Article 43

 

Dying America

Monday, January 02, 2006

Truths On Deficit, Bankrupty and Credit Card Debt

We certainly look prosperous. All those new houses going up, all those SUVs clogging the roads, long line-ups at air travel counters filled with folks clutching the new best-sellers and decked out in the latest televised fashions. Things must be going great, right?

Look again

In the United States, the Center for Responsible Lending tells of a woman looking to buy Christmas presents for her grandchildren visited her first payday lender. That quickie two-week loan spun into a nightmarish cycle of debt that eventually cost her $1,780 for $700 cash received.

“We live in affluence by way of credit,” a Bangalore professor told The Hindu newspaper. Is the cost of indebtedness worth it?”

The American Dream is a risky hallucination. The American miracle has been bought on credit,” argues author Jeremy Rifkin. [GUARDIAN OCT 24/00]

According to the US Census Bureau, some 35 million miserable Americans spent last year experiencing POVERTY. Of the 12 million American families who worried they couldn’t buy food, one-third saw someone in the household skipping meals they couldn’t afford. An increasing number of American families are also foregoing food in order to cover medical expenses. The truth behind Bush’s economic recovery is that the world’s biggest consumer culture is being kept afloat with more than $1 trillion worth of credit card purchases every year. Just like their bankrupt federal government, Americans are rolling over their monthly credit bills into pyramiding debt that cannot be paid this side of the grave.

At this very moment, many of the 1.3 billion payment cards currently in circulation in the United States are being used to pay bills and ring up more purchases needed to fill a nagging void that can never be satiated by more stuff. For whatever reasons and there are as many excuses to spend as there are opportunities - the average American household juggles 13 payment cards. At least four of these are major credit cards with balances totaling $5,800 each month.

What happened to those easy and affordable rates of interest that grabbed our attention, our signatures and eventually our lives?

Only those clicking calculators realize that the real rates of compounded credit card interest cost costumers more than twice the price of the same item purchased outright with cash. Making the minimum payment every month will take nearly 40 years to pay off that $4,800 - for a total tab of $15,619.

The Federal Reserve calculates that more than 40% of US families spend more than they earn. According to the Fed, since 1995, almost all US family disposable income has gone toward paying debts.

Why are so many people in so much debt after 10 straight years of economic expansion - the so-called “miracle” economy that the mainstream media celebrated throughout the 1990s?Ԕ asks Sleaze magazines Matt Nichter.

Answer: Starting with national federal reserves - which are not federal and have little reserves - Big Banks have rigged the money game. “It’s no coincidence that record bank profits are announced at the same time as record household debt,” Nichter notes. Personal debt is central to the monopolization of wealth by a small minority.”

As the go-go 80s suffered dramatic devaluation in the austere 90s and nervous new millennium, explains Robert Manning, author of Credit Card Nation, “banks guided financially beleaguered citizens through the economic minefield of declining real wages, corporate downsizings and skyrocketing college costs with increasingly expensive revolving consumer credit.”

As a result, observe Teresa Sullivan, Elizabeth Warren and Jay Westbrook in The Fragile Middle Class: Americans in Debt, “What might have been provided by a more munificent system of unemployment insurance or more generous medical insurance is now provided by Mastercard and Visa.”

Go figure. The average credit card interest rate is 17.8 percent. Typical late and over-the-limit charges for consumers have tripled since 1994. Say Sullivan, Warren and Westbrook: ”The average 18 percent rate that consumers have been paying would have landed the credit card executives in the penitentiary 20 years ago. Today it lands the same executives in flattering profile stories in Forbes and Business Week.”

In order to pick our pockets, banks are stuffing them with credit cards. Corporate loan sharks mailed out 3.3 billion credit card offers in the United States alone last year - more than 30 for every household. Lacking alternatives to achieve our media-manipulated desires - or just to temporarily catch up with daily expenses - most of us have taken the bait. According to Nichter, roughly 60 million people in the US have a credit card balance at the end of every month of at least $11,500.

So do a comparable number of their British counterparts.

“With layoffs mounting, one missed payment can lead to late fees, jacked-up interest rates and intensified collection efforts - beginning a spiral toward financial ruin,” Nichter says. [SOCIALISTWORKER ONLINE JAN 11/02]

Debt counselors say that using temporary credit to meet monthly business expenses is a legitimate gambit to fuel increased income. But using credit cards to pay non-productive purchases is a no-no, they say, if those cards cannot be paid off in full every 30 days.

A sure sign of out-of-control personal debt occurs when you have to start using your plastic for recurring consumables like food and utilities. You’ll know youre really caught in the debt trap when you have to start borrowing to make pressing interest payments on outstanding loans.

Snared by payday lending, some five million Americans pay an estimated $3.4 billion out of their paychecks every year to loan sharks advancing partial payment.

Is it legal? Is it moral? In a country where the former head of Enron sits unmolested on a mountain of money stolen from thousands of now destitute employees, and where an ex-Halliburton CEO and current US Vice President receives a million dollars a year from his former company, which has been handed billions of dollars in no-bid contracts in Iraq - such questions seem as banal as the fall of a decadent Rome. Except that in today’s imperial America, cash advance predators are setting up shops in neighborhoods of low-income, minority and military families - charging annual interest rates over 400% to people who can least afford it.

If you thought student loans were bad, consider that most undergraduates are also carrying $2,200 in credit card debt. According to Nellie Mae, the nation’s largest maker of student loans, that hole deepens to $5,800 for grad students. Since many student credit cards have stratospheric annual percentage rates, the longer college kids wait to pay off their cards off, the worse it gets, Mae says.

Sophia Jackson, personal finance counselor for Consumer Credit Counseling Service in Durham, NC, describes how one of her student clients made an $82 credit card payment on an overdue bill - only to discover that a mere 79 cents of the payment applied to the card’s principal. The rest was eaten up by late fees and over-the-limit fees.

“In that scenario, you could pay on your balance for years and years and your balance would keep going up,” Jackson says. Instead of suggesting low income tax relief, or the kind of tax-paid childcare and health care provided in more compassionate countries, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan urges Americans to re-mortgage their homes in order to keep making payments they cant afford now.

With a national debt exceeding $7 trillion, a huge and rising trade deficit, and personal indebtedness at an all-time high, Americans and the world held hostage by the greenback are standing at the edge of a financial abyss threatening the financial security of our families, and our children’s grandchildren.

Can some of the smartest money minds on the planet really be that stupid? Hardly, says TRUTHOUT’S Michael Meurer. On the contrary, the White House’s profligate policies are deliberately designed to bankrupt the nation, thereby forcing the privatization of public services in the hands of Bush’s corporate sponsors.

How did Bush do it? Sure, blowing up foreign neighborhoods and invading other countries is expensive. And gutting America’s tax base hasnt helped. But how the heck did he blow $12 trillion dollars in three years? Remember, thanks to Clinton’s $200 billion annual budget surpluses, a man who wrecked every business he was ever handed started his unelected presidency with a tidy $5.6 trillion surplus in the US Treasury. [USA Today June 15/3]

Maybe someone should call Switzerland.

With an example like this, no wonder Americans are running up their credit cards. But heres the rub: If you owe the bank $6,000 and can’t pay it, youre in trouble. If you owe the entire world $7 trillion and can’t pay it the’re in trouble.

Which could be why Dick Cheney says, “Deficits don’t matter.”

SOURCE

Posted by Elvis on 01/02/06 •
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Friday, December 30, 2005

Democracy Hollowed Out Part 2

The Internet is big business and the greatest thing for freedom of speech and communication.  There’s little doubt in my mind, the powers that influence this country’s policies are out to censor it.

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By Andy Dornan
IT Architect

When the F.C.C. announced it would deny independent ISPs access to the phone companies’ wires as of August this year, commissioners claimed that their decision would somehow improve competition. In the small print, it was clear they didn’t believe their own spin. Recognizing the threat that the newly enthroned monopolies posed to customers, the FTC adopted a statement of principles that said ISPs shouldn’t block access to lawful Internet content, services, or applications.

The statement is one small piece of good news. It means SBC and Verizon can’t firewall off competitive VoIP services (as North Carolina phone company Madison River Communications tried to do with Skype) or censor their critics (as Canadian phone company Telus did during a labor dispute). But it applies only to the Internet side of the link.

A greater threat is that ISPs may try to restrict the customer’s side by denying access to machines based on their hardware or software configuration. And far from banning that, the government may be encouraging it. Back when he was head of cybersecurity, White House terrorism advisor Richard Clarke even said it should be made mandatory to quarantine malware.

It seemed crazy at the time, but the required technologies are now becoming available. Vendors call them by different names, but all use an agent on the client to verify its configuration. If the agent reports software (or in more advanced versions, hardware) that isn’t on a white list, access is denied.

Access control agents have two big practical problems on a private network, both of which are more serious on the wider Internet: Not all clients can run the agents, and new programs not yet certified malware-free won’t be on the white list. Worse, ISPs might base their lists on commercial considerations. So while custom enterprise applications are locked out, Sony’s rootkit gets through.

I asked some of the key players in the Trusted Computing Group (TCG), which is standardizing agent hardware and protocols, whether abuse by ISPs was likely. Their answers were mixed. Brian Berger, chair of the TCG’s marketing group, says ISPs might want to use them to offer value-added services. Critics fear that in the future “added value” could mean access to anything beyond a small subsection of the Internet.

Most of the hardware standards are driven by Intel, whose official position on how they’re used is not to have one. Ned Smith, Intel’s representative on the TCG and co-chair of its infrastructure group, says what people do with the technology is up to the free market. Given the current state of competition in the market for DSL connections and PC OSs, this isn’t very reassuring.

Oddly, the one truly reassuring voice is from Microsoft. According to Chief Privacy Officer Peter Cullen, Microsoft is against ISPs doing anything that would restrict customers’ choice of software. And he says this isn’t just about the impracticability of demanding that data centers patch everything on the second Tuesday of the month. Laptop and home users also have the right to run an insecure PC. Supposedly it’s a principled stand for freedom and privacy.

Not everyone will see it that way. The most cynical explanation is that Microsoft is really taking a stand for poor-quality software. After all, Outlook and Internet Explorer would be the first victims of any ISP or law that banned insecure computing.

I’m not quite that cynical. Microsoft could just be jealous that Cisco Systems’ access control agents are actually shipping while its are still vaporware, or it could be trying to emphasize the benefits of locally installed software over Google’s centralized architecture. But mostly I think the giant understands its monopoly is more fragile than the telcos’ or the cable companies.’ Unlike them, Microsoft didn’t just erect tollbooths on taxpayer-funded infrastructure. It had to give customers some semblance of what they wanted, and that isn’t to be quarantined.

SOURCE

Democracy Hollowed Out
PART 1 - PART 2 - PART 3 - PART 4 - PART 5
PART 6 - PART 7 - PART 8 - PART 9 - PART 10
PART 11 - PART 12 - PART 13 - PART 14 - PART 15
PART 16 - PART 17 - PART 18

Posted by Elvis on 12/30/05 •
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Thursday, December 29, 2005

US Propaganda - CAN SPAM

Anyone who hates spam also hates the CAN-SPAM ACT OF 2003. Its core opt-out policy doomed it for failure. It superseded stronger state laws, made it impossible for individual lawsuits, and provided woefully inadequate penalties when applied in the court. And worse, by following a few simple rules, it literally made spam ... er ... “unsolicited commercial e-mail” legal.

Propaganda isn’t just for dictatorships anymore. Following on the heels of the recent revelation that the U.S. GOVERNMENT PLANTED upbeat, pro-American articles in Iraqi newspapers comes another episode of propaganda, this time a little closer to home.

This week the Federal Trade Commission released a report to Congress championing the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003.

The summary of the 116 page report was more cautious than some of the pages deeper in, where the lines drawn between CAN-SPAM’s enactment and a reduction in spam volume and consumer annoyance with spam were presented dangerously close to cause and effect.

Everything I’ve heard and seen written about CAN-SPAM has been quite the opposite of what the FTC claimed this week. Many others feel the same.

The report isn’t necessarily all lies, but it does seem to be propagandist and self serving in its love for CAN-SPAM. The report calls CAN-SPAM “effective” on a number of levels in shielding consumers from spam. It even calls the roundly criticized opt-out provisions effective.

The report does acknowledge that anti-spam technologies have become “more effective and more broadly deployed” in the same two-year time frame as CAN-SPAM’s existence, but it gives far too much credit to CAN-SPAM for the gains against spam since 2003.

The report says that the volume of spam is “leveling off.” This may be true, depending on who you talk to. Anti-spam technology vendor MX Logic has reported that 68 percent of e-mail traffic it scanned in 2005 was spam, down from 77 percent in 2004.

But another anti-spam vendor, Postini, reported a higher number: currently 88 percent of the 500 million messages it processes each day are junk. That number is up from 85 percent in the fourth quarter of last year.

According to Andrew Lockhart, Postini’s Senior Director of Marketing, less spam is getting into email inboxes, but “no one should misunderstand that less spam is being sent,” he said.

The lower rate of spam is due to spam protection at the ISP and corporate level, he said.

“The percentage of what’s out there being total garbage is increasing,” Lockhart said. “The CAN-SPAM act is not why people are receiving less spam. The reason why is that [anti-spam] technology is being deployed.”

Michael Osterman, president of Osterman Research, agreed with the FTC’s findings that the percentage of spam is indeed going down, but he doesn’t credit CAN-SPAM.

“The CAN-SPAM law, in my opinion, has had virtually no impact on the reduction in the percentage of spam,” he said.

Rather than legislation, the more difficult work of changing the economics of spam through technology, is where real gains against spam are being seen, he said.

Strides are being made using reputation analysis to stop spam at the connection level, he said.

“If you can stop 99 percent of spam, spammers either have to crank up volume 100 times or they have to get out of business,” he said.

Furthermore, in its report the FTC claims that “compliance with CAN-SPAM by top online marketers is high” This fact, combined with technological advances, show “there is reason to believe that legislation and technology together are helping to solve the spam problem,” the report states.

No, not true.

According to MX Logic and numbers quoted by Osterman, only 4 percent of unsolicited commercial e-mail complied with CAN-SPAM in 2005.

CAN-SPAM is a good law to have on the books, allowing prosecution of the few spammers caught and giving legitimate marketers publicly agreed upon rules to follow.

But don’t give CAN-SPAM credit for reducing spam or for less consumer irritation. My email inbox is barraged with a lot less spam than two years ago but I give credit to anti-spam technology not CAN-SPAM.

Let’s go back to Dec 2003 - when the CAN SPAM Act was signed into law:
- The CAN SPAM Act took precedence over more stringent State-level anti-spam laws.
- The CAN SPAM Act does not remediate the common practice of circumventing anti-spam laws by sending spam e-mails through an offshore ISP.
- The FTC was not a supporter of the CAN SPAM Act. The FTC supported a different bill (International Consumer Protection Enforcement Act [ICPEA]), which gave the commission greater power in tracking down spammers. (See http://news.com.com/FTC+seeks+broad+powers+to+fight+spam/2100-1028_3-1015517.html?tag=nl).

The CAN SPAM Act has not affected the volume of e-mail spam being sent. The average consumer and enterprise user sees less spam in 2005 because
- The majority of enterprises and ISPs have installed spam-filtering technology
- Spam-filtering technology is more sophisticated
- Security vendors have bundled spam filtering within broader security applications
- Spam filtering capabilities have been built into the latest releases of e-mail servers (e.g., Exchange and Domino) and e-mail clients (e.g., Outlook, Notes and Eudora).

SOURCE

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Posted by Elvis on 12/29/05 •
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Saturday, December 17, 2005

US Violates Civil Liberties

Bush Approved Eavesdropping, Official Says

By KATHERINE SHRADER, Associated Press Writer
Yahoo News
December 17, 2005

President Bush has personally authorized a secretive eavesdropping program in the United States more than three dozen times since October 2001, a senior intelligence official said Friday night.

The disclosure follows angry demands by lawmakers earlier in the day for congressional inquiries into whether the monitoring by the highly secretive National Security Agency violated civil liberties.

“There is no doubt that this is inappropriate,” declared Republican Sen. Arlen Specter (news, bio, voting record) of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. He promised hearings early next year.

Bush on Friday refused to discuss whether he had authorized such domestic spying without obtaining warrants from a court, saying that to comment would tie his hands in fighting terrorists.

In a broad defense of the program put forward hours later, however, a senior intelligence official told The Associated Press that the eavesdropping was narrowly designed to go after possible terrorist threats in the United States.

The official said that, since October 2001, the program has been renewed more than three dozen times. Each time, the White House counsel and the attorney general certified the lawfulness of the program, the official said. Bush then signed the authorizations.

During the reviews, government officials have also provided a fresh assessment of the terrorist threat, showing that there is a catastrophic risk to the country or government, the official said.

“Only if those conditions apply do we even begin to think about this,” he said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the intelligence operation.

“The president has authorized NSA to fully use its resources let me underscore this now ח consistent with U.S. law and the Constitution to defend the United States and its citizens,” the official said, adding that congressional leaders have also been briefed more than a dozen times.

Senior administration officials asserted the president would do everything in his power to protect the American people while safeguarding civil liberties.

“I will make this point,” Bush said in an interview with “The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.” “That whatever I do to protect the American people and I have an obligation to do so ח that we will uphold the law, and decisions made are made understanding we have an obligation to protect the civil liberties of the American people.”

The surveillance, disclosed in Friday’s New York Times, is said to allow the agency to monitor international calls and e-mail messages of people inside the United States. But the paper said the agency would still seek warrants to snoop on purely domestic communications for example, Americans’ calls between New York and California.

“I want to know precisely what they did,” Specter said. “How NSA utilized their technical equipment, whose conversations they overheard, how many conversations they overheard, what they did with the material, what purported justification there was.”

Sen. Russ Feingold (news, bio, voting record), D-Wis., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said, “This shocking revelation ought to send a chill down the spine of every American.”

Vice President Dick Cheney and Bush chief of staff Andrew Card went to the Capitol Friday to meet with congressional leaders and the top members of the intelligence committees, who are often briefed on spy agencies’ most classified programs. Members and their aides would not discuss the subject of the closed sessions.

The intelligence official would not provide details on the operations or examples of success stories. He said senior national security officials are trying to fix problems raised by the Sept. 11 commission, which found that two of the suicide hijackers were communicating from San Diego with al-Qaida operatives overseas.

“We didn’t know who they were until it was too late,” the official said.

Some intelligence experts who believe in broad presidential power argued that Bush would have the authority to order these searches without warrants under the Constitution.

In a case unrelated to the NSA’s domestic eavesdropping, the administration has argued that the president has vast authority to order intelligence surveillance without warrants “of foreign powers or their agents.”

“Congress cannot by statute extinguish that constitutional authority,” the Justice Department said in a 2002 legal filing with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review.

Other intelligence veterans found difficulty with the program in light of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, passed after the intelligence community came under fire for spying on Americans. That law gives government ח with approval from a secretive U.S. court the authority to conduct covert wiretaps and surveillance of suspected terrorists and spies.

In a written statement, NSA spokesman Don Weber said the agency would not provide any information on the reported surveillance program. “We do not discuss actual or alleged operational issues,” he said.

Elizabeth Rindskopf Parker, former NSA general counsel, said it was troubling that such a change would have been made by executive order, even if it turns out to be within the law.

Parker, who has no direct knowledge of the program, said the effect could be corrosive. “There are programs that do push the edge, and would be appropriate, but will be thrown out,” she said.

Prior to 9/11, the NSA typically limited its domestic surveillance activities to foreign embassies and missions ח and obtained court orders for such investigations. Much of its work was overseas, where thousands of people with suspected terrorist ties or other valuable intelligence may be monitored.

The report surfaced as the administration and its GOP allies on Capitol Hill were fighting to save provisions of the expiring USA Patriot Act that they believe are key tools in the fight against terrorism. An attempt to rescue the approach favored by the White House and Republicans failed on a procedural vote.

SOURCE

Posted by Elvis on 12/17/05 •
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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

US Propaganda - Stealth PR

By Matt Kelley
USA TODAY
December 14, 2005

WASHINGTON A $300 million Pentagon psychological warfare operation includes plans for placing pro-American messages in foreign media outlets without disclosing the U.S. government as the source, one of the military officials in charge of the program says.

Run by psychological warfare experts at the U.S. Special Operations Command, the media campaign is being designed to counter terrorist ideology and sway foreign audiences to support American policies. The military wants to fight the information war against al-Qaeda through newspapers, websites, radio, television and “novelty items” such as T-shirts and bumper stickers.

The program will operate throughout the world, including in allied nations and in countries where the United States is not involved in armed conflict.

The description of the program by Mike Furlong, deputy director of the Joint Psychological Operations Support Element, provides the most detailed look to date at the Pentagon’s global campaign.

The three companies handling the campaign include the Lincoln Group, the company being investigated by the Pentagon for paying Iraqi newspapers to run pro-U.S. stories.

Military officials involved with the campaign say they’re not planning to place false stories in foreign news outlets clandestinely. But the military won’t always reveal its role in distributing pro-American messages, Furlong says.

“While the product may not carry the label, ‘Made in the USA,’ we will respond truthfully if asked” by journalists, Furlong told USA TODAY in a videoconference interview.

He declined to give examples of specific “products,” which he said would include articles, advertisements and public-service announcements.

The military’s communications work in Iraq has recently drawn controversy with disclosures that Lincoln Group and the U.S. military secretly paid journalists and news outlets to run pro-American stories.

White House officials have expressed concern about the practice, even when the stories are true.

National security adviser Stephen Hadley said President Bush was “very troubled” by activities in Iraq and would stop them if they hurt efforts to build independent news media in Iraq. The military started its own probe.

It’s legal for the government to plant propaganda in other countries but not in the USA. The White House referred requests for comment about the contracts to the Pentagon, where officials did not respond.

Special Operations Command awarded three contracts worth up to $100 million each for the media campaign in June. Besides the Lincoln Group, the contractors are Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC) of San Diego and SYColeman of Washington.

SAIC and Lincoln Group spokesmen declined to comment on the contract. Rick Kiernan, a spokesman for SYColeman, says its work for Special Operations Command is “more in the world of advertising.”

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has emphasized that Washington must promote its message better. “The worst about America and our military seems to so quickly be taken as truth by the press and reported and spread around the world,” he said last week.

The Iraq example may cause Arabs to doubt any pro-American messages, says Jumana al-Tamimi, an editor for the Gulf News, an English-language newspaper published in the United Arab Emirates.

Placing pro-U.S. content in foreign media “makes people suspicious of the open press,” says Ken Bacon, a Clinton administration Pentagon spokesman who heads the non-profit group Refugees International.

No contractor for the global program has made a final product, Furlong says. Approval will come from Rumsfeld’s office and regional commanders. Some of the development work is classified.

“Sometimes it’s not good to signal ... what your plans are,” he says.

SOURCE

Posted by Elvis on 12/14/05 •
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