Sunday, January 15, 2012

Last Call

Republicans running for President keep telegraphing their intent to ignore the laws as they stand now as they simply believe that they won't apply to them once they reach the Oval Office.  Nobody's been worse on this than Newt Gingrich, who infamously said last month that he would simply ignore Supreme Court decisions he didn't agree with.  Now he's following that nonsense up with the notion that he can impose loyalty oaths on federal employees and simply fire anyone who is liberal.  TPM's Ryan Reilly:

Republican Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich suggested at a Fox News forum hosted by Mike Huckabee in South Carolina on Saturday that it would be a good idea to fire federal employees for being too liberal. Federal law, on the other hand, says Gingrich’s plan would be illegal.

“I think an intelligent conservative wants the right federal employees delivering the right services in a highly efficient way and then wants to get rid of those folks who are in fact wasteful, or those folks who are ideologically so far to the left, or those people who want to frankly dictate to the rest of us,” Gingrich said in response to a question from a federal employee at the forum (emphasis ours).

Gingrich wants the ability to fire federal employees who are "so far to the left"?  Hey, didn't Dubya get in trouble for doing that with US attorneys, a move that eventually cost AG Alberto Gonzales his job?

It's funny how we keep hearing how President Obama is going to purge conservatives from the country any second now, but apparently that outrage doesn't apply to Newt going after people for being liberal.

Turn On The Lights, Watch The Roaches Scatter Part 84

Foreclosuregate is finally, finally becoming a major campaign issue in 2012, and the Obama administration is signaling it will definitely be siding with homeowners as we get closer to Election Day.

Putting more pressure on the banks to help troubled homeowners refinance has emerged as the most likely option, given the extreme difficulty of persuading the GOP-controlled House to set aside more money to avert foreclosures.

The administration could dramatically speed the pace of home mortgage refinancings by clearing obstacles at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac but Edward DeMarco, the acting director of the Federal Housing and Finance Agency, which has oversight of the mortgage giants, has been hesitant to take an activist role. Obama's hands are tied because Senate Republicans refused to confirm his nominee to replace DeMarco.

A White House official said Obama has taken the housing crisis seriously since the start of his term and will look to augment the effort in the months ahead.

“From day one the President has worked to stabilize the housing market and help responsible homeowners stay in their homes, including through refinancing efforts, foreclosure prevention programs and programs directed at the hardest hit states,” said White House spokeswoman Amy Brundage.

“The President will continue to expand on these efforts and look at new ways to help homeowners, just as he has over the past few months with new programs to help underwater homeowners and expanding forbearance so more unemployed homeowners can stay in their homes,” she said.

There are things the Obama administration can do without Congress, but considering that the GOP is eager to block, obstruct, and dismantle any executive agency that could possibly help, it's going to be a tough fight.  Should Republicans keep the House and/or gain control of the Senate next January, it'll be even worse.  And should they capture the White House, well, you can forget any help to anyone but the banks that ruined the housing market in the first place.

Super Colbert's Super PAC

So the question is "Does Stephen Colbert's super PAC stunt really help with awareness of the billions that will be spent on Campaign 2012?"  I'd like it to be true that it is, and he took his show to ABC's This Week with Snuffles to do it.

Colbert is using his faux bid for the White House to draw attention to new campaign finance laws that allow unnamed donors to pour unlimited funds into super PACs, which can spend that money to support political candidates as long as they do not directly coordinate with a candidate.

"Why would you worry about what money is doing to the political process?" Colbert said, a twinge of sarcasm in his voice. "There are $11.2 million worth of ads being run in South Carolina. That just means more speech than ever before in South Carolina."

Colbert's super PAC, which was re-named The Definitely Not Coordinated With Stephen Colbert Super PAC after Colbert announced his exploratory committee, launched an ad in South Carolina this week labeling Mitt Romney a "serial killer."

The Colbert super PAC ad is an obvious spoof of anti-Romney ads being run by the pro-Newt Gingrich super PAC in the Palmetto State. Gingrich has said any untrue statements should be removed from the ad, but, because the PAC does not coordinate with Gingrich, it has refused to re-edit the ads, which some say stretch the truth about Romney's time at Bain Capital.

Colbert took a similar tone, saying he had "nothing to do" with the "serial killer" ads.

"I am not calling anyone a serial killer," Colbert said. "That's not my super PAC."

Colbert handed the reins of his PAC over to fellow comedian Jon Stewart earlier this week. 

Now, it's great that Colbert and Stewart are definitely bringing attention to all this money going towards campaign silliness.  And yes, the absolute absurdity of the situation is a very visible, indelible reminder of how broken Citizens United has made our system.

But in the short run, you can argue that Colbert is turning off younger voters that watch his show, and making them decide to wash their hands of the entire political process.  Long-term, the only way this gets fixed is through new legislation, and that's not going to happen if voters just decide to walk away from the ballot box because there's no point in trying to change the system.

On the other hand, there's a strong argument to be made here that Colbert is targeting Romney and the GOP directly as well as Citizens United, and that his audience is smart enough to catch on to the fact that their vote is important enough to spend a couple hundred bucks per voter in America in order to try to buy it through ads and campaign events.  Besides, the "Mitt The Ripper" ad is utterly brilliant satire.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Colbert Super PAC Ad - Attack In B Minor For Strings
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogVideo Archive

I'm definitely learning toward the latter here.  Colbert's doing the country a favor.

Practical Stupidity: Navigating Customer Service Calls

Yahoo ran an article this morning about how the official problem solver for the Chicago Tribune has learned to work the system.  He only uses his powers for good, but when a person is stuck and needs help, he will coach them on how to work with the system to get what is right.

So let's start there.  Work with the system, to get what is right.  This is not a strategy for milking companies for freebies, or fighting a war because one disgruntled customer doesn't understand their role as a consumer.  I have trained customer service, worked it myself, been on the receiving end of customer service (supposedly) and I know how sales work.  When I call for help, I expect courtesy, a certain level of desire to fix the problem and I am kind when the inevitable upsell offer comes.  I understand, and while I decline I am respectful and easygoing about it.  I have trained people in how to calm upset people, and coach them on how to get through a tough situation.

Still, in my many years of working with people, I have heard things like this:
"I don't want to pay a late fee, but I want a credit from you for taking my time on the phone."
"I am not responsible for this.  I chose to let someone else have full control over my services and so it's clearly not my fault, your company should take a loss to fix it."
"I've been a loyal customer since [insert year]."

Here's the deal: businesses have to get paid for their services.  Late fees can certainly cross the line of common sense, but if you pay late expect some kind of penalty.  Understand that the person you speak with on the phone is unable to write corporate policy.  Just because you don't think it's fair doesn't mean you are always right.  Credit for your time on the phone, or compensation for your stamps, or compensation for your incredible inconvenience of having to handle your affairs is unlikely and will never be as much as you would like to bill yourself out for.  Yes, businesses appreciate loyal customers but it goes both ways.  You have paid for a great service and gotten one, so the idea that paying your bill is some huge act of charity is hogwash.

Let's have a little chat about responsibility.  Businesses can screw up, when millions of bills are printed you know there will be a few errors.  However, it's the consumer's responsibility to look over their bill and understanding it before paying.  I have listened to this argument for years: that a bill has been incorrect every month for a year or more and because the customer just now noticed and believes it's unfair they should be credited for everything, pronto.  If your adorable little snowflake called China, you are responsible for the charges.  If you let your toddler chew on your cell phone or pound on the computer with his adorable plastic hammer (I'm not kidding!) then you are responsible.  If your purse is stolen or a butterfly in Jerusalem fluttered its wings and caused you to drop something breakable, that may not be your fault.  Rest assured it isn't the fault of the poor sap you're nagging for a refund, either.

This article is right on, and correct.  It doesn't allow for the fact that the customer isn't always right or even slightly reasonable.  It tells you to call back (which is correct) but it doesn't tell you that customer service agents have a time goal, customer callback goal and other standards that determine anything from their paycheck to their consideration for promotion.  Asking nicely for their ID number will up their accountability, because lying about that information is a serious no-no.

The golden rule for getting good customer service is simple: don't be a dick.  Don't talk to the agent like a servant.  Show basic respect and cooperate with them.  Do your homework, such has having a bill in front of you.  Answer their questions honestly so they can get to the bottom of the matter quickly.  You may disagree with the company, but know the person who is trying to help you is not responsible for the situation that has upset you.  Show a little grace before you demand it from them.  I know many agents who do the minimum required to help customers, but don't go above and beyond for those who start screaming and demanding right off the bat.  And why should they?

Two Anniversaries, Two Life Lessons

Five years ago today, our city was buried in ice.  So much that it changed the entire landscape of our entire region.  So much ice that people died because they couldn't get out for food or other necessities.  So much ice that when the power went down the sound of trees creaking under the weight would wake you up from a sound sleep.  Emergency crews came in from other states, and kind souls drove around to families with food and blankets.

I strongly believe in learning survival techniques for reasons just like this.  We knew and prevented the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.  We knew how to build and maintain a fire, and already had extra blankets and a cupboard with a week of groceries.  We had extra cat food as well (you're welcome, Cartman).  If I go on a rant about how fast things can change, it's because I know firsthand how you can go from sixty degrees to so much ice the grocery store may as well be a hundred miles away for all the good it would do you.  It's why I have taught our nieces and nephews how to plan ahead and think through the problems the world can throw at you.  That is the lesson from the ice storm, and many people around here took heed and attended Survival 101 classes offered afterwards.  That is the moral of the first story.

But there's another anniversary coming this week as well, and also greatly shaped my beliefs and views on marriage.  During this same ice storm, my future husband and I were hoping the airport would open up in time for us to make it to our Las Vegas wedding.  Yes, we were in love even though the fourth day of "togetherness" had us eyeing the hatchet and saw with new interest.  All mushy love stuff aside, there was a practical reason we were getting married.  Bart had recently had a heart attack and I was unable to go see him because we were not legally married.  In Missouri, if he had died, I would have had zero rights to him or the home we had already shared for nearly nine years.  I was far from a new arrival, but the court wouldn't have cared if I had lived with him a single day or fifty years.  Until we were married I simply didn't count.  That's a terrible feeling.  I would love to say the proposal was romantic but it really came down to a practical need.  One major disaster would have been enough to tear our world apart with no legal protection.  So we did the practical thing and tied the knot, and I've never regretted it.

However, this is why I take the subject of gay marriage so seriously.  I know the frustration of having shared my life with someone in good faith, only to have the law tell me I have no rights.  I built a home, invested my heart in his family, and took care of him faithfully when he was sick.  Yet when he was going through a surgery that might have ended his life, I was kept out of the wing because I was not his legal wife.  If he had died, our home would have been taken away, and I would have been left with nothing except pictures, in spite of the fact that I contributed equally all those years to the property and towards our purchases.  Probate court would have gobbled up anything that I did try to fight for, and when one has lost their home and property, how does one fight?

That is the situation gay couples face every day.  My favorite aunt in the world is a lesbian.  She comes from a different generation, when gays were terrified to be known.  She had to deny who she was her whole life.  Even though Alzheimer's has robbed her of her memories, hiding her relationships and true identity is so deeply embedded in her psyche, that her automatic denials and clever misdirection still come up, a reflex forged by years of discrimination.  When her partner of nearly 50 years passed away, my aunt was kicked out and denied any access to the property.  She wasn't even allowed to have a photograph, and her possessions were dropped off at her house in trash bags.  Because they shared that house for 20 years, all her pictures were there.  Now that Alzheimer's has taken her memories she has nothing left.  Her life is a shell of fuzzy recollections she can't trust.  I remember her crying because she was starting to forget her wife's face.  The reason she was treated so terribly is because her wife's family disapproved of their relationship and used this death to take out their frustration and judgment on a suffering 80-year-old woman.  How very Christian of them.

So the other moral is I am grateful to have my husband, not only because I love him but because I can enjoy the legal and social blessings of being his wife.  I have security and legal protection, because any adult in this world will tell you love is not enough.  There is a practical side of marriage that we take for granted, because we can.  Those who cannot are painfully aware of their situation and helpless to prevent it.  They deserve better.

Iran, So Far Away, Part 7

Considering the source is Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal, this story on the US privately warning Israel against hitting Iran militarily seems to be designed to feed the John Bolton's Mustache theory:  since "weak" Presidents like Obama and Bush 43 won't bomb Iran, Israel will have to, and we'll be forced to get on board anyway when they do so we might as well do it now and get it over with.

President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and other top officials have delivered a string of private messages to Israeli leaders warning about the dire consequences of a strike. The U.S. wants Israel to give more time for the effects of sanctions and other measures intended to force Iran to abandon its perceived efforts to build nuclear weapons.

Stepping up the pressure, Mr. Obama spoke by telephone on Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will meet with Israeli military officials in Tel Aviv next week.

The high-stakes planning and diplomacy comes as U.S. officials warn Tehran, including through what administration officials described Friday as direct messages to Iran's leaders, against provocative actions.

It's a dead giveaway as America's favorite hack, Jennifer Rubin, talks to John Bolton's Mustache and she comes away with this:

Meanwhile, he remains deeply troubled about the Obama administration’s approach in the Middle East. In Syria, he argued, “You can’t take [Bashar al-] Assad on unless you’re willing to take on Iran.” He’s convinced that Tehran is willing to invest plenty and see plenty of Syrian blood spilled to keep its surrogate in power. Quoting former secretary of state Al Haig, he said, “We should go to the source.”

Unfortunately, we are doing, it seems, everything to convey weakness to the Iranian regime. He contends, “[The Obama administration] still thinks they can negotiate with Iran over its nuclear weapons system.” In order not to ruffle their feathers, the administration then acts meekly. Referencing the assassination of another Iranian nuclear scientist, Bolton remarked, “Hillary [Clinton] said we had nothing to do with it whatsoever. Traditionally, we say, ‘We don’t comment on alleged intelligence activities.’ Why go out of your way to say ‘Not us’? It’s because they are afraid of retaliation. But when she goes out of her way [to deny U.S. involvement], it reflects fear.”

He contends that the Obama administration acts as if it makes no difference in Iran’s calculations if it sees the United States pulling troops out of Iraq, negotiating with the Taliban or reacting so nervously about the killing of the Iranian scientist. He attributes Obama’s lack of understanding about the implications of our actions to one of two things. “Either they are terribly inexperienced and naive or they just don’t care.” If it’s the latter, they are content with a diminished role for the United States and are banking, after all this time, on sitting down with the Iranians.

Again, what other foreign coutry would be allowed to direct America's foreign policy, Middle East military policy, and economic policy?  An Israeli strike on Iran or the Iranian blockade of the Strait of Hormuz would certainly cause oil and gas to skyrocket and in an election year, that price explosion will seriously damage our economy.  On the other hand, the country would rally around the President if actual acts of war were committed.

But merely talking up the prospect of war (and that's where the WSJ comes in) raises the price of oil without the accompanying rally.  Gas prices have jumped 60 cents in less than a month here in Cincy as oil prices have topped $100 a barrel again.  The higher oil goes, the worse the economy gets.  And Rupert Murdoch's boys know it.  The last thing they want is an actual war...but an oil bubble on talk of war would damage the economy and the President.

It's a solid plan for Obama's opposition, and they are running with it.

The End Of The SOPA Opera?

The White House officially weighed in against the House GOP's Stop Online Piracy Act this weekend, and House Republicans are split on the bill as well, so much so that the bill isn't going anywhere anytime soon and has been shelved indefinitely.

On the White House blog Saturday morning, administration officials responded to two petitions calling for President Obama to veto the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and any similar bills.

“While we believe that online piracy by foreign websites is a serious problem that requires a serious legislative response, we will not support legislation that reduces freedom of expression, increases cybersecurity risk, or undermines the dynamic, innovative global Internet,” they said.

“Any effort to combat online piracy must guard against the risk of online censorship of lawful activity and must not inhibit innovation by our dynamic businesses large and small. We must avoid creating new cybersecurity risks or disrupting the underlying architecture of the Internet.”

Indeed, the online petitions filed on the White House's website got 50,000 plus signatures to kill SOPA and for good reason:  the bill basically would move the burden of proof of copyright violation from the accuser to the accused, meaning any content creator could come along and say that a major website (or a blog like this one, for example) were violating copyright laws.  It would then be up to the accused to prove they weren't doing so, and in the meantime, the entire website could be shut down until the site could prove they weren't violating the SOPA law, and all it would take is a couple of instances that might be violations to undo an entire site for good.  As a result, ISPs would then have to block the site in question or face stiff legal penalties.

Under SOPA, the internet as we know it would be over.  Certainly the era of blogs and video sites and user-posted content would be over with, which is exactly what the media giants want.  Needless to say, the backlash from both the left and the right and Silicon Valley against this has been massive, enough so that the bill is now being pulled until further notice.

House Judiciary Committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) said Friday that the controversial provision requiring Internet providers to block the domain names of overseas websites accused of hosting copyright content would be removed from SOPA. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-MI) promised a day before to remove the provision in the Senate’s version, the PROTECT IP Act.

Saturday morning, Rep. Darrell Issa indicated that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor promised him that SOPA “would not be taken up” in the House until a ‘consensus’ on anti-piracy legislation is found.

Needless to say, that's going to be a long time away.  Once again, the internet has survived.
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