Credit Card Complaints

I have a few. I have had credit card companies fail at the most basic services. And I’m one of the lucky ones.

From a very heavily-commented editorial in today’s New York Times:

When the Federal Reserve asked for comments on its proposed rules on abusive credit card practices, an astonishing 56,000 poured in. Most were from outraged consumers. They told of interest rates skyrocketing when they paid an unrelated bill late. They complained of unwarranted late fees and pushed-up due dates. One Pennsylvania customer fumed: “I’m fed up with credit card company tricks that drive us deeper in debt.”

The author cites Ronald Mann of Columbia Law School. Mann likens the fees, interest rates, and other schemes by credit card issuers to a “sweat box.” He’s author of Cambridge’s Charging Ahead: The Growth and Regulation of Payment Card Markets. He knows a thing or two about consumer spending and the habits of credit issuers.

I’ve asked him for some comments — I’ll be back with an update if he has a chance to respond!

Update #1: Here is a link to the comments lodged with the Federal Reserve Board by consumers. Thousands and thousands of them.

Update #2: Dr. Mann’s further comments are below. He doesn’t feel that Congress’ legislation will be too effective. Here’s why:

My general perspective here is that much of the legislation Congress is considering will do little or no good. For the most part, Congress is considering bills that outlaw specific contracting practices issuers use to make it difficult for cardholders to anticipate the charges. The problem with that approach is that issuers constantly “cycle” the contractual practices they use, and outlawing the practices that were current last year has little effect on “cutting-edge” issuers who are already designing new practices that would not be covered by the statute. My strong impression continues to be that the bills would have little or no chance of passing if they had any serious prospect of actually changing the way the industry does business.

Free Trade = Good for Human Rights

Susan Aaronson, author of Trade Imbalance gave an opinion piece on NPR’s Marketplace yesterday afternoon.

Human rights groups may protest the Columbian free trade agreement, and point to Columbia’s shoddy record of human rights. Ok, yes, it’s shoddy. But should we wave a stick at it and hope it improves?

Aaronson points out that what many protesters fail to notice is that the agreement has built-in protections for human rights. This deal, in danger of failing, could be just what the critics should be rooting for.

Executive Compensation

Where to begin?

Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal ran an expose on the hoops companies jump through to fund executive pensions. They do it quietly, tweak the pensions of lower-level employees (sometimes in dollars per month) and end up with a big tax shelter for thousands of dollars.

The CEO Always Goes Down with the Benjamins

The CEO Always Goes Down with the Benjamins

Little-Known Move Uses Tax Break Meant For Rank and File
By ELLEN E. SCHULTZ and THEO FRANCIS

At a time when scores of companies are freezing pensions for their workers, some are quietly converting their pension plans into resources to finance their executives’ retirement benefits and pay.

In recent years, companies from Intel Corp. to CenturyTel Inc. collectively have moved hundreds of millions of dollars of obligations for executive benefits into rank-and-file pension plans. This lets companies capture tax breaks intended for pensions of regular workers and use them to pay for executives’ supplemental benefits and compensation.

The practice has drawn scant notice. A close examination by The Wall Street Journal shows how it works and reveals that the maneuver, besides being a dubious use of tax law, risks harming regular workers. It can drain assets from pension plans and make them more likely to fail. Now, with the current bear market in stocks weakening many pension plans, this practice could put more in jeopardy. Onward to WSJ >>

There’s more.

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Bishop Gene Robinson a Presence at Lambeth

The new, fully archived blog is now: www.cambridgeblog.org

Once every ten years, bishops from across the Anglican communion (that’s the Episcopalians here in the US) meet at Lambeth palace with the Archbishop of Canterbury. This time around things have radically shifted, since the 2003 elevation of Gene Robinson to bishop of New Hampshire.

Robinson is openly gay, and in a decades-long relationship. This has sparked the ire of conservatives from around the world, including here in the US, and especially in the growing Anglican churches of Africa. In many of these countries, homosexuality is punishable by death or imprisonment. My vote for the creepiest clergy member in the world would have to go to Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria (read a summary of an Atlantic Monthly report here). The guy is pretty much conflating Islamophobia with homophobia, and shipping it around the world, and is likely complicit in the massacre of Muslims by Christians in Nigeria.

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Darwin Letter Friday

Man oh man, Charles had a passive aggressive girlfriend!

This letter comes from "The Beagle Letters"

This letter comes from "The Beagle Letters"

Charles had taken a liking to Fanny Owen through his Cambridge years, but as he departed on the Beagle voyage, well…

She dumped him.

Apparently he cared more about his beetle collection than about her. She wished she had given him a pin cushion for his instruments of death. She also refers to his collection as his beetle army.

I know this is a long one, but it gets better and better (or bitter?) with the kicker being the last half and final salutation.

Try as I might, I can only read the italicized text as sarcasm. They’re hers, not mine.

From Fanny Owen to Charles Darwin:

2. Northernhay Place, Exeter

Monday

My dear Charles,

I have this evening heard from Caroline that you leave home the end of this week-and that you wish to have a good bye from me before you go. I had not the least idea you were to go so soon, for they told me it was the end of October you sailed, so I hoped and fully expected I should have been at home in time to see you- I cannot tell you how disappointed & vexed I am that that cannot be. Little did I think the last time I saw you at the poor old Forest, that it would be so long before we should meet again!! This horrid Devonshire-fool that I was to come here- I shall just get home when you are gone I dare say- My dear Charles I do hope you will enjoy yourself & be the happiest of the happy, I would give any thing to see you once more before you go, for it does make me melancholy to think the time you are to be away-& Heaven knows what may have become of all of us by this time two years. at all events we must be grown old & steady- the pleasant days, and fun we have had at the Forest can never come over again- how I wish I was there this week to have one last chat with you I cannot bear to think you are really going clear away, without my saying one good bye!!

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“Dark Knight” Lasts 38 Hours Before Pirated

David K. Levine on keeping your monopoly just long enough to benefit from it — but not so long as to be, well, a monopoly. Further, Dark Knight did it without government intervention!

An interesting story in the LA Times about the movie “Dark Knight.” They went to great lengths to make sure that bootleg DVDs wouldn’t hit the streets for the first two days after the movie was released:

Avast!

Avast!

Warner created a “chain of custody” to track who had access to the film at any moment. It varied the shipping and delivery methods, staggering the delivery of film reels, so the entire movie wouldn’t arrive at multiplexes in one shipment, in order to reduce risk of an entire copy being lost or stolen. It conducted spot checks of hundreds of theaters domestically and abroad, to ensure that illegal camcording wasn’t taking place. It even handed out night-vision goggles to exhibitors in Australia, where the film opened two days before its U.S. launch, to scan the audience for the telltale infrared signal of a camcorder.

Warner Bros. executives said the extra vigilance paid off, helping to prevent camcorded copies of the reported $180-million film from reaching Internet file-sharing sites for about 38 hours. Although that doesn’t sound like much progress, it was enough time to keep bootleg DVDs off the streets as the film racked up a record-breaking $158.4 million on opening weekend. The movie has now taken in more than $300 million.

The success of an anti-piracy campaign is measured in the number of hours it buys before the digital dam breaks.

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Why Trade is Broken, and How to Fix It

Patterson and Afilalo were never that optimistic about Doha.

They are international law and trade experts at Rutgers, who feel that the WTO procedure is based on an economic situation (beginning at Bretton Woods) that just doesn’t exist anymore — big western powers and all those other economies.

How to fix things? Make a trade council based on economic incentives.

Dennis Patterson

While the collapse of the Doha talks will not spell disaster for World Trade, it will contribute to the growing voices of protectionism heard both in the United States and abroad. Given the failure to reach consensus, it seems natural to ask if the cause is specific to the issues under discussion or whether the problem lies deeper. The immediate cause of the failure of the talks appears to have been an intractable dispute over protection for farmers in developing countries. America insisted on minimal protection: India and China wanted a “special safeguard mechanism” that would allow developing nations to raise tariffs in the interest of protecting domestic agriculture.

One of the problems with the current global trading order is that it is limited by the negotiation structure of the WTO. Each side to a given debate advances a position and then an effort is made to move the participants to consensus with each side giving ground as they are cajoled by bureaucrats to cooperate in the service of an abstract ideal. It would be far better – and likely more successful – if the participants could motivate their interlocutors to reach consensus by offering concrete incentives.

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