Banks vs. robbers-with-guns. And the difference is what?

Big banks: When did they officially trade customer service for big, fat lies?

This remarkable New York Times story by Gretchen Morgenson focuses on the absurd, seven-year battle by one beleaguered mortgage holder, but here’s the important part:

“The whole episode makes you wonder, yet again, how many of the millions of foreclosures in recent years might have been based on questionable accounting or improper practices by loan servicers.”

The bigger the bank, the bolder the perjury.

S.O.S. (Save our soap.)

That old reliable brand, Dial Gold, is really a thief in soap’s clothing.

The shape is getting a deeper curve all the time. This is not a “bar” anymore, people.  Soon it will be a sliver. Maybe we should start calling them to complain. Here’s the number: 800-258-3425

Hey, not all activism is about taxes, you know.

Henkel North America manufacturers this little moneymaker.

Portland: Low-tech and high priced.

If you want an excellent blueprint for wasting resources, look at this report from Portland’s city auditor. You don’t need to read very far to get the idea.

The city that prides itself on its green approach to life is hugely wasteful when it comes to that paper stuff called “money.”

392 Business System Software Implementation Audit FULL(2)

If a private business operated this way, its creditors would be holding a fire sale right now.

Hosed.

If you are in America, make it to your 50s, and have some combination of insurance, alarm about inevitable personal decline, relevant family history and inability to ignore physician edicts, you will probably have a colonoscopy.

No matter what you read or hear, you will wish you could avoid this procedure; if for no other reason than it seems just plain wrong to pay a stranger to do this.

Afterward, you will become one of the veterans who assure others it is a walk in the park. Armed with two gallons of lemon Gatorade and a stack of reading material, the prep is tolerable. The procedure is easier to navigate than an appointment for a root canal. If you’ve given birth, this will not slow you down at all. You’ve been on the beaches of Normandy; this is a parking ticket.

One nagging question remains unanswered. If they don’t find anything wrong in there, how do you actually know they did anything?

The oxymoronic “conscious sedation” works so well that you don’t remember anything that proves the procedure took place. They wheeled you in and next thing you knew, a nice nurse is offering you some apple juice and handing you your clothes. Other than a mad scramble for a BLT and a large chocolate milkshake, the aftermath is uneventful.

What if–as my mother (of blessed memory) used to insist about NASA’s  space program in the 1960s—they faked the whole thing on a sound stage?

We may all be part of a conspiracy much larger than we can imagine. And what with the slashed budgets at daily newspapers, it might be awhile before anyone gets the goods on this one.

Land of (limited) milk and honey.

We Americans have a hard time deciding if we’re a Land of Opportunity or Opportunism.

We’ve got a thriving “income defense industry,” which New York Times writer Paul Sullivan defines as “accountants, lawyers and financial advisers employed by the wealthy — and the merely affluent — to manage their financial affairs.”  (See the entire article, here.)

Now, there’s nothing wrong with holding on to your hard-earned gains, but much of what these defenders do amounts to standing on the necks of those living way down the food chain. The money-guarders’ machinations mean more tax dollars are growing interest off in distant accounts, not here at home paying for schools and roads.

Yet some of the tax dollars that are collected end up funding programs that do help the little gal. Case in point (and written about in the same issue of the NYT) is the feds’ 203(k) mortgage program. This little-touted method of borrowing allows us to buy ailing properties with small down payments and then renovate them under what seem like some wisely strict regulations. (Lynnley Browning’s article, here.)

Even when we have a good idea that benefits the worker bee in our society, we seem to make sure it doesn’t fully succeed. (For a start, can’t someone give better names to these tax-status things? Let’s branch out to punctuation marks at least: the 203(!) program would look a lot more upbeat, wouldn’t it?)

What we need is a better income defense industry for the regular folks. That used to be the job of elected officials, but, well, they’re busy elsewhere.

More inventions we need.

1. Prayer books with source footnotes pointing out that “our” religion is a direct descendant of “their religion.”

2. An African American man playing James Bond.

3. Toaster that works in 60 seconds.

4.  GPS for socks in the laundry.

5.  An iPhone ap for personal body scans in event of mysterious middle-of-the-night pains.

Sir James Dyson, slayer of bed bugs?

Sir James Dyson has done more than any man alive to keep floors clean, breezes flowing, water moving uphill, and hands dry. He is, of course, best known in America for his “root cyclone” vacuum cleaners.

Now is the time for Sir James to truly shine. As the epidemic of bed bugs makes news across America, the nervous itchy population awaits some new way to fight these hardy critters. A recent convention in Chicago brought hundreds of entomologists and pest-control experts together and the consensus was: The bugs are winning.

Who better to invent a device to zap these mattress invaders? Anyone who has experienced the 400 mph winds of a Dyson hand dryer in a restroom knows the man can’t be far from figuring out how to roast, suck up or blow away bugs.

Yup, the little woman is clever.

Last week I wrote a long overdue fan letter to our health care provider about the terrific attention my husband received from hospital staff more than a year ago.

A note came back promptly from Member Relations, addressed to him, which said:

“Thank you for the letter submitted by your wife in which she expressed your satisfaction…”

It’s not often that a big health care operation seizes the opportunity to thank a guy for his wife’s actions.

Recalling the recall chat.

We recently had our washing machine recalled. Seven of its sister machines had rudely shocked the owners, innocent people just trying to stay ahead of the t-shirt pile.

Our machine did indeed turn out to be one of the few with the defect. I’d used the thing almost daily for over a year unknowingly risking my life. I tell you, this housewife thing is like combat.

The machine was fixed by a nice man who stuck around to share half my almond-butter sandwich and chat about the risks of wayward appliances and the politics of recalls. We wondered what people get paid when their washer turns on them. We wondered if recalls could be a way to manipulate stock prices. It was the sort of enjoyable conversation that two strangers have when neither one knows anything about the topics discussed. Sort of like a Tea Party gathering, only we weren’t blaming the government for high taxes, cellulite or anything else that has ruined our lives.

I wish the story in yesterday’s New York Times had appeared earlier. It was  headlined “Johnson & Johnson Recalls Hip Implants” and it would have been fascinating to kick around that development with the washer guy. Maybe some other customer will mention it to him.

Office with a view…and corrective underwear.

A faithful reader suggests I pry myself away from The New York Times now and then, and take a peek at The Wall Street Journal. An excellent idea.

This morning’s spin through the WSJ site turned up several good finds, including Jonah Lehrer’s piece on how nice guys actually do finish first…and then turn into jerks when they’re the bosses. The next thing I clicked on was a piece by Ray A. Smith about “smart clothes” that change color when the wearer sweats or helps her monitor vital signs and diet.

Lehrer quotes Dacher Keltner, a psychologist at the University of California:

When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.” Mr. Keltner compares the feeling of power to brain damage, noting that people with lots of authority tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area that’s crucial for empathy and decision-making. Even the most virtuous people can be undone by the corner office.

And Smith tells us that folks at North Carolina State University’s College of Textiles are working hard in the lab to develop sensor-laden fabric that tells the wearer when blood pressure or pulse rates are rising. He also shares the good news that a wicking, waterproof suit may be coming to a haberdashery near you, and even better, a Japanese company is pushing posture-enhancing underpants.

This last bit of news is especially gratifying, since the people who labor in the vineyards of unmentionables have not brought us any real innovative products since the days of edible undies. (Which, being very high in carbs, never had a chance.)

Now, what I want to see is clothing that keeps the nice guy from turning into a fool.

“Idiocy wicking” — yeah, that’s the ticket.

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(Note: This also appears on Crosscut. Good site to bookmark for regional news and nat’l/regional commentary.)

A little something from your banker.

I’m delighted to know that there’s a new kind of credit card out there — one that lets you set all sorts of conditions and limits for yourself. As reported in “Your Card Has Been Declined, Just As You Want” by Ron Lieber in The New York Times, the idea is to give you some power for a change.

You just know the first time some bright young banker proposed this in a meeting she was met with an appalled silence. Well, times change and even Big Banks do nice little things for customers every couple of years. This is one.

Reading this I was reminded of calling up a bankcard company some years ago and asking them to lower my credit limit. They had no mechanism, no paper form, no policy. But because it was a credit union and customer-service people were empowered to solve problems, the nice person on the phone figured out a way. It was a key part of getting myself out of some pretty deep debt. (I wrote about it in 1997, here, for the Seattle Times in “Debt Lite: Shedding ugly pounds of plastic.”)

I stopped myself from reading to the end of the NYT story or looking into it more deeply because I didn’t want to get to the part where the inevitable “service charges” get described.

The banking world is like one big fishing trip. We small customers are the fish and yes, now and then they do practice catch-and-release. They’re waiting for us to get big enough to make a decent meal. But, hey, enjoy the swim in the meantime.

Inherit the (Type Like The) Wind.

It’s a haunting question:

When your time is up, and you move on to whatever comes after this life…who will cancel your Facebook page?

Fortunately, the folks at Legacy Locker are on the job. This company offers a way for your designated beneficiary (and I’m using that word loosely) to access all your online services, pages and auto-payments…in order to protect or remove them.

I have mixed feelings.

On one hand, wouldn’t it be nice to know that Type Like The Wind would live on forever, its name renewed year after year? But, on the other hand, do my heirs really need to go through those 9,678 archived Gmail messages? It seems like a lot to ask.

Uh oh, the rich are bailing on mortgages too.

Proof that this foreclosure tsunami is real:

“The housing bust that began among the working class in remote subdivisions and quickly progressed to the suburban middle class is striking the upper class in privileged enclaves…” writes David Streitfeld in The New York Times. (The other quotes are from the same piece.)

A hint that that Congress may figure this out soon:

“Whether it is their residence, a second home or a house bought as an investment, the rich have stopped paying the mortgage at a rate that greatly exceeds the rest of the population.”

Indication that this is beyond the reach of Congressional fixing:

“In a recent column on Freddie Mac’s Web site, the company’s executive vice president, Don Bisenius, acknowledged that walking away “might well be a good decision for certain borrowers” but argues that those who do it are trashing their communities.”

First thing to worry about as soon as you find a new place to live and unpack your sleeping bag:

A whole lot of people are going to grow up with the belief that “trashing their communities” is okay.

Additional gloomy whining:

I live in a city with a citizens committee for just about everything. Maybe we need to suspend those for a time and form the All-City Housing Cooperative that works on ways to hold back this wave. (That way we’d be sure to have an actual neighborhood in which to debate the merits of roses versus rhodies on the intersection traffic circles.)

And as long as we’re moving closer to real panic, let’s start substituting the words “and condominiums” every time we read aloud a sentence describing an increase in the number of houses foreclosed.

That shiny new high-rise downtown is going to have a whole new feel when the penthouse owners decamp.

All the news that fits. And solves.

I’ve only read some of the stories and ads in three sections in Sunday’s New York Times (Book Review, Business and Week in Review) and here’s what I’ve already learned:

Most new fiction is deeply flawed. A five-line letter from Ronald Reagan to his old actress friend Kitty Carlisle Hart is worth $6,100. Whales and dolphins are as smart as we are, and probably nicer. Congo is still the rape capital on earth. Congress still has absolutely no balls when it comes to regulating Wall Street. Our cellphones are built with materials that are obtained at human cost. Author Danielle Steele and legal pot growers in Colorado work harder than the rest of us. Camile Paglia says “female Viagra” pharmaceuticals will not cure the sexual malaise blanketing America.

It seems so clear:

Send sexually disappointed whiners to witness real problems in Congo.  Sell collections of witless Presidential missives as e-books in order to fund the increased cost of cruelty-free cellphone manufacturing. Deploy the hyper-prolific Ms. Steele to the pot-growing operations for one week. Swear in Ms. Paglia, stand her up in front of Congress, and let her spell it out for them: No balls, no glory.

If that last thing doesn’t work, vote for a whale or a dolphin next time.

Delta’s new Visa card sure makes me want to fly their airline. You?

Obviously Delta Airlines honchos read my blog and are ready for the sort of bold changes I endorse.

I saw a commercial this morning pushing their new Visa card that carries a terrific premium….one whole piece of luggage travels for free if you use the card to book a flight!

(I know what you’re thinking, but this isn’t one of those rich-people perks for frequent flyers. Anyone with a pulse and a willingness to charge stuff can get this card.)

More good news: I hear through my excellent network of sources that many other savvy businesses are following suit. Watch your email for new quick-approval charge and debit cards offers that include fabulous premiums.

Use those new cards for…

–a meal in your fave bistro… and get free toilet paper in the restroom! (Platinum cardholders get 2 free paper towels.)

–a trip to the emergency room…and get five squirts of hand-sanitizer!

–a trendy haircut…and they’ll rinse that shampoo out!

–your cellphone bill…and you can use the # key around the clock!

I haven’t confirmed it yet, but I’ve heard rumors that there’s a House/Senate Visa. You get a point for each dollar spent. When you get to 30,000 you can send email directly to your elected officials’ offices and ask tough questions. (One question per household. Some restrictions apply.)

Delta should be proud. Look what they’ve started.

Staying one step ahead of the moneychangers.

Last week Congress quit listening to the bleating of big banks long enough to vote for limiting the fees businesses pay whenever you use your debit card.

That’s good (and overdue) news. Debit-card charges are just one form of double-dipping that hurts consumers and the businesses who accept them.

Think about it, here’s how it used to work:

1. Get paycheck.

2. Walk or drive to bank, deposit check with the help of a teller who makes a modest but livable wage.

3. Write paper checks to buy stuff and pay bills. Pay small fee for the account, or no fee if the balance is sufficiently large.

4. Merchants who accept those checks then go to their banks and make deposits, again with a real, live teller who gets paid an hourly wage.

Now, it works like this:

1. Get a paycheck.

2. Deposit it through an ATM or by direct-deposit. (Goodbye tellers ; bank saves money. )

3. Pay bills online. (Notice that there are larger lags when your money has gone from you through the bank to a creditor, Can you say “float period?” Bank makes money.)

4. Buy stuff with credit or debit cards. (You pay a fee; merchant pays a fee and bank makes money. Let’s not even try to untangle the ways the timing of a bank’s processing of deposits can cost you a small fortune in overdraft fees.)

And, a crucial final step:

5. Fall for marketing campaigns that claim online bill-pay and ATMs are huge timesavers.

What’s a consumer to do?

One thought: Consider paying cash for one or two purchases a week that you normally do by debit card. Multiply that by a zillion and we’ll have sent a message to the moneychangers. They’ll circle back and find another trick, but for a week or two we’ll have ‘em running scared.

IKEA washcloths have little loops so you can hang them up. Brilliant.

I’ve written about the IKEA experience before, but I continue to be amazed at the scale and cheerfulness of the place.

It is still like crossing a big country covered in forests of brightly colored plastic storage bins and coffee tables made of blond wood. Every item sold in the place has a name, presumably in Swedish, a language which seems a lot like English only with more consonants per word and a sound like a sneeze thrown in here and there.

There are people wandering around Portland’s IKEA who I’m pretty sure went in during the holidays of December 2008 and never left. They’ve existed entirely on Swedish meatballs and lingonberry juice since then. And they still don’t know how to put together an entertainment center.

In any event, all of this is just an excuse to post the photo I took today looking down on what had to be a half-acre of shopping carts. Even if every cart-pusher only buys a single 100-percent cotton pillowcase, IKEA will have a very good quarter.

Gathering of the Carts