Monday, November 24, 2014

Sideways, Backwards, and .....

I watched the last half of the movie Sideways today.  A particular scene struck me.  If you don't know the movie, it would take too much time to describe it, but it a nutshell it is about life, with a side of wine.  The scene in question involves two of the main characters, a male and female, who have spent time together with another couple but not time together, alone.  It is a typical give and take scene involving two people feeling our their way at the start of a possible relationship.  At one point, the male character asks the female why she is so interested in wine.  Her response is a series of statements, more than a few which begin with "it makes me think about".  It is a very reflective answer, one perhaps not all that common in real life, as so many of us delay truly describing the things in life that make us think, move us, make us, let alone revealing them on a first date.  I've seen this movie many times, yet today was the first time I was moved to reflect on that scene.  One of the many "it makes me think about" was that wine makes her think about the people who tended the grapes, bottled them, participated in all the phases of the wine making process, and about the fact that if it was an aged bottle of wine, many of those people may be dead.  The connections of our lives between the past, the present, and the future can be very humbling, very inspiring, very educational.


The past week's votes in the United States House of Representatives, included a bill which would negate specific rulemakings by the EPA unless all data from underlying scientific studies, including confidential health information about participants, has been make publicly available.   Proponents claimed this was necessary to provide transparency in the EPA (again Republican's ability to frame the topic to sound reasonable), while in reality it was another in a series of GOP attempts to strip the EPA of its ability to protect the environment.  Opponents cited some specific air quality related studies that enable the EPA to administer its oversight of the Clean Air Act as studies being targeted in this bill.  Curiously, an amendment to the bill sponsored by Dems was not passed.  It would have exempted EPA actions which might be taken to combat health threats to drinking water resulting from a nuclear or terrorist attack, or to approve Ebola disinfectants.  One must wonder why the GOP thought these concerns not worthy or passing. 


Another GOP sponsored bill which passed is meant to reshape the EPA's scientific advisory board to make it more industry friendly for those industries that the EPA regulates.  The bill would diminish academic representation and expand corporate membership, permit experts with financial ties to the industries regulated if they disclose their ties.  A democratic amendment to bar representatives who have financial ties to the industries regulated was summarily defeated.  I doesn't take much thought to conclude that by having less non-scientific and more industry related board members may result in an EPA less concerned about health and more concerned about profit.  


As a side note, these bills will not pass in the Senate as they stand.  Not just because the Senate is controlled by the Dems, but because nothing passes in the Senate without 60 votes as is obvious from two Senate bills which featured tallies of 58-42, and 59-41 where each was defeated as they didn't reach the 60 vote supermajority.  Not sure when this rule came into effect, why the Senate cannot pass bills when a simple majority is reached, but it reflects the gridlock in effect in Washington today.  I know the 60 vote is meant to keep the majority party in power from running roughshod over the minority party, but it seems to be stalling legislation that might be beneficial.  I have heard some pundits say that this supermajority rule is a more recent phenomenon, in that it is in effect much more than in the past.  The GOP certainly will use any and all methods to prevent the Obama Administration from passing anything, but in this case one of the above mentioned votes concerned the Keystone Pipeline.  I guess it is another example of being careful what you wish for, you might get it, as the GOP wants nothing passed but that nothing now includes bills they support.


What truly irritates me is this lack of connection between the past environmental disasters that have occurred in the United States, the success of the EPA to reign in so much of the pollution, air, water and ground, that would occur if businesses had no oversight, and the apparent backwards tilt of the GOP in thinking that, if left un-regulated, businesses would do any better at containing their methods of pollution than they did in the age of acid rain, Love Canal, etc.  It is especially short sighted when one factors in the incredible profit margin mentality that runs all large corporations, and has resulted in the shipping of jobs overseas to save labor, the fight against increasing minimum wages, and the delusional admiration of the government run Chinese economy where environmental regulations are non-existent, and the concern for the health of the environment and the people is ignored. 


As for ..., well, I maintain a belief that man in general, and Americans in particular will lose interest in looking backwards, will become more financially solvent that they can stop moving sideways, and might realize that forward thinking is not just being open to the latest I-phone or virtual reality device, but a construct that understands the past and its lessons, applies those lessons to present day issues, and proposes solutions that account for the ever changing nature of the world, the ever changing nature of man.    


Monday, November 17, 2014

Immigration

I continue to be popular in Norway; 400 hits in the past week, more than from any other country by far.  No specific post is being hit more than others, and those being hit do not seem to have any common theme.  Not sure if America's immigration woes are shared with Norway, but I welcome any comments from a Norwegian if interested.


Before delving into the current immigration debate, I want to review the recent election results.  Clearly, the American people sent a clear message to the president and the democrats that they are not happy with the current state of the union.  With the stock market at record territory, unemployment back to pre-recession levels, GDP growth at its highest since 2004-2005, and very little loss of American life in overseas wars, its no wonder that the electorate is prime for a change.


Oh, that's right.  None of this news is broadcast on Fox channels.  Even Fox business news with Lou Dobbs glances over the actual state of business and talks politics and how bad the Obama Administration is handling, name your topic.  Crime is down, especially violent crime, yet we are told to be fearful on a daily basis.  More people have health insurance now, yet the Affordable Care Act is ruining America. 


The one true number that is troubling Americans, is take home pay.  While the top 1% has seen tremendous growth in their spending power, share of income, and actual wealth, the middle class has not yet felt that surge in spending power.  In real dollars, the average worker has barely kept even with inflation, if at all.  Fortunately, gas prices in specific, and energy prices in general have decreased - when they were up, Obama was blamed on FOX, but I guess that is a one-way street for them - but sadly, sales for trucks and cars with low mpg ratings have begun to rise -  Ugh. 


Fortunately, the GOP has many proposals in the pipeline to address low pay for Americans.  Debates about income inequality, minimum wage increases, equal pay for equal work are all hallmarks of the GOP economic platform, which is why they increased their majority in Washington, as well as in many states.  What, you say, they are against all those measures?  Well, then surely, a drive to limit tax breaks for the wealthiest individuals and corporations must be at the top of their agenda?  After all, when the wealthiest pay less, the rest of us have to pay more.  No, they are against those measures too?  So, what you are saying is that the one area where our economy is lagging, take home pay for the average worker, is the exact area where the newly elected majority has worked the hardest to keep the status quo, and to enhance the position of those with the most.  Hmm. 


Which brings us to immigration.  (Sorry it took so long).  The president has promised to use executive action to change immigration law in this country.  Understandably, the GOP controlled House and soon to be Senate are apoplectic.   The fact that a bipartisan immigration reform measure passed the Senate but died in the House doesn't seem to matter.  However, I do agree that the president should not act alone in this important area, just as I agree that the president should not be able to wage war without Congressional approval.  The problem is, since Obama is evil and everything he does, thinks and proposes reflects his hatred of America, the GOP has no other option but to either disagree with him, or do nothing when they agree, as you can't agree with the views of someone as vile as they have portrayed him. 


Common sense dictates that you can't round up the 11 million illegal immigrants now in America without creating some kind of paramilitary organization that would supersede local and state police jurisdiction, and most likely violate the fourth amendment regarding unlawful search and seizures.  Common sense also dictates that people who came to the United States illegally, should not be granted citizenship just because they are here now.  Therefore, it seems prudent for the president to stay within the boundaries of these two common sense tenants.  Remove the threat of deportation for those who have not committed a crime other than illegal entry while continuing to deport those deemed undesirable.  Make some type of registration necessary to avoid deportation, which should not only give the registrants some peace of mind, but help us track down those employers who have taken advantage of illegals via poor working conditions and meager pay while also circumventing their requirement to pay the appropriate taxes for these workers (or hire Americans).  Grant citizenship to those born in America (the Dream Act or some new version of it) but whose parents are illegal.  And, budget an agreeable increase in securing the border, via a larger barrier, more patrols, etc so that those attempting entry in the future are less apt to succeed.


Is this a perfect plan?  No.  Will it keep out all illegals forever?  No.  But is does give those here already, a chance to emerge from hiding, pay taxes, and participate in some of the advantages of America, without granting them citizenship which would reward their crime.  It also throws a bone to the far right in terms of making a better effort to close our borders more tightly.  And, if Obama is smart, he will make his executive order law only if nothing is passed in the House and Senate within a certain time table, say 6 months to a year.  The good news is that an executive order will movre the debate forward, allow the GOP to create their own bill, and give the American public some type of evidence that the GOP and the president can act as adults in attempting to resolve the issue.


Finally, for those of you unfamiliar with executive orders, feel free to click on the following link


http://www.archives.gov/federal-register/executive-orders/disposition.html


It will show you a summary of the presidents and the executive orders they have signed since Hoover.  You will notice that Obama has signed just under 200 such orders, Bush 2 just under 300 in his two terms.  Bush 1 and Ford were low instance users.  Reagan signed about twice as many as Obama, Hoover and Truman signed almost 1000 each, and Franklin Roosevelt was the king of the executive order signing over 3400 in his 3+ terms.  I would suggest that perhaps those arguing the loudest against Obama's use of the executive order should propose a law limiting or making illegal such orders but even the GOP is not that shortsighted in knowing that when a future Republican is elected president, they would not want to limit his/her power.        


 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Anyone for a loan?

Our household receives credit offers on a daily basis.  If I am in the process of moving a low interest credit card debt which is about to have a rate change to a new low interest card, I will open some, but mostly I toss them in the trash.  Today, I happened to open one as it was from a local "lending" agency that I did not recognize, and I wondered at the offer.


Imagine my surprise when I read the following;




                                                      You could borrow $4250
                  for just $156.93 per month for 42 months at 26.77% APR




The advert included other phrases such as "Get the money you need at a payment you can afford", and "A better alternative.  Unlike payday loans, you'll have months (not weeks) to pay back your loan".


Now, there was a caution that "this is not a guaranteed offer".  I assume that only the best of those with the worst credit possible would be approved. 


Still, my mind flew in all sorts of directions when I read this mailing.  I seethed, I boiled, I threw it in the trash.  Then, I fished it out of the trash and called the number listed.  My call was answered by the person named on the letter.  I read the offer to him, emphasizing the 26.77 % APR.  He began to explain that it must have been a corporate created offer, but, to be honest, I didn't let him finish his explanation.  I told him that his offer was predatory, should be illegal and that if I had the power I would close his business tomorrow, then I hung up.


I know, not very nice but at a time when big banks are able to borrow money to lend America at historically low rates, less than 1%, I was outraged.  The fact that the tag line for the company is "lending made personal", makes it all the more outrageous.  After all, what could be more personal that paying almost $7000 for a loan of $4250?? 


Well, you might say, these loans are for people with bad credit and a history of not repaying their debts whereas the big banks have collateral and always pay back their debts.  I guess so, unless one recalls the great economic meltdown of 2008 when so many of the big financial companies needed taxpayer money to keep them afloat!


I am not sure when loan sharking became legal, but I imagine that it coincided with the ability of the biggest moneyed interests to write the laws of America (through groups like ALEC) so that these type of predatory loan practices are condoned.  Crazily, it is these very kind of lending companies doling out money at ridiculous interest rates who will keep those with the least resources toiling at the bottom of the economic ladder, or default sending ripples up and through the rest of the financial community as, I am sure, these scum sucking lending companies are getting their money through a more legitimate lender; or both. 


I will be saving this offer, and, once the new Pennsylvania legislature takes office, sending a copy to my state and local rep asking them to create legislation limiting consumer interest rate offers in my state to a rate that less predatory, perhaps even Christian. 


Finally, now that my son is 6 months out of college, it is time for our family, my son on his own, and my wife and I, to begin repayment of his college loans.  My son has the typical Stafford Subsidized and Unsubsidized loans, ranging in interest rates from middle 3% to 6%.  I won't say how much my wife and I borrowed but it would have purchased a really nice car.  (The kind of car we will never buy for ourselves).  You might call us crazy, borrowing on our own to send him to college, but I still believe that a college education is worth the money, despite the fact that college tuition prices are ridiculous and that if they continue to rise, the next generation of middle class Americans may not be able to send their kids to college.  What irks me, is not the debt itself, but the fact that the Parent Plus interest rate is 7.9%.  Compare that to mortgage rates in the high 2 to upper 3% range, and car loans in the 0-2% range, and it is clear where our priorities lie.  And, by the way, for the Parent Plus loans, the interest began accumulating from the day the money was borrowed. 


If I were king, I would consider education loans an investment in the future, and charge little or no interest.  So, again, once the new federal legislators convene next January, I will be contacting my representative and senator to fashion legislation that delays interest rate accumulation for all loans for education until graduation or departure from college, and to tie interest rates to the prevalent lending rates of the day, perhaps the same rates that big banks get. 


If, you feel similarly, please act upon your feelings and contact your state and federal representatives. And, in the meantime, I will keep an ear out for comments from our elected public servants when discussing education, paying for education, and funding education. 
   

Monday, November 3, 2014

PA Governor's Race

My blog has received an inordinate number of overseas hits this past month.  In fact, for the past 30 days, more people have accessed by blog from the United Kingdom than the United States.  And, this past week, Norway was the source of the most hits by country.  Not sure why these occasional foreign blasts of interest occur but it is interesting and for October, this interest pushed me over 2000 hits for the month.  Thanks to all, American and non-American, who continue to express interest in my writing.


I read an interesting article recently comparing the positions of the two men on the ballot to be the next governor of Pennsylvania.  There were a number of issues detailed, most of which I sided with Tom Wolf, the challenger.  There were a couple for which I understood the perspective of the incumbent, Tom Corbett, but did not believe that his ideas would fix the underlying problem.


So, you might say, that just makes me a liberal, a democrat.  I guess.  But I wonder if all those people who will vote for Corbett tomorrow actually agree with his opinions.  Assuming Wolf wins 55-45, or even 54-46, do those 45-46% of the voters actually agree with Corbett that


women's access to birth control in general, and abortion in specific, should be restricted


consenting adults can not marry the person they love


those earning below $10 an hour shouldn't be paid a livable wage


all working Americans shouldn't have access to health insurance


women should earn the same pay for the same work


the energy industry, specifically those in the natural gas business, shouldn't pay higher fees for the right to extract the natural resources of our state


better background checks for gun purchases, and the requirement that gun owners report the theft of their gun are bad ideas


medical marijuana should continue to be unavailable to those for whom a doctor believes it will help, and that the possession of small amounts of marijuana (under an ounce) should remain illegal


big business and corporations should pay less taxes


the death penalty should be continued to be used in Pennsylvania


climate change may or may not be happening but it is better to pretend it isn't and continue to depend on fossil fuels for our energy needs


Perhaps, most of those 46% agree with most of these opinions, or at least enough to vote for Corbett.  But I can't help wondering if many of those 46% do not know the position of Corbett on these issues, but who vote Republican because they always vote Republican.  And, of course, this can be expanded to all those people who will vote Republican so that they gain the majority in the US Senate, a bigger majority in the US House, and majorities in state congresses all over America.  Am I really that left of the rest of America?  Or does the American electorate continue to vote against their best interests by electing members of a party that does all they can to continue the gradual distribution of income to the 1% and away from the American middle class.  Who talk about keeping government out of our lives bet really mean keep government out of the business community only, but full stream ahead when it comes to government in the bedroom or regulating womens' bodies.  Who enact laws that make it harder to vote rather than easier.


I wonder.