeljka Buturovic, which appeared as a journal article in Econ Journal Watch, which Klein edits, in a link at Tyler Cowen's site several weeks ago. Cowen links to about a dozen interesting pieces every day, and I thought Klein's study was so obviously flawed that it wasn't really worth commenting on. But now it has re-appeared in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, with the somewhat non-sequitur title, "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?".

Here's what Klein and Buturovic did. They took a survey using one of Zogby's internet panels, which is by far the worst polling instrument that they could have selected. The panel was not weighted and was not in balance. For example, McCain led Obama 49-43 among respondents to the survey, even though roughly the opposite outcome was observed in the actual election -- and only about 4 percent of the respondents were Hispanic and only 39 percent were female. Then they asked 16 "questions of basic economics", as the Journal's sub-head describes them, and arbitrarily included eight of them in their analysis but threw the other eight out.

Read More

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