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Deliver yourself from evil

When Google was founded it adopted a motto: “Don't be evil”. At least at Google, that motto has long since been set aside, and to the rest of us, it has merely become ironic. Now Apple has taken a slight swing at Google, and I thought I would highlight it a bit.

Now, don't get me wrong. I fully appreciate the fact that Apple is evil too, but if there must be evil in the world, it is better that the evil empires do battle with one another on occasion than that they spend all their time picking on us peasants.

So, to specifics. Several months ago when I first heard about the changes coming in iOS 8, I heard that Apple was going to add DuckDuckGo as a choice for the Safari default search engine. I have heard zero about it since then, and forgot about it until today, when I checked, and indeed, you can choose to bypass Google for the far less evil DuckDuckGo. I have several apps that allowed me to use DuckDuckGo as a default even before iOS 8, and I've found its search results to be as good as Google's, with no ads, and they don't track you. Or at least they say they don't. I don't know how they make money, but I don't much care. When I have the choice, I use their search engine. So, don't be evil. Go to your settings App on your iDevice, and take Google out of a piece of your life. No, you can't escape them. They will probably always know where you are, and what you're doing at any given time, but it might make it just a little harder for them.

This passes for progress in today’s world

Well, here's some good news and bad news:

The Department of Defense released proposed rules today targeting the practices of a broad range of high-cost lenders and prohibiting them from charging service members interest rates over 36 percent.

The new rules would overhaul the Military Lending Act, which, when enacted in 2007, narrowly defined potentially abusive loans. But as ProPublica and Marketplace reported last year, high-cost lenders easily circumvented the law by offering longer-term loans. As a result, those pitching payday, auto-title, and installment loans continued to peddle credit from stores lining the streets near military bases.

via Pro Publica

So, the good news is that loans of over 36% will be banned; the bad news is that loans of up to 36% will be allowed. There was a time, deep in the distant past, when there were such things as usury laws, that actually imposed reasonable limits on the rate of interest anyone but a criminal could charge. (Criminals were not allowed to charge those rates either, but they did. That's why it was a crime.) This was back in the day, by the way, when you could get a rate of interest on a savings account that was larger than microscopic, so the spread between what you could get for your money and what you had to pay for money was far narrower than today. Rest assured, 36% was beyond the pale.

As the quoted article goes on to say, service people are particularly vulnerable to these predators for a number of reasons, including the fact that, unlike the folks who build our weapons and push us into war, they are not that highly paid.

So, we have come a long way, to a time when the journalists at Pro Publica can proclaim in all honesty that it really is a very big deal that these predatory lenders are being restricted in any way whatsoever. It runs against the trend after all. One small step, but no giant leap.

The future of education

We should never forget that a substantial number of the people who are getting rich in this land of ever increasing inequality are doing so by sucking hard at the government teat. Among the worst offenders is the relatively new for-profit education industry. There was a time when even the rich kept their hands off of education, perhaps recognizing that there were some things that shouldn't be all about money, but of course those times are past. Right now, the big money is going to the for-profit universities, but that's only because the for profit secondary and primary education companies have not yet gotten a big enough share of the market to start siphoning off the truly big bucks. But there day will come, and in the case of the for profit universities we can see a bit of our future:

Many students who enroll in such colleges don’t realize that there is a difference between for-profit, public, and private non-profit institutions of higher learning. All three are concerned with generating revenue, but only the for-profit model exists primarily to enrich its owners. The largest of these institutions are often publicly traded, nationally franchised corporations legally beholden to maximize profit for their shareholders before maximizing education for their students. While commercial vocational programs have existed since the nineteenth century, for-profit colleges in their current form are a relatively new phenomenon that began to boom with a series of initial public offerings in the 1990s, followed quickly by deregulation of the sector as the millennium approached. Bush administration legislation then weakened government oversight of such schools, while expanding their access to federal financial aid, making the industry irresistible to Wall Street investors.

While the for-profit business model has generally served investors well, it has failed students. Retention rates are abysmal and tuitions sky-high. For-profit colleges can be up to twice as expensive as Ivy League universities, and routinely cost five or six times the price of a community college education. The Medical Assistant program at for-profit Heald College in Fresno, California, costs $22,275. A comparable program at Fresno City College costs $1,650. An associate degree in paralegal studies at Everest College in Ontario, California, costs $41,149, compared to $2,392 for the same degree at Santa Ana College, a mere 30-minute drive away.

Exorbitant tuition means students, who tend to come from poor backgrounds, have to borrow from both the government and private sources, including Sallie Mae (the country’s largest originator, servicer, and collector of student loans) and banks like Chase and Wells Fargo. A whopping 96% of students who manage to graduate from for-profits leave owing money, and they typically carry twice the debt load of students from more traditional schools.

Public funds in the form of federal student loans has been called the “lifeblood” of the for-profit system, providing on average 86% of revenues. Such schools now enroll around 10% of America’s college students, but take in more than a quarter of all federal financial aid — as much as $33 billion in a single year. By some estimates it would cost less than half that amount to directly fund free higher education at all currently existing two- and four-year public colleges. In other words, for-profit schools represent not a “market solution” to increasing demand for the college experience, but the equivalent of a taxpayer-subsidized subprime education.

via Naked Capitalism

Needless to say, not only is the government doing nothing to contain this scam, it is actively helping the industry while making life even harder for the exploited. From the same source, but a different post:

As a new story by Shahien Nasiripour in the Huffington Post tells us, the Administration is now giving student loan servicers the “too big to fail” kid gloves treatment. The apparent justification is that correcting the records of borrowers who may have gone into default through not fault of their own would lead schools with bad servicers to lose access to Federal student aid, which could prove to be crippling to them.

So understand what that means: the law was set up to inflict draconian punishments on schools that used servicers that screw up and/or cheat on a regular basis, presumably because the consequences to borrowers were so serious. But rather than enforce the law, which would have such dire consequences for bad actors as to serve as a wake-up call for everyone else, the Administration has thrown its weight fully behind the education-extraction complex.

The inevitable result of all this will be that we will be paying more for less education at every level. The amount of money being spent on primary and secondary education in this country is just too great for these leaches to ignore. They will get their share by hook or by crook. I'll say again, Jonathan Pelto may have his faults, and his drive to get Foley elected is surely one of them, but he's been absolutely right about the direction in which Malloy is trying to bring us so far as education is concerned. We are heading toward a no-longer-public educational system in which our taxes will be paid as tribute to a few mega corporations whose highly paid CEOs will flourish while our kids are taught by the primary and secondary school equivalents of the adjuncts that are starving while teaching college students.

At the post-secondary level the solution is obvious: if you want to run a for-profit institution your students will just have to do without federally guaranteed student loans. End of problem. Of course, we have long since abandoned the idea that we should impose simple efficacious solutions when Rube Goldbergian ineffective window dressing solutions are available, else we would have reenacted Glass-Steagall instead of the unworkable Dodd-Franks bill.

It should be noted that this dumbing down of our educational system suits the purposes of the .01% quite well. Yesterday I wrote about the student protestors in Colorado who were demonstrating against their school boards attempt to substitute propaganda for history. The Koch Brothers are behind the school board with both money and PR support. Nothing suits the purposes of the plutocrats more than a population of sheep too ill informed to even realize they are being regularly shorn.

Be afraid, be very afraid

Scott Brown, the New Hampshire carpetbagger, is attacking Jeanne Shaheen for failing to understand the existential threat posed by a relative handful of religious nut-jobs half a world away:

>“Radical Islamic terrorists are threatening to cause the collapse of our country,” Mr. Brown says. “President Obama and Senator Shaheen seem confused about the nature of the threat — not me.”

via Daily Kos

An agressive response would be something to the following effect (properly massaged, of course, by Shaheen’s ad men): Does Scott Brown really believe that a bunch of religous nutcases can bring down the United State of America?  Does he really think our country is so weak? We are the country that conquered Hitler and went to the moon, and we are more than capable of defending ourselves against some two bit terrorists. And we can do that without spending billions of dollars and thousands of lives in countries half a world away from us. Scott Brown thinks this country is weak, and he’s running scared; I think we are a strong country, and I don’t wet my pants every time some terrorist commits an act of violence somewhere in the world.

But, of course, her response is more likely to be that she does too totally understand that if we don’t  bomb everyone in Syria that we could be an Islamic state next week, and who is this Obama guy Brown keeps talking about.

Signs of Hope

Every once in a while something happens that makes you think all hope is not lost. These days, that qualifies as good news, so this counts as a good news post.

Hundreds of Colorado high school students walked out of school Tuesday to protest a conservative history curriculum their town’s recently elected far-right school board is proposing:

The school board proposal that triggered the walkouts in Jefferson County calls for instructional materials that present positive aspects of the nation and its heritage. It would establish a committee to regularly review texts and course plans, starting with Advanced Placement history, to make sure materials “promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights” and don’t “encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

The student walkouts followed a sick-out by teachers that closed two schools.

It truly is heartening that these kids are refusing to submit to propaganda in the schoolroom. This experience may be one they never forget, that may permanently influence their political thinking, which is all to the good. 

Of course, there is a small cloud within this silver lining. It was their parents, among others, who put that school board in office. The acid test will come when those folks come up for re-election.

Obvious Day

Today, a few observations on the obvious.

First, watch this relatively short video. 

YouTube Preview Image

At Buzzflash they’re reporting that the folks at TED have pulled this video off their site on the grounds that his remarks were “too politically controversial”. Now, the fact is that any reasonably informed person watching this video would be convinced, because there’s not a single thing he says that is not obviously true, particularly given the way he presents it. For my own part, I don’t think the video was really censored because his views were too controversial. I think it was censored because those views were being endorsed by a card carrying member of the .01%, and are therefore harder to cast aside. After all, someone with that much money simply can’t be dismissed as a dirty hippie. He is, in effect, exposing the nakedness of his fellow emperors, and that can’t be tolerated.

Speaking of obvious. Many years ago I worked at Keney Park in Hartford as a lifeguard. The head guard was a guy named Manny Davison, who was a mountain of a man. He would get in the pool with the kids and play a game with them, the ostensible and unattainable object of which was for them to somehow dunk him. That never happened, but the kids kept at it because the real fun consisted of being thrown up and back into the water. All the time he was playing Manny would moan about the fact that he was “tired of winning”. 

Well, in  less benign context, did you ever find yourself feeling tired of being right?  I mean, isn’t it depressing to watch this country teeter at the edge of yet another unwinnable war, urged to it by the usual suspects, who are always wrong, and warned away from it by the other usual suspects, who are always right and to whom no one ever listens. Do you sometimes find yourself hoping that you’re not right this time, that this time we will go in, fight our war, win, exit, and leave behind a functioning democracy that respects human rights, instead of a dysfunctional country that will beget yet another revolutionary movement, using weapons we left behind in the last war, that will wage war against our “allies”, who, despite also being  loaded down with our weapons, are never capable of defending themselves without our help.

So, wouldn’t it be nice if you woke up some morning in, say, 2017 and said to yourself “Gosh darn, I was wrong and John McCain was right. Look at the incredible success we’ve had in Syria/Iran/Iraq/[your favorite Middle Eastern country here]! I guess I’ve learned something from this experience”.

Unfortunately, it’s that last sentence that’s the dead giveaway that that happy event will never occur,  for it’s a sentence never uttered by the likes of McCain, Graham, and their happily forgotten friend Joe. Unfortunately, the forces within our power center are such that the number of people migrating from the always right to the always wrong side of the ledger are growing, while those traveling in the other direction are thin on the ground. Consider John Kerry,  boasting a reputation made by being right when those in power were wrong, who, having assumed power himself, has chosen to advocate for a war his younger self would have recognized as hopeless and a waste of the lives of those sent to fight it. Consider our president, who I continue to believe knows full well it will be a mistake to put “boots on the ground” yet who is ineluctably being drawn to take exactly that step by the sheer power of mass beltway stupidity.

 It really is no fun seeing the obvious. Maybe that’s why so few of our politicians are able to see it. And I really am tired of being right. So here’s hoping I’m wrong this time.

Hope Springs Eternal

Over at Think Progress they want us to believe that the new Archbishop of Chicago is the harbinger of a new age for the Catholic Church in America. Don't believe it.

Francis himself has brought, and will bring, no substantive change to the Catholic Church. He is simply better at PR than his Nazi loving predecessor. There is nothing better in this world that to be the successor of a very easy act to follow, and Benedict was certainly that. Both Francis and the new guy in Chicago simply want you to believe that, if they could, they'd be more than happy to be in favor of women's rights, contraception, gay rights, etc., but, gosh darn it, god says they can't be, so what can moderate guys like them do, save speak a little more gently but continue to do god's work?

A mystery

So, it looks like John McCain may get his war, inasmuch as the Congress has voted to authorize U.S. aid to the rebels in Syria. The rebels are the “good guys”. For the moment.

Anyway, this got me to thinking. It is an article of faith among Republicans that the government can’t do anything right. That is how they justify the lack of a decent health care system, the hollowing out of the middle class, and any other social ill that they prefer to do nothing to remedy. The government is, they assert, simply unable to do anything about the ills that bedevil our country.

Yet, these same people insist that this same government, impotent at home, is fully capable of improving the lives and societies in places which we know virtually nothing about. This, despite massive evidence that we are, in fact, quite capable of making things better here when we put our minds to it, but have been historically unable to impose our will on other people, at least not in a fashion that doesn’t inevitably blow up in our collective faces.

I remain somewhat hopeful that Obama will tread water until Election Day and then publicly abandon this whole idea. I mean, when even the CIA admits that it can’t succeed (it never does succeed, but rarely admits it in advance) you might think a president worried about his legacy would think twice before following the Bush example.

California Dumps the Hedge Funds

I have to confess that my promised weekly “good news” posts have been infrequent of late. This is partly due to a slowdown in posting, but mostly due to a dearth of good news, what with the U.S. about to get itself embroiled in another unwinnable war and all. But, here is some good news: CALPERS, the agency that administers the State of California's pension system, is going to exit all hedge funds.

The decision, after months of deliberation by the pension fund’s investment committee, comes as public pensions across the United States are beginning to assess their exposure to hedge funds. It is likely to reverberate across the investment community in the United States, where large investment funds look to Calpers as a model because of its size and the sophistication of its investments.

..
A growing number of pension funds and institutional investors have expressed concern that the fees that hedge funds charge are too high. While there is a range, hedge funds typically follow a “2 and 20” model where investors pay management fees of 2 percent of the total assets under management and 20 percent of the profit.

via The New York Times

It must be good to be a hedge fund manager. When you fuck up, which they mostly do, based on historical performance, you make extremely good money. When you perform well (totally optional, of course) you make even better money. Meanwhile, unless you do extremely well, your client's get porked, but what of that?

Unfortunately, this good news comes too late and from too far away for the pensioners of Rhode Island, who face the prospect of a Democratic governor (Gina Raimondo) who, as state treasurer cut their benefits while she handed their pension money over to hedge funds while refusing to release details about those investmentsmlz to the people of Rhode Island. As Dean Baker has repeatedly pointed out, it is passing strange that people like Raimondo believe it is perfectly okay to break contracts with retired workers but would never think of breaking contracts with, say, the hedge fund managers they are enriching.

Sorry, I'm veering away from the good news aspect. The good news is that the CALPERS decision may, indeed, mark the beginning of a shift away from hedge funds by institutional investors, which would be a good thing for the people those institutions are supposed to serve, such as retirees, and a profound hit on the hedge funds, which rely on the vast sums and onerous terms they extract from such investors. There is nothing the hedge funds offer that a large fund with billions of assets like CALPERS has can't do for itself. There is nothing to prevent CALPERS from devising it's own investment strategies that hedge against losses. You actually don't need to pay someone a billion dollars a year to get reasonably good investment advice.

Fixed Delusions

Without going into details, I have lately, in my role as an attorney, had a frustrating time trying to get a mental health agency to help a client deal with a tenant who is mentally ill, paranoid and delusional. We think she is at risk of harming herself, but they say that while she has a “fixed delusion”, she is otherwise high functioning and until she actually does harm herself, there's nothing they can do.

It has been frustrating, because we truly believe she is at risk, but as I said to my client, they may have a point. If we were going to seek some sort of protection for everyone with a fixed delusion, we'd need a caseworker for almost every Republican in the country.

Think about it. Birthers, tenthers, sovereign citizens, religious zealots and now, there's this:

From a post at Kos, an extended quote:

Tonight, at a local candidate forum, the Republican candidate for Pueblo County Commissioner essentially endorsed the Sandy Hook truther position.

The guy's name is Dr. Tom Ready, a dentist, and his Democratic opponent is the incumbent Sal Pace, who's served in various elected positions including the Colorado state legislature.

Ready began an answer to one of the moderator's questions by talking about the ludicrously high electric rates in Pueblo county (they are) and then stated his belief that we should go back to coal because “coal is clean” (eye roll). During his two minute statement, Ready declared that the reason rates were so high was that a bill Pace voted for at the state level forced the local utility to dump coal plants for natural gas. Pace explained that he spoke directly with representatives of the utility in question before he voted, and they told him that they were planning to close their coal plant anyway, so the switch to natural gas wouldn't alter their rate structure.

It was in Ready's back-and-forth rebuttal comments that he nuked his candidacy. Again he went after Pace for his vote on that bill, which also mandated a minimum percentage of electric generation from green sources, like solar or wind, which gave the utility an excuse forced the utility to raise its rates. (my strike)

At this point I thought, “Ruh roh, he's got Pace on that one.” It was going take a deft answer to squirm around that shot, since it's hard to tell low income folks that they must pay more for electricity so it will be cleaner. Further, the host of the debate, The Pueblo Chieftain (which is the local, decidedly conservative newspaper with massive market penetration) had been hammering that very point for months.

I was caught off guard when Pace completely ignored the expensive clean energy attack by stating that the two candidates had agreed to keep it clean before the debate started, but since Ready went there… Pace proceeded to ask him about stuff on Ready's Facebook page dealing with Sandy Hook being faked so a gun ban could be passed. Oh, and Pace pointed out that he has a connection to someone whose kid was murdered in that school shooting.

I expected Ready to deflect this easily with a quick, “Why are you talking about nonsense on Facebook, I asked you about voting to raise rates on low income Puebloans for the sake of "clean energy”. Explain that vote.“

But no.

Ready went for it, and began to claim that there is no proof that Sandy Hook actually happened. Unbelievable.

That was when the crowd erupted. There for a second I thought they were going to drag him out in the street and tar and feather him like he was a Wall Street banker. I've never seen spontaneous public outrage come out of left field like that.

Then he started talking about a video that showed the father of one of the "victims” walking into a meeting laughing and joking and coming out crying. “Explain to me why he would do that!” This yahoo actually tried to make the truther argument while his own people were jeering him.

Stunning.

When the moderator asked Pace if he had a rebuttal Pace quietly said, “I have no further comment.” I swear I saw him wag his tail as he swallowed a canary.

He's tried to back off, saying he was only “putting it out there for discussion”. Sort of the way you'd put the shape of the earth “out there for discussion”. The right wing local paper has covered for him as well, and if I had to bet, I'd say he'll still get elected. So there you have it. People with fixed delusions can continue to function quite well in this society, in fact they can thrive, so who were we to try to get the social service system to help an old lady who thinks there's someone under her floorboards? What we should have done is contact the Republican party to see if they want to nominate her for Congress.