News Corp, General Electric, and the Death of Objectivity

Borrowing a tradition from the government of pre-revolution France, journalism has often been called the Fourth Estate of society – the first being the clergy, the second being the nobility (government), and the third being the public at large. Journalism is most useful when it is separate from each of the previous three estates – although it is not an opponent of either the clergy or the government, it is at its best when it is free from the influence of either. For journalism to be objective and credible, it needs to be able to report on the flaws and failings of the other estates. In a sense, it protects the public from the machinations of the clergy and the nobility.

But what happens when the lines blur?

Recently, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, parent company to Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, donated one million dollars to the Republican Governor’s Association, an organization devoted to promoting the election and interests of state governors who affiliate themselves with the Republican Party. Fox News is, of course, home of Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Bill O’Reilly, all of which devote the vast majority (if not the entirety) of their programs preaching the virtues of conservatism and casting aspersions on liberals to a degree that approaches self-parody. Guest speakers advancing liberal viewpoints are occasionally present, but invariably dismissed as socialists, well-meaning simpletons, or simply shouted down.

Keith Olbermann, an MSNBC news anchor and longtime devoted rival of Fox News and its stars, reported on this shortly afterward, mentioning in the interests of full disclosure that General Electric, the parent company of MSNBC, had donated $105,000 to the RGA – along with an identical amount to the Democratic Governor’s Association. The fact that both amounts were identical was presented as an example of fairness and equality. According to CNN, those numbers are not entirely accurate – in the current election cycle, GE has donated $237,000 to the DGA compared with $205,000 to the RGA. Thirty-two thousand dollars, spread across an entire nation’s worth of funding, is a small enough amount so that it could be argued to be irrelevant – but even if Olbermann was accurate, that’s not the real problem – the problem is that news organizations and their parent companies are financially supporting political parties in the first place.

For a news agency to be taken seriously, its statements and commentary must be assumed to be objective. For objectivity to exist, it must be known that the person or agency making the statement be free from conflicts of interest or other forms of outside influence. For a person or a company to make a donation, especially one so large, to any person or group implies that the target of the donation is tacitly endorsed by the donator. You don’t give money to a charity that supports something you disapprove of, after all. Therefore, it can be reasoned that when news organizations donate money to a political party, they are expressing their endorsement and approval of the beliefs and activities of that party. This is the very definition of bias. If a news agency is biased, they cannot be trusted to provide honest, objective commentary on the target of their bias, just as you can’t ask a person about their lover’s personal problems and expect anything resembling an honest answer.

That Fox News is biased toward the Republican party is beyond question. MSNBC’s bias toward the Democratic Party is questionable as GE is not solely or even mostly a news organization, but it is still a troubling revelation. That mass media in general is at the whim and mercy of government or corporate interests is the horrible reality that lies at the root of the whole problem. The only saving grace is that at least many entirely different people and agencies are serving their interests by buying and selling the mass media, so there is often truth to be found by comparing the reports of rival news agencies and seeing where they agree – and more importantly, where they do not.

So where does this leave the person seeking truth? Nonprofit news organizations (a draft list can be found here:http://www.hks.harvard.edu/hauser/engage/artsculturemedia/nonprofit-news-organizations/index.html ) are not guaranteed to be free from outside influence, but as they have no shareholders to serve and no profits to worry about, chances are much better that they will be much freer from bias – or at least be honest and forthright about their bias. Nonprofit news organizations range from the tiny to the titanic, spreading their message everywhere from talk radio to the internet and everywhere in between. As I’ve written many times before, though, you should never depend on any one person or group to be your sole source of news and information – because to do so is to allow that one source to do your thinking for you as well.

Glenn Beck Is An Asshole

Caught a clip of Glenn Beck’s program thanks to the good people at Crooks & Liars (linkhttp://crooksandliars.com/karoli/glenn-beck-99ers-i-bet-youd-be-ashamed-call) and, after stomping around my home a little while, came to a conclusion stunning in its obviousness: Glenn Beck is an asshole.

On the surface, this seems a revelation on par with the observation of the liquid state of a solution of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, but there’s more to it than that. Glenn Beck REALLY IS an asshole.

The asshole, being the tail end of the alimentary canal, is where used food and other waste products leave the body after having had the nutrients and other useful materials extracted from them. Toxic substances which should never have been ingested in the first place are also often expelled from the body here. Though disgusting, the asshole is a necessary part of the body: the waste has to go SOMEWHERE, after all, and if it were not for the anal sphincter giving the body control over when and where to expel its waste, it would simply dribble out of the body as it was produced. Hardly sanitary.

Now let us apply this concept to the realm of political discourse: You start with an idea or a concept. The idea is consumed, its useful components extracted and utilized, and then it quietly dies. Except not really – ideas never really die, they are either maintained and cared for, or they become horrible shambling caricatures of the ideals they once expressed. Eventually, the idea and those who support it are so far removed from the original idea that they are barely recognizable – as far estranged from each other as a golden cob of buttery deliciousness, and a pale yellow husk sticking out of a lump of excrement.

Take something like the concept of the self-made man: At its heart, you have the idea that each man is the captain of his own destiny, that no person is so low that they can not pull themselves up to whatever success they deem worthy, that each person need depend only on him or herself to help them make it. It’s a noble sentiment, and has many good and useful concepts to it: Yes, each person should do their very best to succeed (for individual values of ‘succeed’). Yes, the most significant contributor to the fate of a person is that person themselves. Yes, when you are failing at your personal goals, or when you are needy, that is when you apply greater effort than ever before.

But there are false and harmful concepts there too: the idea that outside circumstances are meaningless is false. The idea that a person can see to their own needs without assistance from others is false and in many cases harmful (by that logic, those who are unemployed should not be allowed to live past the point where their savings allow them food or shelter).

So after digestion and excretion, we are left with what is called by many as the BOOTSTRAPS! concept: that the main reason so many people are poor is that they simply lack ambition or a strong work ethic, that those who make use of or depend upon unemployment or other social services are weak or lazy, and that those who suffer under circumstances making it difficult for them to succeed can simply ignore those circumstances and overcome them through sheer force of will.

The more the idea is digested and redigested, regurgitated, chewed, and re-swallowed, the more the eventual result has had its good and useful parts replaced with foul and toxic concepts. The more a piece of food is processed and chewed and digested and artificially preserved or any other form of altering, the more the eventual result has had its natural nutrients replaced with artificial ones, its textural nuances replaced with uniform easily-chewed blandness, its flavor only barely reminiscent of that of its original ingredient.

The problem arises when people confuse the two: Subsisting on a diet of only processed convenience food will make you ill, and subsisting on a diet of intellectual waste will sicken your mind and poison your spirit. Man cannot live on beef jerky and potato chips alone, nor can getting your ideas and opinions from a spewing asshole like Glenn Beck lead to a strong and healthy mind.

Glenn Beck fills a necessary role in media: He is the asshole, the spewer of digested ideas and diseased concepts, so that we as a society can look upon the effluvia that comes out of our collective consciousness and examine it for signs of trauma or disease. Unfortunately, he markets himself as a source of intellectual nutrition and, for those who don’t bother to read nutrition labels or other warnings, drops a steaming pile of mental cholera into the brains and hearts of untold numbers of the population.

There is nothing wrong with being an asshole – in fact, an asshole is necessary – but never, ever confuse a pile of bullshit with a sirloin steak.

the protection racket

Most, if not all, revolving credit providers (credit cards, home equity loans, etc) offer an account protection product where, for a fee, your account is protected in the event you lose your job or get disabled or something.  Generally, the protection takes one of two forms:  Either the service will cancel your debt in full up to a cap, or your payments will be deferred for a while.  The charge for this service is usually based on your average daily balance, NOT your end-of-cycle billed balance.  There are definitely benefits to account protection services, but there are also some pretty nasty pitfalls that I’m going to try to shed a little light on in this article.

First, the two basic types of protection.  Debt cancellation is the better of the two, since after the qualifying event, your debt simply goes away (again, often up to a maximum amount.)  Something to check on for this type is what exactly happens in the event of a payoff:

  • How soon after the qualifying event does the payoff happen?  Some debt cancellation products will make you wait one or two billing cycles before the payoff, and you’re still on the hook for payments in the meantime.
  • What is the form of the payoff?  Is it a direct account credit or do they mail you a check?  Direct credit is good because it Just Plain Happens, whereas sending you a check means you have to worry about it being lost in the mail, transit time, depositing it in a bank, moving the money from the account it was deposited to to the account you’re paying off, etc.
  • What happens to the account after the payoff? Is it left open (great!) or is it closed? (hrm.)  If it’s closed, is it reported to the credit bureau as closed in good standing, or closed as a collections payoff?  Either way your credit score is going to go down, but showing the account as closed in good standing hurts your score SIGNIFICANTLY less.

Payment deferral is less useful.  In a nutshell, after a qualifying event, your debt stays put, but you don’t have to make payments for a while.  Common things to look out for:

  • How are the deferred payments handled?  Is an amount equivalent to your minimum payment due credited to your account each month (great!) or are you just not required to send in a payment?
  • In the case of the latter, what happens with finance charges in the meantime?  Are the finance charges accruing silently in the background, then added to the account in a lump at the end of the deferral period?
  • Are you able to use the account during the deferral period, and if so, will that shorten the deferral period, interrupt finance charge deferral, or cause any other fees or penalties?
  • Are there any conditions that can cause the deferral period to be shortened or cancelled?  For instance, if the qualifying event is a job loss, and you start a part-time job while you look for full-time work, will that interim income (though it was never intended to replace your lost job) end the deferral period?

Second, read up on the qualifying events CAREFULLY.  Commonly, qualifying events include stuff like losing a job, becoming hospitalized for a minimum amount of time, or becoming permanently disabled.  Others may also cover taking a leave of absence from your job, death, death/job loss/disabling of another household member, etc.  Read the fine print to find out EXACTLY what is covered.  Gotchas include:

  • Are all types of job loss covered?  Some plans will not trigger a payoff or deferral if you get fired for cause instead of getting laid off.
  • How long do you have to be hospitalized?  Shorter is better here, 7-14 days is reasonable.  More than that is questionable, and protection plans requiring you to be hospitalized for a month or more are patently ridiculous.
  • Are there any restrictions or limitations on the reason behind your hospitalization, or the particular type?  For instance, if you’re hospitalized for a couple weeks due to complications from an elective procedure, does that ‘not count’ because it all started with the elective?

Third, the cost for account protection products is often expressed as a function of your average daily balance.  This is significantly different from your end-of-cycle billed balance, so be aware of this.  For instance, say you buy $3,000.00 worth of furniture on the first of the month, and pay it off in full on the 15th of that month.  At the end of the month, your billed balance is zero, but your average daily balance is $1,500.00.  If it’s paid off the day after it was charged, though, the average daily balance would only be $100.00.  Keep your average daily balance low by paying off your account as quickly as possible.  Note that some accounts will limit how many payments you can make in a month (there is actually a good reason for this, high ‘churn’ can be a symptom of money laundering) so this might have an effect on how soon you can pay off your balance.

Fourth, ‘blackout periods’ may occur.  For instance, you might be unable to file a claim for 30-60 days after the start of the account protection service so you don’t try to sneak in a claim after the fact.  The blackout period may vary by the type of qualifying event or claims may be limited on a sliding scale based on their proximity to the start of the account protection service.

Finally, read the fine print.  There are a number of pitfalls I haven’t thought of, and I’m sure there’s a number of lawyers devoted to thinking up new ones.  Read the fine print, and ask about anything you do not understand.  If you don’t get a satisfactory answer, walk away.

In the long run, account protection services are a gamble.  You’re spending a little money to save a lot in case something bad happens.  If nothing bad happens, then the money you spent is gone with no return on the investment – whether you think that’s wasted is up to you.  Personally, if the price is low enough and there aren’t too many loopholes rendering the service useless, I think it’s worth it.  Think of it as health insurance for your credit card.  When it comes in handy, it comes in REALLY handy.

finance law, part four

PART FOUR: THE CREDIT CARD ACT OF 2009 – THE CREDIT CARD ACCOUNTABILITY RESPONSIBILITY AND DISCLOSURE ACT

I. WHAT?

The Credit CARD Act of 2009 was enacted to standardize fair business practices among credit card issuers.  Different parts of the bill take effect at different times to give the industry time to make the necessary changes.  An underlying theme among all the changes is transparency, so as long as you’re being a good customer and READING YOUR STATEMENTS (this is in all-caps because I cannot stress enough how important it is to read your statements) there will be no surprises.

II. HUH?

Like I said, this is rolling out in four steps.  The bill was signed on May 22, 2009 with different parts coming effective at 90 days, 9 months, and 15 months after enactment.  There are also changes to Reg Z / UDAP coming on July 1, 2010, but those will be mentioned in an upcoming article.

On August 20, 2009, the following changes were effective:

  • Payment due dates must be at least 21 days after the statement is mailed, and cannot be considered late if they arrive before 5:00 PM EST.  If the regular due date falls on a holiday or weekend, and the payment arrives the next business day, the payment cannot be considered late.  If this is ignored, then the bank cannot charge a late fee.  (Note: They count the date it was MAILED, not the date it was RECEIVED. If your mail service is slow, or you worry a bill might get lost, it’s worth calling your financial institution a few days after the statement prints (also known as your ‘cycle date’, this should be the same day every month) and getting the basic details – or signing up for paperless billing if your financial institution offers it.)
  • Customers must be given a minimum of 45 days notice of any change in terms of their account, including APR changes, delinquency penalties, or any other significant change in terms.
  • Customers must be given an opportunity to opt out of the account changes, though this usually means the closure of their account.

With many accounts, due dates will have changed.  Keep an eye on your statements (I’m going to be beating this drum a lot – if you’re not reading your statements, you lose a lot of information and a lot of ability to take care of problems.  Read your statements.) so there won’t be any surprises.

On February 22, 2010, the following changes will be effective:

  • Repricing (changing the APR) of existing balance can not be done outside of a few specific circumstances, such as:
    • In response to late payments – an APR can be raised to a ‘delinquency rate’ if a payment is received more than 30 days after the due date.  If the balance is repriced in this way, however, there’s a mandatory 6 month ‘cure’ period – 6 consecutive months of on-time payments, and the APR must go down to what it was before.
    • In response to an index – many banks have variable APR accounts where the APR is expressed as ‘prime plus X%’ or whatever, where your APR is calculated as a function of a different value, usually the Federal Prime Rate.  Thus, if the Prime Rate fluctuates, your APR will as well.
    • Introductory rates – many banks will offer an introductory rate that is significantly lower than their normal rate.  This is permissible only if it is clearly disclosed that this is a temporary rate, when that rate will expire, and what the regular rate will be after the expiration of the introductory rate.
    • After the first year on new activity only – After an account has been open for one full year, a financial institution may increase the APR on NEW ACTIVITY ONLY after giving 45 days notice and the option to opt out of the APR change.  ‘New activity only’ means that the increased APR can not be applied to balances or charges on the account before the effective date of the APR change.
  • Payments in excess of the minimum payment due must either go toward the highest APR balance first (typically cash advances) or split ‘pro rata’ among all balances – this means in proportion to the balance.  If, for instance, you have a total balance of $100, which contains three balances – balance A at $20, balance B at $30, and balance C at $50, then once the minimum payment is satisfied, 20% of the remainder would go to A, 30% to B, and 50% to C.
  • Over-limit authorizations will be handled as an opt-in service instead of an opt-out service.  Basically, this means that by default, when you hit your credit limit, your card will stop working.  Previously, many financial institutions would allow you to keep making purchases past your credit limit, and then charge extra over-limit fees for those purchases – even if you weren’t aware that you had exceeded your credit limit.  Once this takes effect, you  will have to specifically give consent to your financial institution in order for the purchases to be approved (and fee charged).
  • Statements must have a due date that is the same each month.
  • Payment fees can only be assessed for expedited service handled by a live representative of the lender, not for automated payments under any circumstances (phone, internet, etc).
  • Applicants under the age of 21 must have a cosigner or be able to show proof of independent means to show that they are able to make payments on their account.
  • Warnings must be included with statements advising the effects of paying only the minimum amount due – specifically, that it will take a very long time to pay off the account.
  • Promotional rates or introductory rates can not expire in less than six months.
  • Financial institutions must make the terms and conditions documents available on the internet.

III. WHY?

Basically, the Credit CARD Act of 2009 was designed to put a stop to certain practices and methods used by some financial institutions that are, put simply, exploitative.  The Act requires clearer disclosure, more fair terms, reasonable and consistent due dates, and requires financial institutions to consider an individual’s ability to pay the account off when deciding whether to extend credit.  This will make it a little harder to get credit accounts or to get higher credit limits, but it will also make it a LOT harder to get in over your head with credit.

IV. WHAT ELSE?

This isn’t an exhaustive summary.  There are other parts of the Act that come effective at different times, and some parts that depend on future findings – for instance, there’s a bit that requires that fees and penalties be ‘fair, reasonable, and proportional to the violation’ but specifies that a limit is not yet defined but will be further discussed.

V. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN TO ME?

It’s going to be harder for you to get into trouble with credit – but not impossible.  Generally, if you read the fine print on your terms and conditions document, and read your statements, and ask about stuff you don’t understand, you’ll be okay.  When in doubt, call and ask.

sorry

Life happened so it’s been tough to find time to write.  I’ve got a few articles in the draft stage, though, including one on the FDCPA (Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, which governs the behavior of collection agencies) that I’m pretty excited about.  Stay tuned.

labor day ain’t just barbecue

WHat Labor Day Means To Me
Today’s Labor Day.  For a lot of people this means a three day weekend and a sale on beer at the grocery store.  It’s a little more meaningful to me, and it bugs the hell out of me that this holiday isn’t given more respect.  LET ME TELL YOU WHY
Way way waaay back in the days of the Industrial Revolution, conditions for laborers and ‘unskilled’ (I will come back to this, I HATE that term) workers were abhorrent.  They were overworked and underpaid – and not in the sense you or I have even the slightest capability of comprehending these days, try 16-20 hour days for pennies an hour, just enough money to keep them from starving to death TOO quickly.  Workplace safety was a joke, indentured servitude was barely considered questionable, and as long as a child was old enough to follow basic instructions, they were put to work.  If a laborer complained of the poor conditions and frequent hazards, they were laughed off and fired at the best or beaten (or occasionally murdered) at the worst.  Some workers weren’t even paid in actual money, they were paid in ‘company scrip’ which was only usable at the company store.
This system worked GREAT for the owners and management of the factories and whatnot (the ‘bosses’) but obviously pretty crappy for the laborers.  It took a lot of hard work and sacrifice for that system to change to something a little more equal (though we’re not 100% there yet, sadly), and Labor Day is meant to honor those who gave so much so you and I could enjoy a more fair workplace today.
I want to stress a word from that last paragraph.  Sacrifice.  I’m not talking about just taking time out for long meetings or having to go without cable TV for a few months.  Big Bill Haywood, one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World, was one of 165 union leaders arrested in September 1917 and convicted under a shaky interpretation of the Espionage Act.  He fled the country he had fought so hard to protect and died in exile in the Soviet Union in 1928.
Wesley Everest, also a member of the IWW and an US Army veteran from World War I who was captured in the same raids that captured Big Bill, was turned over to a lynch mob by prison guards.  The mob (largely composed of paid agents of the businesses that lost profits by no longer being able to exploit their workers thanks to the union’s efforts) smashed his teeth out with a rifle butt, cut out his genitals, hanged three different times in three different places (thankfully, he died at this step), where his body was beaten some more, shot to pieces, and generally abused in any way you care to think of.  The report from the coroner’s office ruled his death as a suicide.
Countless other union leaders, community organizers, and other people trying to make life better for working men and women were threatened, beaten, and brutally murdered for their efforts.  Joe Hill was executed by the state of Utah based on only circumstantial evidence on a murder trial.  At least five were murdered by a mob of angry businessmen led by Sheriff Donald McRae.  Seventy-five survivors of the Everett Massacre were charged with murder for two citizen deputies (local businessmen who took part in the slaughter) who might well have been shot accidentally by other deputies or gunmen hired by Sheriff McRae.  After a two-month trial that could not satisfy even the laughable standards of justice set by the corrupt local law enforcement agencies, IWW leader Thomas Tracy was acquitted by the jury and the remaining defendants had their charges dropped.
These stories seem almost like comic book plots these days – too fantastic and unreal to be believed.  However, these were not the exception during the dawn of organized labor, events like these were the rule.  If you stepped up to prevent business owners from making profits by exploiting the poor and literally raping and murdering anyone who stood in their way, you would be beaten and murdered either by the police or by private agencies (The Pinkerton Detective Agency was heavily involved in several union-related clashes) – and then sent to prison if you somehow survived.
These days, there are laws that protect workers.  The reason we have those laws is because men like Haywood and Tracy and Everest and Hill stood up and said NO, we will not be exploited, NO we will not be silenced, NO we will not be complacent.  They gave us the protections and freedoms we enjoy today, and they paid for it with their livelihoods, their honor, and their blood.
It is partly to honor their brave sacrifices, and partly for my own political reasons, that I maintain a membership in the IWW.  Although our numbers have shrank, and the stakes for our battles are much lower (certainly nobody is using hired goons to shoot up picket lines anymore!), the spirit is the same.  Anywhere there are workers, there will also be the IWW – membership in the union is not limited to any one industry, it does not preclude membership in any other union or organization.  Dues are minimal and based on income – if you don’t make a lot, you don’t pay a lot.  It’s a small price to pay to help keep the fight for worker’s rights going.
I urge you, whoever is reading this, to do your part.  Consider joining a union, either the IWW or a trade-specific union that might be available to you.  If not that, then at least read up on what your rights are – the rights of the workers are only guaranteed if they are known.  If you are being treated unfairly at your place of work, SPEAK UP.  If your employer is exploiting workers, SPEAK UP.  If there are businesses in your area that exploit workers, SPEAK UP.  Sunlight is the best disinfectant – exploitative business practices persist because many people think it’s someone else’s job to say something about it.  It’s EVERYONE’S job.
Have a happy Labor Day.  Remember who it’s meant to honor.

Today’s Labor Day.  For a lot of people this means a three day weekend and a sale on beer at the grocery store.  It’s a little more meaningful to me, and it bugs the hell out of me that this holiday isn’t given more respect.  LET ME TELL YOU WHY

Way way waaay back in the days of the Industrial Revolution, conditions for laborers and ‘unskilled’ (I HATE that term, it implies that workers are stupid) workers were abhorrent.  They were overworked and underpaid – and not in the sense you or I have even the slightest capability of comprehending these days, try 16-20 hour days for pennies an hour, just enough money to keep them from starving to death TOO quickly.  Workplace safety was a joke, indentured servitude was barely considered questionable, and as long as a child was old enough to follow basic instructions, they were put to work.  If a laborer complained of the poor conditions and frequent hazards, they were laughed off and fired at the best or beaten (or occasionally murdered) at the worst.  Some workers weren’t even paid in actual money, they were paid in ‘company scrip’ which was only usable at the company store.

This system worked GREAT for the owners and management of the factories and whatnot (the ‘bosses’) but obviously pretty crappy for the laborers.  It took a lot of hard work and sacrifice for that system to change to something a little more equal (though we’re not 100% there yet, sadly), and Labor Day is meant to honor those who gave so much so you and I could enjoy a more fair workplace today.

I want to stress a word from that last paragraph.  Sacrifice.  I’m not talking about just taking time out for long meetings or having to go without cable TV for a few months.  Big Bill Haywood, one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World, was one of 165 union leaders arrested in September 1917 and convicted under a shaky interpretation of the Espionage Act.  He fled the country he had fought so hard to protect and died in exile in the Soviet Union in 1928.

Wesley Everest, also a member of the IWW and an US Army veteran from World War I who was captured in the same raids that captured Big Bill, was turned over to a lynch mob by prison guards.  The mob (largely composed of paid agents of the businesses that lost profits by no longer being able to exploit their workers thanks to the union’s efforts) smashed his teeth out with a rifle butt, cut out his genitals, hanged three different times in three different places (thankfully, he died at this step), where his body was beaten some more, shot to pieces, and generally abused in any way you care to think of.  The report from the coroner’s office ruled his death as a suicide.

Countless other union leaders, community organizers, and other people trying to make life better for working men and women were threatened, beaten, and brutally murdered for their efforts.  Joe Hill was executed by the state of Utah based on only circumstantial evidence on a murder trial.  At least five were murdered by a mob of angry businessmen led by Sheriff Donald McRae.  Seventy-five survivors of the Everett Massacre were charged with murder for two citizen deputies (local businessmen who took part in the slaughter) who might well have been shot accidentally by other deputies or gunmen hired by Sheriff McRae.  After a two-month trial that could not satisfy even the laughable standards of justice set by the corrupt local law enforcement agencies, IWW leader Thomas Tracy was acquitted by the jury and the remaining defendants had their charges dropped.

These stories seem almost like comic book plots these days – too fantastic and unreal to be believed.  However, these were not the exception during the dawn of organized labor, events like these were the rule.  If you stepped up to prevent business owners from making profits by exploiting the poor and literally raping and murdering anyone who stood in their way, you would be beaten and murdered either by the police or by private agencies (The Pinkerton Detective Agency was heavily involved in several union-related clashes) – and then sent to prison if you somehow survived.

These days, there are laws that protect workers.  The reason we have those laws is because men like Haywood and Tracy and Everest and Hill stood up and said NO, we will not be exploited, NO we will not be silenced, NO we will not be complacent.  They gave us the protections and freedoms we enjoy today, and they paid for it with their livelihoods, their honor, and their blood.

It is partly to honor their brave sacrifices, and partly for my own political reasons, that I maintain a membership in the IWW.  Although our numbers have shrank, and the stakes for our battles are much lower (certainly nobody is using hired goons to shoot up picket lines anymore!), the spirit is the same.  Anywhere there are workers, there will also be the IWW – membership in the union is not limited to any one industry, it does not preclude membership in any other union or organization.  Dues are minimal and based on income – if you don’t make a lot, you don’t pay a lot.  It’s a small price to pay to help keep the fight for worker’s rights going.

I urge you, whoever is reading this, to do your part.  Consider joining a union, either the IWW or a trade-specific union that might be available to you.  If not that, then at least read up on what your rights are – the rights of the workers are only guaranteed if they are known.  If you are being treated unfairly at your place of work, SPEAK UP.  If your employer is exploiting workers, SPEAK UP.  If there are businesses in your area that exploit workers, SPEAK UP.  Sunlight is the best disinfectant – exploitative business practices persist because many people think it’s someone else’s job to say something about it.  It’s EVERYONE’S job.

Have a happy Labor Day.  Remember who it’s meant to honor.

finance law, intermission

INTERMISSION: LESSER-KNOWN RIGHTS AND ABILITIES

There are a number of things you can request from banks, credit card companies, financial institutions, and businesses in general that aren’t made very public and most people don’t know about.  To avoid burnout so I will actuall finish this series of articles, I decided to write an ‘intermission’ article detailing a few of these.

I – STOP BUGGING ME ALREADY

Lots of people know that they can opt-out of marketing telephone calls from businesses in general via the National Do Not Call Registry, but that doesn’t apply to companies you have an existing business relationship with, surveys, charities, and a number of other exceptions.  However, most (probably all, but there may be loopholes I am unaware of) businesses are required to allow you to opt out of marketing calls at your request.  They will probably not volunteer this information, so if you want to stop telemarketing entirely, you need to register on the National Do Not Call Registry and also contact the companies you do business with (banks and other financial institutions are notorious for this) and tell them not to call you for marketing purposes.  While you’re at it, ask them not to market products or services to you on incoming calls, ask them to remove marketing messages and flyers from your monthly bills or statements, and tell them you do not want your information shared with affiliates or other companies for marketing purposes.

II – CELL PHONE WOES

This is really a subset of the above point, but it’s important and specific enough that I thought it deserved its own heading.  If you use a cell phone as your primary phone (as a lot of people do these days), make sure the companies you do business with KNOW that it is a cell phone.  Since cell phones generally bill by usage instead of a flat-rate that ignores usage, there are more stringent requirements to how companies can contact you via your cell phone.  Generally, this means that as soon as a business learns that a given telephone number is a cell phone, they have to ask you if it’s OK for them to call it with automatic dialers, prerecorded or artificial voice messages, or basically anything that isn’t a human-generated call for purposes of maintaining an existing business relationship.

III – CONTROL YOUR CREDIT RATING

Credit ratings are funny things.  Your FICO score is based on a number of factors, including amount of available credit, debt-to-income ratio, history of payments, and so on.  Luckily, you can easily change many of these factors.  For instance, amount of available credit is based on your credit lines with various financial institutions.  As your credit lines go up, so does your total available credit, and therefore your FICO score.  If you have credit cards, call your provider once every six months or so (more often than this will show as multiple recent inquiries which slightly hurt your score) and ask for a credit line increase.  You don’t have to use it, though your credit line might be automatically reduced (or closed entirely) if it’s not used at ALL, so buy a tank of gas once every few months on credit and pay it off in full when the statement arrives.

Utilization is also another factor – if you have $100,000 of total credit lines across several cards, it’s less of a factor in your favor if only $20,000 of that is available due to carrying balances.  Pay off credit accounts as swiftly as possible, and if you have to carry a balance, ask your credit card providers about balance consolidation offers.  $5,000 of debt spread across five cards is more expensive than $5,000 of debt on one card due to the fact that the cards likely have varying APR’s and you (theoretically!) have all the debt on the card with the lowest APR.  Some banks charge usage fees or service fees on top of their finance charges, keep an eye out for those as well, as those fees might outweigh a slightly lower APR.

Payment history is a third big factor.  Late payments or delinquent accounts will hurt your credit rating.  Luckily, many banks will refrain from reporting late or missed payments to credit reporting agencies as long as you call them in advance and tell them your situation – for instance, the credit provider I work for (which shall remain nameless) offers payment plans which reduce your monthly payments to interest-only for a period of time, which keeps your monthly payments very low and your account from becoming delinquent.  In the meantime, provided the interest payments are kept up and on time (or arrangements made for late payments), late fees aren’t charged and the account is not reported negatively to credit reporting agencies.  If you’re having trouble, call your bank.  They have a vested interest in keeping your account in good standing, and chances are the two of you will be able to work something out.

IV – TAKE COMMAND OF YOUR BILLING CYCLE

Your billing cycle date is the date your statement generates, certain fees or charges are calculated and assessed, the bill is printed, and (usually a day or so later) dropped in the mail.  It’s the same day every month, even if your due date shifts a day or so around due to months having different numbers of days.  If your due date falls a few days before your usual payday, or if you have a number of bills coming due within a short period of time, it can make keeping your accounts in good standing inconvenient.  Most credit card providers will allow you to change your billing cycle date (and therefore your due date, which has to be at least 21 days after your cycle date by law) if you call and ask.  You might be restricted to only one cycle date change per year, or you might need to bring an account out of a delinquent or overlimit status to change the cycle date.  Policies vary by provider, so call and ask.

V – ASK FOR WAIVERS

If you screw up and send in a payment late, you’re going to get hit with a late fee.  If you fat-finger your checking account number on an online payment website, the payment will get rejected a couple days later and you’ll get hit with a returned payment fee (and possibly also a late fee).  The upshot is that you can often get these fees reduced or waived entirely just by asking.  Don’t worry about trying to make up a good cover story – if you just forgot, admit it, it happens all the time.  This won’t work if you’re late EVERY MONTH (in which case you should be following the advice in point IV above and changing your due date to something that works better for you), but generally you can knock out at least one or two fees every year.  If the payment you sent late would have paid off the entire balance and therefore you also got hit with a finance charge that wouldn’t have applied if the payment arrived on time, ask for that to be waived too.  It won’t cost you anything to ask, and it might save you a few bucks.  Your chances of getting fees waived go up the more you use your card, so if you’re in a position to do so, it might be useful to use your card for a category of spending (buying gas or groceries or whatever) that you would normally use cash or debit cards for, then setting that cash (or amount from your debit card) aside to pay the account off in full when the bill arrives.  Credit cards have more legally-required consumer protections than debit cards anyway, so that’s also worth considering.

finance law, part three

PART THREE:  FCRA – FAIR CREDIT REPORTING ACT

I. WHAT?

The Fair Credit Reporting Act was enacted in 1970 to regulate the collection and reporting of consumer credit data.  It requires credit reporting agencies to follow strict guidelines in how they collect data, how they keep that data safe from misuse, and how and under what circumstances they may release that information.  It requires business entities providing credit data to certify that their data is accurate, provide disclaimers and information to consumers regarding what information they report and how to dispute it, and have clear procedures in place to ensure that information security is maintained.  It allows for severe civil and criminal penalties for violations, including both actual and punitive damages, and in some situations, imprisonment.

II. HUH?

Basically, the FCRA operates in two halves.  One half regulates credit reporting agencies, the other half regulates the providers and users (often the same businesses, actually) of credit information.  The basic idea behind the FCRA is that credit reporting must be fair and secure – disputes must be handled fairly, credit information cannot be used inappropriately, and consumer privacy must be maintained at all times.

Credit reporting agencies are required to only give out information under certain circumstances known as ‘permissible purposes’.  These include subpoenas and other court orders; clear and specific written instructions from the consumer whose credit information is to be released; applications for and reviews, servicing, and collection of credit accounts; legitimate business needs in connection with a consumer-initiated transaction (for instance, opening a savings or checking account); employment purposes such as consideration of employment, promotion, reassignment, or use of an independent contractor (all of which require specific written consent); insurance underwriting; and consideration of government-issued license or other government benefit.

Businesses that provide information to credit reporting agencies are required to ensure that the information they report is fair and accurate.  Part of this requirement is that the burden of proof falls on them in case of dispute – if an individual reports to a credit reporting agency that the information contained in their credit report is inaccurate, the furnisher of the information is required to either correct the inaccuracy or provide proof that the information is accurate within 30 days of being made aware of the inaccuracy.  They are also required to notify individuals of negative information that has been or is about to be reported to a credit reporting agency within 30 days.

Businesses that recieve and use information from credit reporting agencies are required to notify individuals if the information contained in the credit report contributed to a decision made that was not in the individual’s favor – for instance, if a loan or job application was denied, or a credit limit on an existing account reduced.  They are also required to notify the individual what credit reporting agency the information was recieved from, and how to contact them to verify the accuracy of their credit report.

III. WHY?

If credit reporting agencies are going to collect information about you, it only makes sense that there are laws in place to make sure it’s accurate and that problems can be fixed quickly when they’re discovered.

IV. WHAT ELSE?

Your privacy is closely protected by this law – there are very limited circumstances in which your information is permitted to be accessed, and there are specific fines and other sanctions laid out in the law, including punitive damages if your information is accessed improperly or adminimstrated improperly.

V. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN TO ME?

Check your credit report as often as you can.  Federal law allows you to recieve one free copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies (Trans Union, Experian, and Equifax) each year.  Information that appears on a report from one agency is likely to appear on the others, so if you rotate requests, you can get a copy of your credit report every four months.  If there’s anything on your credit report that is inaccurate in even the least little bit, IMMEDIATELY contact the credit reporting agency and dispute it.  You can not be penalized or punished for disputing information on your credit report even if it turns out the information is accurate.

finance law, part two

PART TWO: ECOA reg B – EQUAL CREDIT OPPORTUNITY ACT (REGULATION B)

I. WHAT?

The Equal Credit Opportunity Act was enacted in 1974 to prevent banks and other financial organizations from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, marital status, age, childbearing status, source of income, or whether the potential customer has exercised their rights under the CCPA – Consumer Credit Protection Act.  It requires banks and other financial institutions to follow certain guidelines about information collection, application processing, advertising, account service and maintenance, and communications.

II. HUH?

When a bank or other financial institution is marketing or advertising their products, they can’t use any imagery or language that indicates any sort of preference for or against any of the protected classes.  Sexual orientation isn’t listed in the protected classes, which is an annoyance, but 1) I can’t recall hearing about banks refusing to write loans for GLBT types, and 2) that would be a different article in any case, so.  Moving on!

Note that exercising one’s CCPA rights IS among the protected classes, to banks and financial institutions are specifically prohibited from ‘shutting out’ people for insisting on legally entitled fair treatment.  The gist is that banks and other financial institutions can’t discriminate against people for their status in the above classes, and they can’t advertise or market their products and services in a way that makes people THINK they are.  The only thing they can use to make decisions on is creditworthiness – your credit score, ability to meet payments on a loan, stuff like that.

They are also forbidden from discouraging people to apply for products or services based on the above protected classes.  For instance, if you have kids, and go into a bank to apply for a car loan, they cannot tell you that you shouldn’t bother to apply because you have kids, your life is destined to be an unending torrent of chaos and disorder and they couldn’t be sure you’d pay them back.  You should never be discouraged from applying for products or services unless the basis of that discouragement is strictly creditworthiness – in practice, since they should only be checking your credit report (the major, although not sole, factor in determing creditworthiness) when they are processing your application, you should never be discouraged, period.  This includes verbal discouragement as well.

Banks are also forbidden from asking you for certain information like race, ethnicity, and sex on a loan application… sort of.  They do have to collect that information on the application (and quietly fill it out for you based on best-guess from the person taking the application if you decline to state) but are forbidden from using that information in the decisionmaking process.  The information is collected and used by regulatory agencies as a way to tell if discriminatory practices are being used – for instance, if a grossly out-of-whack proportion of the approved loans vs. denied loans are for white people, this would be an indicator that the bank is potentially engaging in discriminatory activities.  The bank or financial institution is permitted to use this data to keep an eye on itself for similar reasons – just never to use it as part of making the decision about extending credit, and never in the case of mortgages or other loans or transactions secured by a principal dwelling.  Marital status and sex are also collected for home purchase or refinance loan applications for similar purposes.

Marital status is another gotcha.  Generally, unless you’re in a community property state or you’re applying for something other than individual unsecured credit (Plain old loan.  Individual means it’s just for you, unsecured means you don’t put up any property or other collateral to guarantee the loan.), the bank or financial institution can’t ask that.  If they do ask, they can only ask in terms of ‘married’, ‘unmarried’, or ‘seperated’.  Asking if you’re divorced or widowed to make a decision on extending credit is forbidden.  However, if you are or have been married, you might have to give specific information about your spouse or former spouse under very specific circumstances – if your current spouse will be permitted to access the account or contracually liable for it; if you are relying on the income of your spouse, or alimony / child support / other maintenance payments from your spouse or former spouse; or if you are in a community property state (and your spouse therefore has certain rights and obligations to your assets).

If you almost meet the creditworthiness requirements, but not quite, the bank or financial institution may require a cosigner (or guarantor).  They are specifically forbidden from requiring or even suggesting that the cosigner be any particular person or relationship – the cosigner’s suitability can be assessed solely on the basis of creditworthiness.

If you’re not approved for the loan; or if your loan terms are changed in a way that is not favorable to you; or if you requested your loan amount be raised and it wasn’t approved; or your account was terminated, the bank or financial institution has to tell you in writing within 30 days, along with specific reasons why (at BARE minimum, a statement telling you that you have the right to this information and clear instructions as to how to get it, but this just adds a needless layer of complexity so practically nobody does this and instead just tells you), the name and address of the bank or financial institution, and the name and address of the regulating agency that oversees that activity.  If instead the bank or financial institution issues a counteroffer (saying no to your request, but offering something different instead) they can hold off on the ‘this is why we denied you’ notice – called an adverse-action notice – until 90 days after the counteroffer is issued.  Many banks and financial institutions make this simpler by just tacking the counteroffer to the original adverse-action notice since it saves a stamp and that way they have one less timer to worry about.

If you’re not approved for the loan because you goofed and forgot to complete the application, they need to send you a letter within 30 days either saying ‘no, you messed up the application, no loan for you’ or ‘look, dope, you forgot to put your name on here’ and giving you a reasonable timeframe to submit the information.  If you never give them the requested information, they don’t have to send you any more letters and can safely assume you don’t care to hear from them anymore.

III. WHY?

It’s not fair for a bank or financial institution to decide not to float you a loan just because you’re black, or Muslim, or you have kids, or etc etc etc.  It’s also not fair – though a little less obviously so – for them to market or advertise in ways that directly or indirectly communicate that people shouldn’t bother applying if they are black / Muslim / parents / etc.

IV. WHAT ELSE?

There’s a line drawn between inquiry and application – and it’s not as simple as ‘if you write it down, it’s an application’.  Basically, if you’re giving information to the bank or financial institution and they are either making a decision or recommendation based on that information, it’s an application for the purposes of the ECOA, even if it’s just talk.  Asking about interest rates?  That’s just an inquiry.  Saying you have a 2500 square foot house in the suburbs and a clean credit report and asking for a ballpark figure of a loan you could get for it?  That’s an application.  This is why bankers are maddeningly vague sometimes, the slightest verbal misstep can turn light conversation into the sort of thing that could land them huge fines and penalties if they say the wrong thing.

There are a few exceptions to protected classes.  Banks and financial institutions are allowed to take age into account if and only if they are using it to favor people 62 years old or older, and they’re allowed to take your job into account if it clearly impacts your ability to pay – a waiter, for instance, has a pretty good idea what sort of money they’re going to pull in on a monthly basis even though (since it’s mainly tips) they can’t commit to a precise figure, so that couldn’t be a factor.  Someone who does temp work, daily labor, or otherwise can’t reliably commit to even a general idea of what sort of money they’re going to bring in each month, though – that can be considered in the decisionmaking process.

If you’re securing a home loan with the home in question, the bank or financial institution is going to have the home appraised.  You have a right to this report, and they can choose to either give the report to everyone who applies, or tell applicants that they’re entitled to the information and give them clear instructions as to how to get it.

V. WHAT DOES THIS MEAN TO ME?

If you’re applying for a loan, and the loan officer asks the wrong questions, or you feel that the regulatory information was used improperly, you should give a holler to the regulatory agency (banks and financial institutions are required to tell you who this is) and get that fixed straight away.  You’ll be awarded actual damages, and punitive damages in certain situations.

If you’re applying for a loan, and the loan officer gives you the stinkeye because he found out that you took a bank to court over illegal practices before, that’s against the law.  Banks and financial institutions aren’t allowed to care if you’ve exercised your rights.

If you see an advertisement for a loan that says directly or indirectly that certain people shouldn’t apply based on – well, based on almost anything but creditworthiness, same thing.  Also, if they require a cosigner when your creditworthiness is sufficient for you to get the loan on your own, or if they request (or even suggest) a specific cosigner or specific relationship for the cosigner to be, that’s also actionable.  There’s no penalty or anything if you contact the regulatory agency for something that turns out to be completely legal, so feel free to hit them up if something seems shady.

finance law, part one

So for a new job, I’m having to learn about finance law – specifically, BSA, ECOA reg B, FCRA, FDCPA, GLB Privacy, TILA reg Z, and UDAP reg AA.

Woah there spaceman that’s a whole lot of alphabet soup

Yeah I know.  So what I’m going to do to help myself learn this a bit better and study for an upcoming test, is I am going to attempt to explain in blog posts just what all that stuff ACTUALLY MEANS in terms that ACTUAL HUMANS use.

PART ONE: BSA – BANK SECRECY ACT

I. WHAT?

The Bank Secrecy Act was enacted in 1970 (and further amended and modified in 1986 by the Money Laundering Control Act, in 1992 by the Annunzio-Wylie Money Laundering Act, and in 2001 by the US PATRIOT Act section 326) basically to combat money laundering.  In a general sense, it requires banks and other financial institutions to verify the identiy of their customers, keep records of those identities, keep records of certain transactions, and report details of certain other transactions to the IRS and other regulatory agencies.

II. HUH?

Specifically, this means that when you go to the bank to open an account (or certain other types of financial transactions at other financial institutions), you have to bring solid ID.  Driver’s license, current or expired passport, state ID card, these all work JUST FINE.  If you’re a business, then you should bring the articles of incorporation, business licenses, etc etc.  Specific documentation requirements can vary slightly but will be pretty close to one another.

Also, if you’re depositing, changing, withdrawing, or otherwise doing SOMETHING with more than $10,000.00 of cash (or cash-similar negotiable instruments, like certified checks or foreign currency), the bank (or financial institution) has to collect certain details and report the details of the transaction to the IRS.  The details they have to collect are similar to the details collected when you open an account – name, address, SSN, accounts affected by the transaction, that sort of thing.  Note that deposits and withdrawals are counted seperately – you can’t avoid a CTR (Cash Transaction Report, the report we’re talking about here) by depositing $5,000.00 and withdrawing $11,000.00.  Depositing twelve grand in cash or certified funds to your bank account? CTR.  Walking in with a crate of $50 bills and changing them into a trunkload of singles? CTR (assuming we’re talking over $10,000.00 here).  Paying off your mortgage with a $15,000.00 bank draft?  CTR.

Note that this applies to all transactions in a day – two $6,000.00 deposits in the same business day will trigger a CTR just the same as a single $12,000.00 deposit.  Transactions that happen after close of business (hitting the ATM after hours, using the night deposit, etc.) are treated as happening on the next business day – so if you cram $6,000.00 into the ATM after hours, then deposit another $6,000.00 in the bank the next day, a CTR would be triggered.  It also applies to transactions across different accounts at the same institution or at different branches of the same institution – so a $6,000.00 deposit to your checking account in the bank branch near your house and a $6,000.00 deposit to your money market account in the bank branch near your office would still trigger a CTR.

This is not the only recordkeeping requirement – activity that seems ‘out of place’ from your regular account activity would trigger what’s called a SAR or Suspicious Activity Report.  There are a number of scenarios that can trigger this, but here’s a common one:  If you maintain a pretty regular balance with paychecks coming in and bills and whatnot going out, and suddenly you’re depositing $8,000.00 every other day without some sort of explanation being volunteered, the bank is going to notice and they are going to make a note of it.  The SAR is sent to the proper regulatory agency, and they’ll take a look at it, and if they smell a rat, they’ll find out what the scoop is.  The first step of this is usually your bank contacting you – ‘Hey we noticed that you’ve been depositing 24 grand a week just like clockwork lately, what’s up with that? Did you get a raise?’ – and only if you can’t come up with anything that sounds good will the feds get involved.  Mysteriously having huge amounts of money dropped into your lap isn’t illegal by any means – heck, maybe you’ve just reunited with a long-lost and pathologically generous uncle – but it can be a pretty strong indicator of shady behavior, so the feds are going to want to know what’s up.  There aren’t really hard and fast rules of what triggers an SAR and what does not – sure there are guidelines, but an SAR can be triggered by something as simple as a teller thinking something’s a bit weird.  Note that not only does your bank not have to tell you that it has filed an SAR, but it is specifically forbidden from doing so.

Purchases of certified funds over $3,000.00 are also recorded.  If you buy a cashier’s check for $4,500.00, the bank is going to need your name, address, SSN, and date of birth; and is also going to have to make a note of the details of the transaction (date, number of instruments purchased, their type and serial numbers, etc etc) in a logbook.

III. WHY?

Like I said before, making large transactions isn’t illegal, but it can potentially be indiciative of illegal behavior.  Nobody is going to throw you in prison for paying off your mortgage all at once, but some dudes in suits might be a little curious as to where you got the bankroll for it, that’s all.

IV: WHAT ELSE?

Oh, there’s special rules for foreign shell accounts too – those are basically accounts maintained in US financial institutions by foreign banks that don’t have branches in the US to help facilitate US operations.  Foreign banks are required to, you know, EXIST before shell accounts are allowed.  This prevents funds being hidden or laundered by claiming they’re the assets of a foreign ‘bank’ that exists only on paper and is really a fancy construct for someone’s hidden bank account.  They also have to show that they have an agent that is a US resident that is authorized to access the account and recieve legal service (subpoenas and whatnot) on behalf of the foreign bank, and keep contact information on file for that agent.  This way, they can’t get around reporting and other legal requirements by putting the government in the position of having nobody to ask questions of or hand legal process papers to.

V.  WHAT DOES THIS MEAN TO ME?

If you’re opening an account at a bank, bring ID.  If you’re depositing or withdrawing some serious cash, don’t get steamed when it takes a little longer and you have to sign some extra stuff.  If your banking habits change significantly and suddenly, don’t be surprised if your bank gives you a holla to find out why.  (And no, nobody will think less of you if you quietly fantasize to yourself that somewhere, there’s a guy in a suit CONVINCED that you’re a James Bond villain maintaining a secret identity in suburban Poughkeepsie.)  And finally, if you’re a foreign bank, you need to jump through a couple extra hoops to open an account in the US – but if you’re a foreign bank, why are you reading my blog?