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Monday, August 10, 2009

War: Leaches, Bankers, and the American Middle-Class

The rooster is sourcing out a new perch in the hen house. Dawn has arrived. For some time now, in my personal discussions with friends, I have made the argument that being poor in and of itself is a "tax" in this society. It is always nice to have some affirmation as I see more and more mainstream articles popping up about the systemic nature of modern poverty. Yes, Virigina, there really is a Santa Claus but he gets his mega cash flow for luxury goods in part by eating the meager rations off the table of the poor. And Robin Hood lost his popularity around redneckville ever since that "Men in Tights" thing.

Now the spotlight has been turned on again because suddenly the position of working man's enemy is up for grabs. The poor have lost pole position. And the government and the greedy rich are battling for first position.

Fees charged by American companies and private enterprise have been excessive for a long time. This tends to happen when the segment paying the bill is political milquetoast to argue against the highway robbery.

I had the pleasure of living with a roommate, a manager of the largest Bank of America branch in the area, about a year ago as he transitioned from college into his management position. Frequently he'd come home crowing about his monthly bonus. When queried it didn't take a genius to figure out that the bonus was largely based on hitting his fee targets from overdrawn accounts.

Naturally, being the lovable contrarian that I am, I noted that he was making his money on the backs of the poor whom the bank would never consider giving a legitimate cash flow loan to. Yet banks are required to service the poor. So astronomical fees to float a $2.50 overdrawing seemed fitting to the bank manager. Besides, he got to collect a healthy portion of the bounty. It didn't bother him a bit. Even though the man was living rent free at the time, claiming penury while drinking all the good wine in the house, deploring the need to pay off his student loans, it still did not make him think twice that a person of lesser means paying astronomical interest rates to get a $10 loan was inappropriate. Not in the name of profit of course but in the name of covering the banks risk. After all those fees were going into his bank account.

All to which I pointed out the poor, with credit checks, are trapped audiences the risk to the bank minimal. You can't just change your bank these days Toto. The Wicked Witch has monkey spies everywhere to protect the middle class from those wicked evil poor people living in munchkin land who ride in on a horse of a different color.

To see the London Financial Times covering the topic of fee raking (see the article at the end of the post) is indeed a sign of the times or a warning that the elite's brand image is in trouble. I can only hope this if it is a sign, it is not the only sign on what, traditionally, has been a lonely road.

In my world, after struggling for years to raise two loving children and go to college, I came out the ordeal, educated, but very aware of how the system has slowly been tweaked against the poor who yearn in America to be more. You kind of, at some point, begin to see yourself in the paint the community around you colors in. The poor serve as a blight on the middle class affluence of the neighborhood. The ranks close in to pull damage control. Nothing personal of course.

Your children get screened out of day care and scuttled by the side of the road when it comes to after school "enrichment" programs. When your kid itches their head in school they have lice and a bad parent rather than having engaged in a misfortunate misplacement of desks like the other twenty head-scratchers. The personal development programs get gutted from the public schools in the name of cost savings and then youth league athletic programs only let you have two years of grants to cover fees then the kid is "out" before they get to home base. The teacher sends home snotty notes when your kid doesn't upgrade to the binder with four holes rather than three or pay the 1/3 of your food budget needed to cover the arts program. The organic produce may look great but the canned pesticidal stuff comes home with you every time.

Gosh, with such a wonderful life, isn't it plain to see why the poor like wallowing in this life style, refusing to work, and longing to rob your house and steal your car? Definitely you should vote against their interests at any opportunity before they take over the world. Shrew the day the poor obtain political clout! Is it any wonder that the illegal drugs, used to blind the poor and ignorant from this turned-upside down reality, drives much of the crime the politicians use the fear of to pass legislation on? The very same criminal activity that somewhere, someplace, makes the rich richer, and the wealthier more elite. It is all in the name of profit after all. Somewhere someone is making a buck and raising their status with the right car, the right political donations, and the smart looking house. And in the center of those houses is an arsenal armed with legal drugs to keep the occupants with money safe from the ravages of the war on poverty.

Don't you feel better now? All snug like a bug in a dirty rug.

Of course the kids don't really mind all that much. They realize that poverty isn't a disease and that it is pretty cool you have parents who will still let you go play baseball in the street parking lot while your friends are stuck watching COPS on TV and waiting to be victimized by the next "poor drug fiend" in the neighborhood. But I digress as the stereotypes spill over in prime time money making deals.

This war is a war of the adults. The kids just get hit by the fallout to become the walking wounded.

It always was the adults with the pearly steel gates locking their drives and their politicians making legislation to protect "them" against the perception of "you" that I felt had gone to war. Of course it hasn't been a spontaneous war. It isn't a new war. But in modern times, I'd argue, it has been a convenient war. One political in its design and a duplicitous intent at its heart. And one that has gone too far and needs to be curtailed back into the boundaries of the true skirmish it has always been. Hopefully before the poor are legislated into genetic and digital nonexistence.

Frank Rich's brilliant comments on Obama Punking America shouldn't be taken casually. It the shot of the United Nations coming over the hill after one side has been thoroughly throttled and left to be fodder under the hooves of the elite feet. Basically the poor get pushed under the bridge, legislated to stay under the bridge, and then as the Barbara Enreich's column yesterday noted--arrested for being under the bridge. I thought it was going to be different in my new working class town of Greeley Colorado.

It isn't. Special interests have total control and the voters are all riding the same hay wagon of hate and fear--voting against their own long term self interest in the name of color and perceived social status.

The only force I know of to change the tide is education. Education of all the people. Education of the check and balances on the elite regulators and governors. But I am at a loss what to do when an entire community sees little value in educating any one other than their own. Or what to do when the community special interests seat management who seemingly make the decisions in the interest of "their own".

Poetically I like to bring up to my wealthier friends when we get into this conversation (which by the way always ends when my favorite Canadian once again reminds me "The poor in America don't vote." and I reply "And the almost poor vote with the rich.") that at one time the poor were seen with much less stigma in America. They were the working background, the labor, the farmers, the service workers trying to hold two board together with string and a paperclip so they could go out the next day and work to feed their families. What happened? How did we become so disconnected with the people we loved who worked so hard to achieve so much?

The subtle building of a mindset that wealth comes to the hands of the pious and good and appropriately colored happened. The radical social affirmation based on isolated cases that the poor don't work. They lay under bridges and do drugs stolen from the rich happened. Excuse me for a moment here while I get my insurance covered legal Prozac out of the bathroom, happened. The steel gates guarding culture more than wealth, happened. The overwhelming mass media representations that the poor exist only for a moment to knock down wealthier doors, steal and do evil things to prettier wealthier children, rob society of their savings with their unrelenting need for food, shelter, water and medical care, happened. The fear of the future--the robbing of the very soul of everything they, the almighty middle-class righteous, had worked so hard to obtain, has happened.

Cause and effect of course are not to be overlooked here...

The initial cry of insecurity, heard across the land if you held a politician's ear to a glass to a wall containing a community treasure chest, did not go unheeded. Men and women of the knowledge of this real weapon of mass destruction, when faced with using it, didn't blink a golden eye of shame in deploying said weapon. With the battle against the tide of red subsiding as the Soviet Union collapsed, McCarthism a distant memory before Rush reemerged on the scene, and closeted racism drawing its votes less in the North and more in the South, a new enemy was needed to keep the reigning feudal society of the Have's versus the Have-not's in place.

Desperately. And Thomas Jefferson be dammed. Except for a quote for political cover now and then.

Needed by those willing to do anything to gain those seats of representative power and keep the money and favors clinking into their own pockets. The poor. The have-nots. The lesser-thans. The Reagan Homeless. The Shelter Families. All became representatives of an America that couldn't quite elevate itself far enough above those "other" countries and create a decent quality of life for all. A small scab on the knee of America needing to be eliminated in order to finally achieve the height and breadth of the power that we, as the best in the world, deserved to be. All we can be.

Besides, since the poor didn't really want to work, and they enjoy being at the bottom of the barrel and being scraped off the soul of American Congress. It wasn't too far for society as a whole to leap over this segment of society and just try to forget that other humans, beside "them", exist. The perfect narcissistic juggernaut.

Just like the hormone stretching mind-boggling teenager, America began its ride into a young adulthood of narcissism. The Me-First generation emerged with the appropriate tacit leadership approval given--wealth became the new glory mill. Fewer competitors for status. Only those with wealth can possess it. Fuel came running to the fire in the form of the technology revolution and its instant millionaires plus excessive wall street growth. The Bonfire of the Madoff Vanity ignited.

So now, here we are in 2009, and all the bubble-gum has popped all over our proverbial national face. Turns out that the rich speculators of the finance world, the insurance industry, Congress, and Wall Street were the bad guys really looking to loot middle-class America before the poor got its mitts on the surplus. Oh and the poor are not to go blameless in my rant either. They missed the bus or refused to get on it. Unwilling, unable, too trained to follow the rules rather than to make shortcuts with dire consequences, I don't know. But for some reason they missed the bus ride on gaming the American middle-class. They missed that important right turn to taking a short cut on the road to status in America. Who'd have guessed--those icons of fear turned out to simply be interested in food, shelter, water, education, and, god-forbid, health care.

It amazes me how our bubble-gum-smeared face in the mirror on the morning after is looking rather different now. A jobless recovery, corporations across America shedding those middle managers they kept on during the technology boom, few and far between weak-hands reaching out to help, the great lilly-white backs of a blue-spined Congress turned from the pale cheeks of the common man and woman, those "thems" being turned out of the homes they so diligently protected from the scummy invasion of "us" now becoming "us"... and suddenly, slowly, being poor isn't such a crime any more when you look at it through a mirror. The hate and distance in the room are gone. Suddenly it is just the person in the mirror and the reality of the society standing around it. Behind it all a circumstance with external drivers disconnected to the dirty grimy souls of unproductive bridge dwellers.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall is it a disease or is it a circumstance? Or is it, just plain stupidity, after all.

Going beyond the mirror. People may not deserve a lot of pity and but they can sure use some help. Long over due student loan regulations are coming on board. Thank you President Obama. Long over due credit card regulations are coming on board. Thank you President Obama. Executive pay is having its toenails trimmed. Thank you Corporate Wall Street raiders for rolling over on your backs and allowing Congress to make a show of it anyway. And Obama is dropping in the polls. Thank you media for doing due diligence and putting pressure on Obama to change his evil outreach to the common man. Let's cover some more of these town halls stooges and hire more half-prozac-baked pundits for Fox News.

Now, in the meantime, could we please get those idiotic credit checks as an icon to end all icons of the true value of a future employee to stop? And maybe, as Barbara Ehrenreich writes, could we get a world where people who hand out food to those starving under the bridge do not get arrested? And, oh yeah, while your at it stop those insidious payday lending institutions that charge a 400% interest rate to the poor simply because, well, they can.

Let me go one step beyond my cheeky observations above. Could we please restore to the up and coming American generation the concept that they are something more than digitized data points on a chart of gold. Could we, together as a nation, make it so personal and corporate intent has meaning rather than being isolated from profiteering actions. Could some corporation somewhere rebrand personal integrity to the tribe and make it valuable again. Please? Could some Congressional power broker please stand up for what is right for humanity and dignity rather than what is best for profit and their own personal greed?

Could someone please paint the blue back into my black sky? It's dark down here towards the bottom of the pole and it has been lonely a very long time. Come down here and take a look for yourself and you might learn a thing or two.

Somehow when I see people yelling in these town hall meetings on health care "This isn't my America" I wonder just how much of America they have really seen and experienced beyond their own backyard. It isn't "your" America. It is "our" America. That is the WHOLE point.

Once you've experienced the stigma, the bias, and the discrimination of poverty as well as the power of being middle class you never forget the road connecting the two. It isn't the same road you see when looking down on it from the superhighway of privilege. The giant gaping holes leading to deep muddy dark trenches and the missing steps on the ladder are not the waltz in the park some tell it to be. The true tale of the trench warfare to status in modern America can only be seen from both sides of the war. Some lucky ones find a hand up now and then and point to how easy the climb out can be. Others just stay silent for they know no one sitting in the meadows above will ever understand the true reality of social class wars.

Somehow when I see people yelling in these town hall meetings on health care "This isn't my America" I wonder just how much of America they have really seen and experienced beyond their own backyard. It isn't "your" America. It is "our" America. That is the WHOLE point.

It would be really nice if this administration and the people of America looking into the-morning-after-mirror would repair the ladder and offer some hope that, as a society, we have matured and moved beyond the feudal system class wars we seem want to fix everywhere but home. The closer we all are together the less fear we make. The less fear we make the more powerful we become as an organized and well governed nation.

Divided we fall. And the politicians feed on our dead carcass.

Well I guess it doesn't matter the reasoning as long as the help comes. Perhaps someday there will be a cure for "them" versus "us" but I don't think I'll hold my breath waiting for it to come. For the here and now it is a case of the people, to whom the end has been applied to, justifying the means. If it gets the job done it gets the job done.

I have my own biases I am working on. I don't like politicians.

Leaches are leaches and they should be pulled out of the murky water and left to battle the sunshine for survival.

FT.com / Companies / Banks - Banks make $38bn from overdraft fees
Banks say that the fees compensate for the risk they incur when they pay on behalf of customers who do not have enough money in their accounts. “Overdraft fees are there for a reason, we take on a lot of risk,” a senior banker said. “It’s a service to our customers, they want us to pay their overdrafts.”

The highest overdraft fees were charged by the largest banks, said Mr Moebs. At banks with assets greater than $50bn – a group including Citigroup, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo – the median overdraft fee is set at $33.

At BofA, a customer overdrawn by as little as $6 could trigger a $35 penalty. If the customer does not realise they have a negative balance and continue spending, they could incur that fee as many as 10 times in a single day, for a total of $350. Failing to repay the overdraft within a few days results in an additional $35 penalty.

BofA said that the bank was “committed to ensuring that our fees are transparent and predictable. We have a range of tools and services to give customers more control over their accounts and to prevent these fees”.

Chase has tiered overdraft fees – the first overdraft within a 12-month period is charged at $25, the second to fourth at $32 and the fifth at $35.

Barbara Enrenreich "Is it a Crime Now to be Poor"

In defiance of all reason and compassion, the criminalization of poverty has actually been intensifying as the recession generates ever more poverty. So concludes a new study from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, which found that the number of ordinances against the publicly poor has been rising since 2006, along with ticketing and arrests for more “neutral” infractions like jaywalking, littering or carrying an open container of alcohol.

The report lists America’s 10 “meanest” cities — the largest of which are Honolulu, Los Angeles and San Francisco — but new contestants are springing up every day. The City Council in Grand Junction, Colo., has been considering a ban on begging, and at the end of June, Tempe, Ariz., carried out a four-day crackdown on the indigent. How do you know when someone is indigent? As a Las Vegas statute puts it, “An indigent person is a person whom a reasonable ordinary person would believe to be entitled to apply for or receive” public assistance.

Frank Rich: Is Obama Punking America

Yet there is real reason for longer-term worry in the form of a persistent, anecdotal drift toward disillusionment among some of the president’s supporters. And not merely those on the left. This concern was perhaps best articulated by an Obama voter, a real estate agent in Virginia, featured on the front page of The Washington Post last week. “Nothing’s changed for the common guy,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been punked.” She cited in particular the billions of dollars in bailouts given to banks that still “act like they’re broke.”But this mood isn’t just about the banks, Public Enemy No. 1. What the Great Recession has crystallized is a larger syndrome that Obama tapped into during the campaign. It’s the sinking sensation that the American game is rigged — that, as the president typically put it a month after his inauguration, the system is in hock to “the interests of powerful lobbyists or the wealthiest few” who have “run Washington far too long.” He promised to smite them.


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