Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

New Credit Card

My chosen lifestyle — like that of most Americans — can be summarized as “just a little bit beyond my means”.

Abetting this attitude is the ready availability of pre-approved credit cards. I largely resisted these for a long time until one particular come-on caught my eye. It was for a Discover card, and the cool thing about it was its featured picture of a free-floating astronaut in a space suit. I’m a total sucker for the space program, so I got the card.

And I used it. Unwisely.

Credit cards can be a good deal if you just need them as a handy cash substitute — such as needing extensive car repairs on a long road trip — that you promptly replenish with ACTUAL cash at the end of the month. But it’s a fool’s quest to use them essentially for long-term borrowing.

Meet the fool. That would be me.

I’ve got a terribly lackadaisical attitude about money. If I’ve got it, I spend it; if not, I don’t. The credit card gave me the ILLUSION of money. So, as is my wont, I spent it.

I have no recollection of what interest rate Discover was originally charging me, but on last month’s bill it was 26%. That’s on an unpaid balance of $9000. A little quick math shows that my self-indulgence is costing me $2340 a year in interest. This is phenomenally stupid.

A separate credit card, which I had to get to buy my beloved PowerBook G4 on credit, is charging 20%, but it’s nearly paid off. In fact, it WOULD have been paid off by now if iTunes weren’t so damned seductive and easy to use.

I would probably have continued on my oblivious way if something hadn’t caut my eye the other day. It was one of those informational fliers that comes with my monthly credit-union statement. Normally I just glance at it and throw it into the recycling bin, but this one had a headline that grabbed me, something along the lines of “Paying too much for your credit cards?”.

The story it told was essentially my story. You get a pre-approved card from one of the big national companies at a low introductory rate, but the issuer keeps bumping it up incrementally until it’s finally something ruinous, but you seldom pay attention to the fine print. (And, again, if you pay off your card every month, there’s no REASON to notice. But that wasn’t me.)

The deal offered by Summit Credit Union (formerly State Capitol Employees CU and soon to be Great Wisconsin CU) was a locally issued card with a much lower rate. They had 5 plans, and I chose the one at 10% with no annual fee. The math on this works out to $900 in interest a year, a savings of $1440 over the Discover card (which, incidentally, Summit required me to terminate as a condition of getting their new card). This is a pretty damn good return on investment for the half hour I spent filling in the application form. (It was approved electronically in under 15 minutes, while I waited in the lobby, reading a book.)

This means that all my finances are now handled thru Summit, just as all my health issues are handled thru Group Health Cooperative of South Central Wisconsin.

Both of these organizations are member-owned cooperatives, which means that they are totally dedicated to member service. They don’t have to pay huge CEO salaries, employee incentive bonuses, or dividends to investors. All of their net income gets plowed back into doing right by their members.

Frankly, I was an idiot for not looking into this sooner. But, as the old saying goes, “It may be that your sole purpose in life is to serve as a bad example to others.”

Intelligence is learning from your own mistakes; wisdom is learning from the mistakes of others. Be wise, my friends.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Happy People Dancing on Planet Earth

It would be perfectly OK with me if this is the way our species is remembered.

Monday, July 14, 2008

George W. Bush's Greatest Accomplishment

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition was one of history’s most amazing juggling acts.

FDR was able to convince poor, young, black, single mothers that they had something in common with affluent, middle-aged, white, married Ivy League professors. And vice versa. Farmers who produced crops linked arms with factory workers who had to buy groceries. Good ol’ boy Southerners voted the same way as slick NYC personal-injury attorneys. Veterans looking for a good college education made common cause with pacifists. Civil libertarians joined forces with alphabet-agency government regulators.

It was really pretty amazing that this ragtag collection of constituencies was able to overcome its innate centrifugal force for even a single election, let alone holding together long enuf to govern the country — and pretty well, too — for half a century.

But it was already on the wane thru a combination of fatigue, complacency, and corruption by the time Ronald Reagan came along in 1980 and started the Republicans down the road to a different coalition — one that would rule from the right — which Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” would cement in place a decade later.

This one too had its odd bedfellows. See if you can find a common theme among these:

(1) Traditionalists. Their parents or grandparents voted for Ike or Reagan (apparently nobody ever voted for Nixon), so they grew up Republican and that's the way they always vote. No thot involved; it's just who they are and what they do. (Think Tommy Thompson.)

(2) Small-Business Conservatives. The classic Adam Smith laissez-faire entrepreneurs, not much different from Thomas Jefferson's sturdy yeoman farmers, who as rugged individualists just want to be left alone to run their own businesses without a lot of burdensome interference. For them, government is the oppressor, with all its regulations. (Think Duncan Hunter.)

(3) Big-Business Conservatives. People who have figured out how to game the system with their armies of lawyers, lobbyists, and tax accountants. For them, government is the sugar daddy, with its no-bid, cost-plus, sole-source contracts, an endless source of corporate welfare. (Think Mitt Romney.)

(4) Social Conservatives. Decent people, usually religiously motivated, who sincerely believe that abortion is murder, homosexuality is a sinful perversity, America's biggest enemy is moral decay, and the 1950s were a glorious era when everything was right with the world. (Think Mike Huckabee.)

(5) American Triumphalists. In an earlier era, these were the people who flocked to the banner of “manifest destiny”. They think that the US of A is the greatest nation on Earth, and it's our bounden duty to export our culture to the poor, benighted inhabitants of the rest of the planet, who will gladly welcome it as soon as we patiently explain what they've been missing. (Think John McCain.)

(6) Neo-Monarchists. You may have heard the parental theory of politics, where people who need nurturing want a mommy (the Democrats), while those who need protection seek a daddy (the Republicans). These are the people who totally buy into the daddy side of things. They want a strong, decisive leader and are basically suspicious of too much messy democracy. In an earlier era, they would have been rooting for MacArthur to become America's Mussolini. (Think Rudy Giuliani.)

(7) Holy Warriors. These come in 2 subflavors: (7A) 2nd-Coming Christians, who want iron-clad control of Israel so the end-time prophecies will be fulfilled in time for Jesus to fight the big battle at Armageddon; and (7B) 1st-Coming Jews, who want iron-clad control of the Promised Land so the Messiah can finally get here to save his Chosen People. Each of these factions thinks the other is nuts, if not heretical, but they have a common end goal, so they work together for now. (Think Sam Brownback with a side of Joe Lieberman.)

(8) The Disapprovers. Also coming in 2 subflavors: (8A) Men, who (while slamming down boilermakers at the corner bar) rail at permissive laws than mandate only 20 years in the jug for those dope-smoking long-haired hippie freaks; and (8B) Women, who despair of hip-hugger jeans, ear piercings, and “what’s become of today’s youth”. However, neither subflavor disapproves of massive overgeneralizations based on sex, race, or national origin. (Think Tom Tancredo.)

(9) The Brahmins. Old money. It’s not as if they’re single-interest voters, but nobody else cares more about the inheritance tax (which they call the “death tax” and see as a threat to the legacy of their noble descendants). (Think Jim Gilmore.)

(10) Libertarians. They figure we can get by with as little government as possible, and that almost all human interactions can be handled by contracts entered into and enforced by enlightened individuals with their eyes wide open. For them, government is just a giant mistake, a trip down the wrong fork in the historical road. (Think Ron Paul.)

If there’s a common thread there, I sure can’t find it. Quite the contrary. There’s an inherent tension between big vs. small businesses, Christians vs. Libertarians, and so on.

But every Republican nominee or wannabe since Gerry Ford and Jack Kemp has had to show solidarity with each of these disparate factions, promising to look out for their interests. And they’ve had to appeal to all of them. As we saw in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, the country is so evenly split that they needed every vote they could earn (and many that they didn’t earn but were handed to them gift-wrapped by Katherine Harris and Ken Blackwell). They couldn’t afford to let even one of these subgroups slip away.

As you can tell from my ability to attach the name of a Republican presidential aspirant to each of the above paragraphs, by 2008 each group figured that its own turn had come up — time to reap the rewards for the loyal support they’d shown in the past. Each managed to put forth or belch up an old white guy to carry its banner. Each such aspirant was clearly a product and exemplar of his particular group. And, probably for that very reason, each was held suspect by all of the others.

After all the shouting finally died down, and the Rs had ended up with the oldest, whitest guy of them all, they’d managed to at least disappoint if not infuriate all the other groups.

And this brings us back to George W. Bush’s greatest accomplishment. Not once but twice he not only convinced every one of those groups that he’d advance their particular agendas, he totally sold himself as being one of them!

It was, of course, a total con job, a masterpiece of snake-oil salesmanship, the repeated success of ingratiating but unexamined claims like “Yo hablo Español” from a guy who could barely manage English. It was the triumph of Karl Rove’s version of manufactured reality.

But, in the pragmatic world of politics, it met the only test that ever matters: it worked!

And, hard as it may be to believe for those of us who think that history will judge Bush the Lesser as one of America’s all-time worst presidents, within just a few years GOP stalwarts will be looking back on him fondly as having delivered — at least for them — on his claim of being a uniter, not a divider.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

AAArrggghhhh! Couldn't Post to Blog!

Pearls before Swine, by Stephan Patsis, 2008 July 13

Friday, July 11, 2008

Dammit! They're NOT Martyrs!

2008 July 10

Letters to the Editor

Re: Does Osama bin Laden still matter?,8599,1819903,00.html

In his report on Osama bin Laden, Peter Bergen writes: “Two of the bombers ... made martyrdom tapes with al-Qaeda's video-production arm.”

Martyrs? Please do not further abuse the English language by associating that word with such terrorists.

True martyrs …
 • are killed for their beliefs by oppressive, intolerant regimes.
 • would much rather keep on living.
 • want to accomplish many more things in THIS world.
 • are helpless to prevent their fate.
 • frequently suffer profoundly before death finally releases them.
 • do not take helpless innocents along with them.
 • have earned our sorrow and sympathy.

None of these conditions apply to the deranged zealots who bomb bazaars full of women and busses full of children. They call themselves martyrs so we will identify with them, feel sorry for them, think of them as victims and ultimately as heroes.

Don’t give them the satisfaction. Don’t play their sick game. Find something else to call them: murderers 1st, suicides 2nd, martyrs not at all. Those aren’t “martyrdom tapes”, they’re “maniac recruitment videos”. Do not continue to sully the memory of real martyrs by likening them to these depraved butchers.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

The Founders Contemplate Modern America

What would our nation’s founders think of how the country looks today? CNN didn’t just idly wonder about it, they went out and conducted a survey. The results are shown here
under the headline “Most say Founding Fathers wouldn’t be impressed”.

The key result: “69 percent of adult Americans who responded to a poll June 26-29 said the signers of the Declaration of Independence would be disappointed by the way the nation has turned out overall.”

But most Americans are woefully ignorant of history. They tend to lump the Founders together into one monolithic morass, as if they were all indistinguishable. Nothing could be further from the truth, and in fact their opinions would have varied widely about the state of affairs in modern America:
 • Monetarists like Alexander Hamilton and wealthy businessmen like John Hancock would probably have been delighted.
 • Opportunists like Aaron Burr would have been gratified.
 • Idealists — like John Adams and the Virginians George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison — would have been appalled.
 • And Ben Franklin, as always, would have been amused.