Friday, February 19, 2010

Dear Citibank

Mr. Ken Stork
3545 S. Spencer Blvd.
Sioux Falls, South Dakota

February 19, 2010

Dear Mr. Stork,

I received your letter detailing the important changes to my Citibank MasterCard recently. You cite the rising cost of doing business as the primary reason I’m being hit with a sixty-dollar annual fee. In the interest of fairness, I should add that you have also provided a generous option—you will negate the annual fee if I will just charge $2,400.00 a year to my Citibank MasterCard.

Somewhere, Mother Teresa is weeping.

The rising cost of doing business. Hmmm. I’m pretty sure you’re not giving raises to the poor folk who man your phones. And I doubt the cost of paper and plastic and telephone service has increased sufficiently to warrant this charge. No, I think there’s something else going on here. I think Citibank is in a snit about the passage of the Credit Card Accountability, Responsibility and Disclosure Act. I think Citibank is looking to offset the twenty-six billion dollars it sunk into sub-prime loans.

I mean, I’m sorry about that, guys. Really. It couldn’t have been easy. It’s like totally embarrassing. But as much as I’d like to cut you a sixty-dollar check for the privilege of stuffing your card in my wallet, I’m out of work right now. And I expect to be for some time. You see, I’m one of those people you might have heard about on the news. I’m a government statistic. And um, I blame you.

Remember how you guys played around with accounting methodology to disguise losses in order to boost share prices? Well, I like to play around with methodology, too. And the way I see it, you owe me. You and AIG and the Bank of America and Countrywide and Goldman-Sachs and all the other cunts who have sentenced millions of innocent people to suffer the ravages of unemployment.

Were my sexual orientation different, perhaps I wouldn’t be made so, um, uncomfortable by this offer. But as someone who wants only to be self-supporting and is being denied that opportunity as a direct result of your greed and your irresponsibility, I am just a little bit pissed.

So. You want sixty bucks a year from me so you can charge outlandish interest rates and hit up the retailers, wholesalers and anyone else I purchase something from with your outrageous processing fees.

I don’t possess an MBA from the Wharton School of Business, but even a bumpkin like me can see you’re charging cardholders to hold open the door to Citibank making still more money from vendors. I have to admit, it’s pretty clever. It lends a whole new meaning to 'get them coming and going'.

You've been talking to Bernie Madoff, haven't you?

Of course, I have the option of paying-off my balance every month—which I have been for twenty-four years now. But then I run the risk of becoming—in the inverted parlance of the credit card world—a deadbeat. Someone who doesn’t generate profit-swelling fees and charges. Someone who selfishly looks after their own finances at the expense of corporate ones.

As much as I’d like to participate in the new and improved Citibank, I’m afraid I must decline, Mr. Stork. Whatever your addled view of things, mine is that I’m already paying for Citibank. But thanks for asking.


La Piazza Gancio

P.S. How appropriate your new policies take effect April 1.

cc: the World Wide Web

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

How Impunity Happens

Anthem Blue Cross of California recently announced price-hikes of up to 39% for its subscribers. This after a year in which the largest health care insurers saw their profits rise by 52% over the previous year. This in the midst of the worst economic conditions in eighty years.

It’s as indefensible as it is unconscionable. Health care costs exist so far outside the realm of free-market capitalism they ought to have their own dimension. But this isn’t about health care. It’s about why Anthem Blue Cross of California can do something so brazen, and do it with impunity.

And that would be the cost of a political campaign.

The two at first seem unrelated. But they’re not. A line can be drawn between the rising costs of campaigns and the ballooning power of corporate America. In other words, the more expensive it becomes to mount a campaign, the more sway those wielding the checkbooks have.

Campaign costs warp the political process. They inflict more damage than Osama bin Laden ever dreamt of. They reduce politicians to corporate puppets while they deliver an inordinate amount of control to the doorsteps of the wealthy. However lop-sided the power dynamic was a year or two ago, thanks to the recent Supreme Court ruling on Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, it's now a forfeited ballgame just waiting to happen.

In this new world, why shouldn’t Anthem raise its charges 39%? Why not 212%? At least that has a chance of making us boiling mad. With politicians neutered by the cost of campaigning and forced to beg corporations like Anthem for funding, is any other outcome even possible?

What needs to happen is that a third entity—not government, not business—is designated to write new campaign finance reform. Not the Bush-era reform with loopholes a crustacean could pilot a 747 through, but real reform that not only sets limits on what can be spent, but creates a window limiting the time candidates can spend campaigning. And while we’re at it, why not make TV spots within that window free of charge?

When a company like Anthem can stick a gun in the back of its customers in the midst of a ravaged economy like ours, and with health care reform (supposedly) still on the table, something is very, very wrong. Without genuine campaign finance reform, government will become little more than a speed bump for the jackals inhabiting our corporate suites.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Becoming Senator

The scene is a radio station in a medium-sized town. There, one of the station's hosts prepares to interview a new senatorial candidate. The candidate is nervously reviewing his notes while his campaign manager sits off to the side.

Interviewer: We’re here today with Jonathan Hinder, who has recently announced his intention to run for senator from the state of Abyssia. Good morning. And thank you for coming.

Jonathan Hinder: Thanks for having me.

I: So. Why senator? Why now?

JH: Well, why not? You know, I‘ve been unemployed for over a year, and I’ve got a family to feed. What else was I going to do? (Laughs)

I: Has finding campaign financing been a problem?

JH: It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. It was just sitting down with the more, um, influential members of my community and agreeing to, um, ugh…

At this point, JH turns and motions for the campaign manager to approach. The campaign manager does and whispers to JH.

JH: …pay special consideration to their concerns.

I: Does that bother you?

JH: Does what bother me?

I: Well, you give the appearance of having exchanged votes for financial backing.

JH: No. Absolutely not.

I: But…

The campaign manager again approaches JH and whispers in his ear.

JH: This is about meeting with constituents and discussing issues. Nothing more.

I: But…aren’t you supposed to represent all the people in your district?

JH: Of course. And I will be.

I: But if you won, haven’t you agreed to—in your words—give special consideration to those who contributed to your campaign?

JH: No.

I: You don’t see the conflict?

JH: The only conflict I see is a government soft on national security and dedicated to deficit spending.

JH turns to the campaign manager and whispers “Did I get that right?” The manager nods.

I: What made you decide to run as a Republican?

JH turns to the manager before speaking, as if for confirmation.

JH: At the end of the day, I decided it was disadvantageous to run as a Democrat.

I: Could you extrapolate on that?

JH: Here?

I: Yes.

Panicked, JH again summons the campaign manager. The manager whispers in his ear. Relieved, JH turns and resumes the interview.

JH: You had me worried there! That’s normally something I only do in front of my web cam! (Laughs) Oh shi…

The campaign manager explodes out of his chair and approaches the interviewer. After much gesturing and heated whispering, the interviewer reluctantly agrees to have the last comment edited from the broadcast. The interview continues.

I: What made you decide to run as a Republican?

JH: When you run as a Democrat, people expect you to have ideas and solutions. It’s different when you run as a Republican. I mean, when was the last time you heard a Republican being asked how he was going to end poverty? (Laughs) As a Republican, all you’re expected to do is keep things the way they are. It’s kind of like being a bookmark. People have different expectations of Republicans than they do of Democrats. I mean, look at Michele Bachmann. (Laughs) Wait. That came out wrong. Can we do it over?

I: No.

There is another prolonged meeting between JH and the campaign manager. JH resumes the interview with a new sense of confidence.

JH: No bail-outs for banks and big business. That’s the direction I’m taking this campaign in.

I: Do you support the Republican strategy of obstructionism?

JH: We’re the Party of No.

I: You’re not troubled by the consequences of congressional inaction?

JH: People know who we are, and what we stand for.

I: So it’s a good thing to be known as the Party of No?

JH: Yes.

I: Why?

JH turns and motions for the campaign manager to approach. They have yet-another extended conversation. The interviewer is clearly irritated.

I (Sarcastically): Do you need to phone a friend?

JH: No, no. Um, we know what the American people want. They’re tired of long, drawn-out debates. They’re tired of waiting. Americans don’t like politics. They don’t want to think about them—they just want to move on to the next thing. Americans want fast, easy answers. And we’re here to give that to them. It’s like Greyhound used to say: “Leave the driving to us”. That’s what America wants. It wants us to do the driving, and it just wants to curl up and not wake up until they reach L.A.

I: Interesting.

JH: Yep.

I: Finally, critics charge Republicans are indeed the party of no. No ideas, no direction and no clue. What is your response?

JH: We know what America wants to hear. And that’s all you need to know.

Pulling the Plug on Electric Cars

Don’t get me wrong—I’m very encouraged by the research and development being done on electric cars.

There’s so much to like about them; they’re quiet, don’t emit any greenhouse gases and are quickly attaining speeds and ranges that rival traditional gasoline-powered cars.

But there’s this one, nagging question that no one seems to be asking: where is all the electricity going to come from?

Power plants are notorious polluters. They burn prodigious amounts of coal, produce tons of nuclear waste and expel hydro-carbons like there’s no tomorrow. (Which, if electric cars ever achieve the market penetration internal combustion ones have, there may not be.)

Were our electric plants solar or wind or hydro-powered, all would be well. But this is far from true.

Before we commit to electric cars, shouldn’t we figure out where all the electricity is going to come from first?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Job Hunting

One of the more entertaining aspects of unemployment is to watch the evolving language employers use to separate job seekers from actual employment.

The newest and most-popular example is ‘recent’. As in “Recent experience in the field of…” Or “Recent employment as a…” Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate being reduced to the last, unwanted slice of meat on a buffet tray as much as the next guy. But I have questions.

Namely, if I’ve cooled-off to the point that ‘recent’ indicates I have, do I still need anti-perspirant? And what are the first signs of hypothermia?

Like high school princesses, employers ask for the moon with every expectation of getting it. They’re like totally hot. And just a wee bit precious.

An auto dealership is looking for a car jockey. For those unfamiliar with the position, a car jockey moves cars around a parking lot, brings them into the service area for repair, re-arranges them to make room for new arrivals, etc.

It’s a nice summer job for a high school kid, with the added perk of being able to tell your friends you drove a BMW M3 or Porsche Cayman today.

The dealer seeks “A self-starter who is good in (sic) taking direction with the ability to inspire others.”

Hmmm. Exactly how do you quantify 'inspire' on an application? Collegiate football championships coached? Converts to Christianity? Former students who went on to become doctors? And is a driver's license important?

Then there are the reams of part-time and temp-to-hire positions.

Like a famous cartoon character, I enjoy carrots. But I prefer mine on a plate, not dangling from a stick wielded by a fickle and capricious employer.

This start-up announced its intention to seek a part-time, temp-to-hire “Customer Adovcate (sic). Candidates’ (sic) that we pursue:

Have a burning desire to solve problems via phone and email
Are a (sic) creative and analytical thinkers
Have volunteer attitudes and always go the extra mile
Are team players as well as independent thinkers”

Before I spontaneously combust, how does the term ‘volunteer attitudes’ relate to your pay scale?

And secondly, isn’t that last item an oxymoron? You know, like Fox News, bad sex and Detroit Lions Professional Football Club?

What do you think the likelihood is that a person embracing both these traits might be suffering from a multiple-personality disorder?

Someone in a Dilbert cartoon once said “It’s hard to think outside the box when you work in one.” Do you read Dilbert?

Of course, the beauty of this is that we learn from everything. All experiences have something to teach us.

And this is what I’ve learned: One, turn off spell-check. And two, stop thinking. It’s just making things more difficult.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Putting the Brakes on Unintended Acceleration

Is it just me, or is the brouhaha over Toyota’s gas pedals becoming just a little overheated?

Is Toyota's behavior really that unusual? And do sticky accelerators really spell the end of civilization as we know it?

Looking back to a time when Ford Pintos were turning American streets into spontaneous Fourth of July celebrations, did Ford erect ‘Don’t Buy This Car!' billboards?

And when their Explorers were shredding Firestone tires like CIA documents, did Ford put up a web site to broadcast the fact?


Granted, crashing into a store front is traumatic. Especially when a Grande Mocha Latté is involved.

Yet when I think of all the things that could conceivably go wrong while driving (loss of steering, fire, brake failure, the wheels falling off), unintended acceleration is pretty far down the list of automotive fears.

Fact is, I’m more afraid of the puffed-up tough guy in the black Dodge Ram riding my bumper because I’m only going five miles over the speed limit, or of the dolly texting her BFF from behind the wheel of her Jeep Grand Cherokee than I am of unintended acceleration.

That’s because a sticky accelerator is so easily remedied.

Even as a spastic seventeen-year-old learning how to drive, I knew that putting a car in neutral while the engine revved way too fast for the icy street it was on would disengage the transmission and keep it under control.

Not to sound cold, but didn’t this occur to a single soul driving an impacted Toyota? How about standing on that big ol’ pedal to the left of the one that sticks? Or turning the key to ‘off’?

Based on extensive personal experience, I’ll speculate that if a sizeable percentage hadn’t had their hands (not to mention their attention spans) all over a cell phone, mascara brush, burrito, lap top, Blackberry, cup of coffee, cigarette lighter, etc. and were actually focused on driving, a solution might have come to them before a crash did.

I'm not looking to absolve Toyota of blame. I suspect they got a little too caught-up in surpassing GM as the world’s largest car-maker, and skipped some steps while abandoning their traditional quality-first business model.

But maybe—just maybe—we should consider driving when we’re, um, driving.

I’m well-aware this notion flies in the face of our national obsession with multi-tasking, and that it won’t prevent an accelerator from sticking. But it might just keep us engaged, and as a consequence, closer to corrective action than abject panic.