Saturday, December 27, 2014

UPDATE: Temp Slave Sounded The Early Warnings

Ah, now there's an image that brings back memories...glad to see some of you going back to The Squawker's original post of 2/6/12 ("Temp Slave Sounded The Early Warnings").  For those who don't know, Temp Slave was the brainchild of Jeff Kelly, who called himself "Keffo." For Squawker and myself, reading this '90s-era 'zine's attacks against the temp industry -- which soon broadened to a critique of the work world itself -- provided hours of merriment, because so much of it rang true for our own experience.

I only communicated with him once, following a blistering exchange with
Hate cartoonist Peter Bagge -- who wrote in to say that he'd picked up a copy and liked it, but found most of the tone overly negative (as if anybody in a permanently insecure lifestyle has anything to feel upbeat about, right?), and -- being a libertarian -- couldn't get all worked up about how the political system was treating people.

Keffo's response was suitably blistering and pointed ("You're a libertarian? I guess that means you smoke pot and exploit people"), which he signed off by saying: "You draw funny things, but you think funny thoughts." When I wrote to order a back issue, I thought only fair to get Keffo's take on the whole affair, which prompted him to expound thusly in his letter to me:

"Yeah, this whole thing with Bagge is stupid. Partly it's my fault. I assumed he was open to all kinds of material, but he isn't. I guess he's more oriented to pop culture kinds of things. But I just detest that cynical hip attitude he displayed. He talks of being proactive, but he draws cars with big tires, drunken twenty somethings etc...  I mean I like it for what it is but the only person he cares about is himself. I get shit like that all the time so it really doesn't bother me."

Keffo's response always stuck in my brain in the late '90s, when I moved to Chicago in hopes of trying carve out some kind of literary or musical niche there. My excitement quickly dissipated, however, after I picked up a copy of the Illinois Entertainer, and my eyes spied an ad for some local multi-band bill or other. Down the list I read: "Art Phag...Epstein's Mother...Walkin' The Dogma." Turning to the Squawker, I asked, "Wow, you mean these are actual bands?" I sighed.  "Man, oh man, is this place gonna's nothin' but a hotbed of irony."

As it turned out, Smashing Pumpkins' Big Dumb Rock Pose became the Windy City's defining alternative era export, but the lame attitudes that Keffo criticized continued to persist -- and I hated them, too. I had no time for that jaded-for-its-own-sake-I'm-so-cool-for-school bullshit that burped forth movies crammed with esoteric pop cultural references and loud video backgrounds...slick pop bands masquerading as "edgy" once they turned up the gain switch on their amp past five...and self-appointed Gen X lit "spokespeople" like Douglas Coupland, who went on and on about what "we" were thinking and feeling. Nobody asked me, though!

Anyway, I thought I'd see what happened to the man since Temp Slave faded into the ether of 'zinedom after its print comp, The Best Of Temp Slave, appeared in 1997. (And it's not hard to track down, either: last time I checked, Amazon had 31 used copies selling for a penny (!) apiece, while a few nearly new/"collectible" copies were fetching between $13 and $16). So I type in, "whatever happened to temp slave guy," and -- lo and behold, I find a March 2014 interview with Mark Maynard, done as part of a 'zine history project (see link below).

Now working full-time in the probiotic industry, of all things, it's good to see that the man is alive and well -- although, sadly, no longer moved to do any writing (even if he talks about finding other outlets like painting, photography and video, which is fine). However, Keffo's observations are spot-on as ever, and it's good to age that hasn't mellowed him on that score. This comment on young people, in particular, reminded me of our exchange from so long ago:

"After all, despite the best efforts of our generation, not much has been accomplished. Technology is their addiction, but, really, who, or what, do they have to turn to? The liberal left in this country stands for nothing. Their only goal is to elect a corporate Democrat, just so a Republican doesn’t win. Whether we like to hear it or not, Obama is nothing but a center right politico friendly to Wall Street. Republicans come up with insane conservative ideas and then the Dumbocrats come up with a lesser version."

That comment follows an observation from interviewer Mark Maynard, who notes that the satirical edge of programs like "The Daily Show" is often criticized for making rebellion less likely -- and that's before we get to the other relevant issue: what will people do with all that knowledge once they have it?

As Keffo suggests, if you look at the upheavals in places like Egypt, Greece or Ukraine, you'll get a better feel for what real political activity looks like, which often requires doing things that inconvenience us personally: "Remember, the powers that be, our exploiters, are working 24/7 to maintain their grip on power. We as a people can’t be weekend warriors about social change."  I couldn't have said it better myself.

Two decades after Temp Slave started blowing the horn about the inequality gaps that were rapidly heading into a chasm, we find insecurity is now a permanent feature of the American landscape -- whether you call it contracting, consulting, freelancing or temping, the long-term outcome is basically the same, as Keffo notes in this 2002 interview (which you can also read in full below): "The longer you temp, the longer you don't contribute to a retirement fund, or to health benefits."

Then again, the power structure's first loyalty isn't to provide everyone with a job...why else are they rolling out innovations like driverless cars and drones to drop off those bright, shiny packages that you order from Amazon (for less than the other guy, remember)? It's all because, as Keffo states, "business doesn't want an empowered workforce. They want you to kiss their asses and always be fearful about your job."  Keep those words writ large in your brain when you're deciding what type of action to take...whatever form it takes. --The Reckoner

Links And More Links (Here's Yer Lot, Then):
The Untold History Of 'Zines...
Jeff "Keffo" Kelly On Temp Slave!

Temp Slave: The Musical (A Brief Rundown):

Weekly Universe: Disgruntled Temps:
True-Life Tales Of Woe!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Too Much Pressure (Life As Evil Science Experiment, Take I)

Too much pressure, this pressure got to stop
Too much pressure, it's getting to my head
Too much pressure, 
they're giving me hard times
Too much pressure, my man made me sad
Too much pressure, 
him try to make me look small
Too much pressure, end up with no money

Released in August 1980, the lead-off single from this classic Two Tone band's first album sums up the steaming, noxious pile of crap that characterizes so much of our so-called modern life. I've always dug this song, because it does that classic R&B/soul trick of mating downbeat sentiments to some of the bounciest toe-tapping music you'll ever likely to encounter.

I'd have given anything to see the local lads' reaction once they stopped bopping their heads long enough at some hole-in-the-wall pub...and heard what the band was really saying underneath the bounciness. The song recently gained new life on The Abyss soundtrack, of all places -- but, hey, record sales aren't what they used to be, so you shake some action wherever you can, right?

Sadly, of course, this song's lyrics haven't aged a whit: for a further snapshot, see the link below to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's July 2014 press release on its survey about stress in American life. To me, the most interesting finding is that those in poor health and people with disabilities were most likely to report some kind of stressful incident in their lives. Such details have a "man bites dog" quality to them, but one that's often forgotten (especially by judgmental blockheads who tell you -- with a straight face -- to "just snap out of it").

Pressure has a funny way of blindsiding those of us who surf the margins...this is the third time I've restarted this post, because the situation keeps changing. For the last couple days, I've worked like a galley slave on various editorial projects to keep those funky dollar bills flying's a little hard to get into the Yuletide groove when you're feeling chained to your computer screen all day long. 

The good news, however, is that -- thanks to my strong last-minute footwork -- the budget chasm will likely melt down to a budget gap. The Squawker and myself aren't exactly ready to break out the confetti quite yet, because we've still got roughly $200 in bills to cover.  But I feel somewhat better than I did last week about where the budget equation stands -- or else, this post might have taken a considerably darker tone. 

Earlier this week, we also won a $100 gas card.  With the oily black stuff hovering slightly north of $2 per gallon right now, the timing couldn't have been better...hell, if we'd have had some extra nickels and dimes to scratch together, we could even have gone on one of our celebrated last-minute road trips ("Man, it's too nice to park in front of this computer screen all day -- let's get the hell out of here"). I'm sure we'll make up that lost time another day, though.

Too much pressure, and 
all them certain kind of people
Too much pressure, them having it easy
Too much pressure, them having it easy
Too much pressure, them sail through life
Too much pressure, them have no joy
Too much pressure, them have no joy
It's too much pressure, it's too much pressure

Like I've already mentioned, though, we're not out of the woods yet.  One troubling, wearying feature of modern life -- which, as Blur so sagely reminded us, is rubbish -- is that somebody always finds a way to reach into your pocket for more of the pittance that you do bring home.

Case in point: starting in January, I'll have to resign myself to shelling out an additional $30 per month for water and sewer. It's the first time that I've run into such a concept as a renter, which deep-freezes my heart.  My mental image is of a malicious Mr. Magoo type rubbing his bony calloused hands together, cackling: "How can we squeeze just a few more pennies from these people? Hey, wait a minute, this idea sounds pretty inspired..."

No matter, the rent now edges up to $800 per month, and -- although I've been promised that's the limit -- the jury's still out on that one, as far as I'm concerned. You know that old cliche: when anybody in an official capacity advises, "Don't worry"...that's when you should worry. Remember all those "temporary" jails and taxes? They have a way of becoming pretty damn permanent, especially when people quit paying attention.

As I write this, I'm contemplating some type of eBay sale -- or maybe a repeat of October's hat trick...when I sold off about a quarter of my record collection to inject some greenback lifeblood into my bank account. In one sense, it's not a big deal: if you're a dedicated vinyl and CD archaeologist, it's not unusual to buy, sell and re-acquire three or four copies of a favorite album.  
On the other hand, it's another reminder of the nether status that you seem to permanently inhabit -- because, obviously, if your situation didn't feel so precarious, you surely wouldn't contemplate such a maneuver. Lately, this so-called contract life feels like bank robbery: you can't build a rainy day fund, because you've been forced to spend all the money that you just made from the last job...which forces you to go back out, and pull another, and another, and another...and so on, and so forth.  Wash, rinse repeat.

Suffice to say, it's not a situation that you feel like tolerating indefinitely. The Squawker and I talk a lot about what more we want from life -- the right combination of dominoes hasn't quite fallen into place, I suppose. For the moment, I'll just enjoy myself, unleash some of my pent-up creative energies -- starting with this post -- before I square off again with the economic forces of reaction that so many of us are staring down right now.  We'll see how things turn out, but just remember...pressure doesn't ever take a holiday. --The Reckoner

Links T'Go (Before Yer Head Implodes...)

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation:
The Burden Of Stress In America:

Too Much Pressure: The Play:

Too Much Pressure: The Selecter (YouTube Video):

Friday, December 12, 2014

Homeless Hate

It's so wrong they ban sitting or lying down in some of these towns. That could affect the none homeless disabled or elderly who may need to take a rest. When 100 towns make laws like this
this means compassion is short in supply in America! --The Squawker

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Life's Little Injustices (Take V): A Chair! A Chair! My Kingdom For A Chair!
"Hi, dear -- no, save the casserole, I haven't finished
 my latest design. I call it 'Art Deco Ugly Stick...'

If you spent any time watching America's favorite TV family, The Brady Bunch, you know that a fair proportion of the jokes revolved around Mr. Brady's architectural career. Many a domestic scene at Chez Brady revolved around scenes of Mike in his vomit-colored patterned shirts and polyester suits -- oh, and let's not forget that quintessential '70s fashion of patches on the elbows!  Makes me queasy to think about, even now.

That being said, I'm "happy" -- those who didn't take Sarcasm 101, you may want to cover your eyes and ears at this point -- to report that Mike's questionable architectural legacy is alive and well in my crappy little corner of the universe. Every time I take The Squawker to a medical appointment, I see the symptoms in full effect -- tiny, crappy, puke-colored art deco chairs with arms that nobody but the skinniest, wafer-thin California model could ever fit in.

A few offices here changed -- if ever so begrudgingly -- with the times by getting a few plush sofas to sink into, or even a full-length couch (gasp, shock, horror, oh, how innovative!) Our latest unhappy run-in occurred a couple of weeks ago, when -- you guessed it -- we walked in and found ourselves surrounded by a sea of tiny, crappy, puke-colored art deco chairs that somebody probably picked up at an '80s bankruptcy auction.

What made me feel worse, though, was seeing the medical staff sitting quietly at their plush chairs, gazing out with their usual bovine incomprehension (hey, uh, why's everybody so upset? can't you just put a finger down your throat and vomit up your meals like the rest of us?).  I was reaching the point of waving imaginary semaphore flags in their complacent faces when I finally snapped. I'd reached the end of my tether. As usual, my partner needed help, and nobody was lifting a fucking finger. As usual...

So I floored it home, grabbed this sturdy wooden chair that we keep in place by one of our computers -- zipped back, and came dragging it in full view. Of course, by then, somebody had finally roused themselves out of their semi-permanent nine-to-five coma, so I wound up having to put the chair back in the car -- but I'd made my point, I suppose.

What else can I say about this image, except -- "Honk if you love Habitrail-style furniture?"

I can just imagine an alternate script exchange between Mr. Brady and the eldest member of the tribe:

(CUE upbeat transitional music: Bah-dah-DAH-DAH, Bah-da-dah-DAH-DAH...)

GREG BRADY (GB): Gee, Dad, these plans for the new Tippity-Top ice cream buffet complex look great!  There's just one thing, though...

MIKE BRADY (MB) (furrowing brow): Gee, son, what's that?

GB (points to schematic drawing): Um, why aren't there any handicapped ramps or elevators? Seems like I'm seeing those downtown now, everywhere I go...

MB (rattles drawing for a closer look): Hmm...well...I'm not sure if we should encourage handicapped people to chow down on Rocky Road, son.  It's bad for their constitution. (CUE canned laugh track.)

But that's OK -- they can leave their wheelchairs downstairs, and we'll have some volunteers carry them up to the second floor!  Sam the Butcher has already said he'd take some Friday volunteer shifts.  We'll pull 'em up by their bootstraps, 'cause that's the American Way!

GB: You're the greatest, Dad.

(Free frame father and son hunched over drawings in study as background theme begins to cue up.)

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Post-Ferguson Dog 'N' Pony Show: The County Prosecutor Cometh (And Findeth Nothing Amiss)

As we previously suggested, the fallout of Ferguson's grand jury investigation played out in all its grimy, depressing ticktock regularity. The government -- in this case, St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch -- investigated its own police department, and found no grounds to indict Officer Darren Wilson in 18-year-old Michael Brown's shooting death.

The establishment's local, state and federal paladins fell into their assigned roles of playing a tinhorn Greek chorus for "calm," "reason," and "restraint" -- when it seemed all too obvious that McCulloch's handling of the grand jury process would ensure the opposite outcome, in a community whose members are treated like walking dollar signs (at best) or subjects of an occupying army (at worst). Anyone expecting cool detachment in such a climate had to be kidding themselves.

The rioters fell into their own preassigned roles, as well. Burning and looting local mom 'n' pop businesses that people spent a lifetime building up won't bring Michael Brown back -- and, in the short run, may well prompt the town's power structure to ramp up its police department's militarized approach, making it even more difficult to change the entrenched apparatus already in place.

"Everyone's heading for the top
But tell me, how far is it from the bottom?
Nobody knows it, but everyone's fighting for the top
How far is it from the bottom?

"I don't want no peace
I want equal rights and justice
I need equal rights and justice..."
(Peter Tosh: "Equal Rights")

So, given the dynamic that played out on the streets of Ferguson, could anything have been done to avert it?  (Put it this way -- when the process raises the eyebrows of someone like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia...who's never been known for showing warm 'n' fuzzy feelings for criminal suspects, alive or know something funny's going on. See the link below for the story.)

At least one alternative that apparently never crossed the St. Louis County power structure's mind, let alone the state's -- appointing a special prosecutor to provide an independent pair of eyes. As talking head after talking head on CNN pointed out, McCulloch's status as county prosecutor calls his objectivity into question...and that's before we get into his family history. (His father was a St. Louis cop killed in the line of duty by a black man.)

Even without that history, though, it's reasonable to assume that McCulloch would show little or no inclination to press charges against the police officers whom he views as his natural allies. He does business with them on a daily basis -- from issuing warrants, to reviewing reports, and resolving issues that often pop up during investigations -- so it's hard to see how he could be truly unbiased. He's never been on the receiving end of the power he wields over ordinary peoples' lives, so why should it upset him when a few cops break character?

Bluntly put, many county prosecutors are also political animals -- that's why so many of them run for district or county judgeships that boost their power and effectively entrench them from life, since they usually run unopposed. That's because most local attorneys won't take on an established face without major financial muscle behind them, evidence of serious discontent, or both. Who wants to represent a client in a victorious political opponent's courtroom?

However, people don't have to accept conflicts of interest as the natural order of things. I recall one local prosecutor on Michigan's southeast side who responded quite differently in two cases of alleged local police brutality. Instead of asserting his authority to undercut or sidetrack the investigation, this particular prosecutor immediately called on a neighboring county's colleague to oversee both cases as a special prosecutor.

In both instances, the jury acquitted the cops -- one being a police chief who was accused of backhanding a teenager in the mouth during a drug search. While that verdict upset people, at least nobody could accuse the government of investigating its own...unlike, ahem, in Ferguson. (The chief ended up resigning under fire and leaving the community, so at least some justice -- however delayed -- got done there.)

"Everyone's talking about crime
But tell me, who are the criminals?
Everyone's talking about crime
Tell me, who are the criminals? I really don't see it...

"I don't want no peace
I want equal rights and justice
I need equal rights and justice..."
(Peter Tosh: "Equal Rights")

One other aspect of the script hasn't finished playing out yet, which is the "where do we go from here" conversation. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon claims to have the answer by calling for a special commission to ilook into Ferguson's social and economic conditions. However, he's tipped his hand by saying that police brutality shouldn't be on the table, which is like Adolf Hitler telling his inspector general not to pursue an in-depth review of his henchmens' murderous actions.

The anger in Ferguson simply reflects the violence inflicted them every day, whether it's being stopped and harassed, or swept into a net of whopping civil ticket fines. I may be testing these waters myself as the proud recipient of a civil suit that I'll be soon forced to defend at great aggravation and cost to myself. I'll fight as hard as I can, though I'm not looking forward to the experience (as all-white jury convictions of minorities are still common in my neck of the woods).

Nevertheless, it's safe to say that the anger isn't likely to die down, at least until someone makes a show of addressing the concerns that have been boiling over for so long. All too often, though, it's only a dog 'n' pony show. For another textbook example, look at the 2003 riots that shook Benton Harbor. Then-Governor Jennifer Granholm responded by naming her own special task force that made roughly a dozen recommendations for improving its own highly-charged climate.

Sadly, most of those recommendations have either been ignored, sidestepped or watered down to serve the dominant power structure's interests. As in Ferguson, local police officers were cleared of all wrongdoing. As in Ferguson, the poor are treated as nothing more than perennial cash cows to pimp and abuse. Unlike in Ferguson, however, Benton Harbor got an emergency management regime whose operatives remain in place to this day.

If that's your idea of social progress, then it's time to look out the window...whip out your binoculars...and check the sky for flying pigs. I'll be waiting. --The Reckoner

Links To Go (Good Old Boys Never Die...
...They Just Cling To Power Like Barnacles)

MSNBC: Missouri Governor Jay Nixon 
Unveils Plan For Ferguson's Future:

Newsweek: Ferguson Prosecutor Robert P. McCulloch's
Long History Of Siding With Police:

Think Progress: Justice Scalia Explains 
What Was Wrong With The Ferguson Grand Jury:

World Socialist Website
An American City: Benton Harbor And The Social Crisis In The United States:

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Cash Cows A Go Go: How Municipalities Milk The Poor

Cash Cow. 
Noun: A business venture that generates 
a steady return of profits that far exceed the
 outlay of cash required to acquire or start it.

Whatever emerges from the grand jury's probing of 18-year-old Michael Brown's fatal shooting in Ferguson, MO, one reality seems clear enough. The result is unlikely to satisfy residents demanding a legal day of reckoning for Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot Brown -- nor those on the other side who defend his actions. 

Resident Jimmie Matthews expressed his feelings succinctly enough for Yahoo News: "Whatever outcome they have, we're going to be protesting.  Either way, the issues are the same. We feel that we are not protected by anyone in the system."  Although recent protests have passed without incident, one suspects that Governor Jay Nixon's call-out of the National Guard won't exactly ease Mr. Matthews's mood.

One aspect of the tragedy has drawn little attention, however.  Like many municipalities nationwide, Ferguson has cranked up its power to levy -- and collect -- citations, fines and penalties make life hellish for the low-income residents stuck paying them. Faced with shrinking state and federal revenues, cities large and small nationwide have embraced stiffer fines to avoid budget shortfalls. Better yet, citizens don't get to vote in such matters (unlike a millage proposal, for example, that may not pass muster at the ballot box).

As NBC's analysis suggests, Ferguson's newfound fining and ticketing fever has played out with predictably skewed results. You can read the entire story in its entirety below, but some figures are worth noting in greater detail. 

In fiscal year 2013, for example, Ferguson filed 11,400 traffic cases. According to NBC, that's nearly the same number issued in Chesterfield, a largely white city that's also twice the size of Ferguson's 21,000 residents. What's more, Ferguson filed more non-ordinance cases (12,300) -- which includes non-traffic violations like trespassing, loitering, and so on -- than any other city in St. Louis County.

As a result, Ferguson expected to rake in more than $2.6 million in fines and public safety revenues for the 2013 fiscal year, or 40 percent more than it did in 2010, NBC's reports. It's a fitting outcome in a city whose residents are 67 percent black, yet whites make up 50 of its 53-member police force, and five of its six city council members (including the mayor). Do we need to hire a rocket scientist to show where such polarization leads? 

Given the weight of all these statistics, it's hardly surprising that Thomas Harvey, executive director of a law firm representing low-income clients, tells NBC: "It's not just Ferguson, it's this whole region. My clients say that the police officer and the judge and the prosecutor are not on their side, and they are just viewed as a source of revenue."

Of course, Ferguson is hardly unique in imposing such policies. Reason magazine reports that the city of Los Angeles is rolling out a citation enforcement program that imposes fines of $100 to $1,000 for various petty offenses -- ranging from harboring an unlicensed dog, for example, to tampering with refuse. Again, it doesn't take a nuclear physicist to see how the latter example will instantly criminalize a street person caught rummaging in a dumpster for pop cans and other pieces of scrap metal to convert into instant cash.

According to Reason, the initiative is expected to generate $2.5 million in annual revenues for the City of Angels, which pioneered a unique brand of "Gotcha!" enforcement in 2006 -- when it implemented "countdown" lights downtown to catch people jaywalking. If you can't cross the intersection before that light goes off, it's worth $197 for the city's coffers.

As the old saying holds..."it's nice work, if you can get it." Of course, the consequences get more drastic if you don't pay those fines immediately. Suddenly, you're looking at late fees and penalties that mushroom into arrest warrants for failure to pay them, jeopardizing your ability (economically speaking) to make those problems go away. 

What's worse, many of these statutes are framed in opaque language that officers interpret as they see fit...which breeds a culture of intimidation and harassment on the street. Left unchecked, this phenomenon erodes community support for the police department, whose officers respond by adopting a battle-ready "us against them" mentality... which only raises the odds of further tragedies waiting to happen.

Backers of this "broken windows" approach -- which holds that a well-ordered environment is necessary to preserve public safety -- brush aside concerns about its potential abuses by treating them as the rants of disgruntled street misfits: "Why worry when you haven't done anything wrong?" 

Real life rarely plays out so simply, however. I found myself reminded of this principle after watching a show on PBS this week that examined New York City's controversial "stop and frisk" policy at length. What sticks with me is the bitterness -- raw, searing and visceral -- of residents who'd found themselves on the receiving end of such policies, often with little or no warning. They scarcely felt protected, let alone served.

Where abuse of power becomes its own reward, the moral fallout is all too evident. You can only subject people so long to an endless, perverse quest of how much pain and suffering they can stand. Sooner or later, the unwilling subjects will push back, often in ways that the local power structure might not endorse. In this tragic tapestry, Ferguson is the only latest unhappy snapshot. --The Reckoner

Links To Go (Man, Don't Ever Get Yourself Busted For Jaywalking...) 
NBC News: Black St. Louis Suburbs Hit With Ticket Blitz:

Reason Magazine: Los Angeles Can't Fix Its Sidewalks
But Wants To Fine Its Citizens For Not Keeping Them Clean:

Reason Magazine: Petty Law Enforcement Vs. The Poor:

The New York Times: Author Of "Broken Windows" Policing Defends His Theory:

Life's Little Injustices (Take IV): Doin' That Phone Payment Plan Fandango

No, that's not a candid shot of John Gacy answering his latest fan's call...even if the actor's face here bears an eerie resemblance to the late serial killet's three-ringed alter ego, Pogo The Clown. How'd this one slip past the ad department, anyway? Even so, if you grew up in the '70s, you'll remember these AT&T ads well, not to mention the warm and fuzzy jingle that will probably dog you on your deathbed: "Reach out...reach out and touch someone..." 

A couple weeks ago, AT&T did reach out to me, but not in a warm and fuzzy manner. I was innocently skimming my emails, until I stumbled on one that gave me pause: somebody was trying to reach me...but the line seemed out of order. 

I promptly checked our three phones. Two were silent, while the third bleated a strange piping tone that definitely signaled something rotten in Denmark -- hell, it's just a technical glitch, I thought.  They can fix that in a heartbeat, right?

No problem-o, I figured: I needed to send a bill in the mail, so the Squawker and I could just schlep out to the truck stop, and hit up AT&T on the way.

After a couple attempts, we reached a customer service rep in Arizona whose computer knew nothing of a $64 payment that I'd made the day before -- which marked the second in a three-part agreement that I'd struck with them...or so I thought.

"Look here," I protested, "I didn't imagine this!  Why the hell would I recall agreeing to pay $64 apiece, on 'X, Y and Z Days', at So-and-So-Supermarket, after talking to somebody in Pasadena?"

No dice, Arizona Man responded: cough up the remaining $128, plus the appropriate restoration fees, or...get used to the sound of silence for a few more days. Nothing warm and fuzzy about that situation, right?

Totally exasperated, I demanded -- or should I say, "requested" -- to speak with a manager. For the next 10 minutes or so, I stood listening to some sort of bouncy, one-chord ambient piece of sonic wallpaper...if I'm shipped off to Hell, I told myself, this is how it'll sound. When no manager surfaced, I hung up.

The Squawker and I exchanged anxious glances.  "What the hell..." I sighed. "Let's try one more time before we call it an afternoon with these nitwits."

This time, we got the Detroit area office, whose rep sounded no readier to budge than the first one.  "Look," I tersely explained.  "When I say, 'I have a receipt for $64 at So-and-So-Supermarket, isn't that a clue for somebody?"

"Well, you could try the Accounting Department..." I heard the crackle of dead air that often precedes an uncomfortable pause (as in, Oh, crap, sounds like somebody f#cked up over there...glad it wasn't me!).  "It's only three o'clock now, so you should get right through."

"Fair enough, then," I growled. Sure enough, another woman came right on the line -- and I recited my woeful tale for a third time, not expecting too much.

Lo and behold, though, the account rep confirmed my payment. Another uncomfortable pause hung in the air.  "You're right. I'm so sorry about that -- you should have it back on before you get home."

"So why did I go through all this, anyway?" 

"Well..." I could have started making a sandwich during this particular uncomfortable pause. "The agent probably didn't note your details correctly. Also, our system is basically set up for  two-payment plans, not three...but I'm not sure which factor kicked in here."

"OK, fine, well...glad we got it straightened out." Click! I hung up for the last time.

The Squawker and I got in our van, relieved to have (finally) found somebody who didn't treat us "as guilty till proven innocent."  Of course, when you deal with a certified corporate megalith like AT&T, that's exactly how your situation plays out -- but it doesn't spook you any less.

How spooked? Well, I paid the third $64 installment a day early, and called to double-check when the boilerplate disconnect notice plunked itself down in our mailbox.

Once again, I heard an uncomfortable pause, followed by an equally awkward apology ("Oh, we're so sorry about sending that! out"), but that didn't bother me. I was taking no chances.

If you've ever suffered through that one-chord ambient schlock, you have a fair idea of what Hell sounds like. And I don't want to hear it ringing through my ears on my deathbed, either...anymore than "Reach out...reach out and touch someone." --The Reckoner

Links To Go (Hey, Dude, Why's The Air So Full Of Static?):
Angie's List: Why Cable, Internet TV And Customer Service Sucks So Much

Youtube: Reach Out And Touch Someone Ad, 4/79
(This Time, It's Bozo On The Line):

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

2014 Midterm Aftermath: A Few Reality Checks

Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way first, shall we?  For Democrats, the bruising outcome of Tuesday's midterm elections reflects the "six-year itch" that plagues most two-term presidents in their twilight years, as the party searches for its next standard-bearer -- and voters start yearning for a new face at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Only once since World War II has a sitting president bucked the trend, according to the National Journal. That moment came in 1998, when Democrats and Republicans essentially fought each other to a five-seat stalemate in the U.S. House and Senate, following popular backlash against Clinton's impeachment. As the old wisecrack goes, there's a reason why second-term presidents suddenly start talking up their foreign policy initiatives.

What's more, most of Tuesday's Republican victories came in solid red states that aren't Democrat-friendly, anyway. As one MSNBC commentator observed of Kay Hagan's defeat in North Carolina, no Democratic Senator has won re-election there since 1968...a reality that all her hard campaigning apparently couldn't change. Similar stories abound in states like Arkansas, where fellow one-termer Mark Pryor was the last Democrat left standing in his congressional delegation.

And it's also worth remembering that, for most voters, midterm elections are more about punishing the party in power than holding some kind of polite teatime debate. As a political science professor of mine once bluntly informed our class: "I hated Richard Nixon, and voted against him every chance I ever got." President Obama undoubtedly serves a similar purpose for his critics.

GOP stalwarts might well to ponder their prospects for 2016, when the remorseless Senate electoral math flips the opposite way, with 23 Republicans and 10 Democrats up for re-election. As GOP strategists Glenn Bolger and Neil Newhouse observe, those races include "The Big Blue Wall" of 18 states (and Washington, D.C.) that have swung Democratic for six consecutive presidential elections. And that's before we get to this, um, other elephant in the room...

After reading the above quote, a fair-minded person might well ask, "What year is this again?" Apparently, if Mr. Yelton's wishes prevailed, we'd remain stuck in World War I limbo...when poll taxes were in full effect...women's suffrage remained a dream...and the average American worked six or seven days a week for that the uber-rich could cram even more loot into their already-overstuffed money bins.

The quote cost Mr. Yelton his county precint chairmanship in 2013, but its assumptions --  bigoted and blinkered as they are -- might explain why consultants like Bolger and Newhouse worry about where their beloved GOP brand is headed in the 2016 presidential year...when turnout is higher, but not necessarily among the "Angry Old White Guy" crowd that analysts fingered as the driving force behind Tuesday's midterm results.

As Republican critics suggest, the wave of voting restrictions passed after Obama's victories seemed calculated to batten down the hatches against a younger, more diverse electorate that the party seems little interested in courting.  It's almost as if you're hearing them say: "OK, we know you don't love us.  Guess what?  Let's just make your civic duty harder to do...yeah, that's the ticket. That'll save our bacon."

However, this line of defense doesn't change the big picture, as Bolger and Newhouse's Chicago Tribune op-ed column suggests: "To win 50.1 percent of the popular vote, we estimate, Republicans will need nearly 64 percent of the white vote -- which would be a record for a non-incumbent presidential candidate."

Of course, there's a flipside to the above-mentioned argument, and that's the power of big money -- which surprisingly few contributors addressed on Tuesday night. Outside spending rocketed to new highs during this election cycle, including the $62 million that went into tipping the Iowa Senate race, or the $70 million dedicated to the Colorado Senate contest.

Even Michigan's longtime Republican Congressman, Fred Upton -- long accustomed to romping towards the finish line -- found himself sweating a little bit to victory on Tuesday due to a late-breaking $2 million negative ad blitz unleashed by the Mayday PAC on behalf of Democrat Paul Clements. (Mayday's founders have gotten a fair bit of national press by promising to eventually disband after it elects enough politicians to grease the skids for their demise -- we'll see how well that idea plays out, right?)

And that's the real story behind Tuesday's midterms, because -- in simple terms -- money buys access.  Access equals power and face in backs being scratched, chits getting cashed, and phone calls quickly returned to arrange yet another back room deal that excludes our society's most vulnerable citizens from the equation. That equation won't change in a Washington overrun by influence peddlers and lobbyists of every stripe.

Given the scenarios already being mulled over in Washington, D.C. -- a GOP-led Senate sending nonsense legislation that an unmoved Obama will veto, because he won't ever face the voters again, and the two-thirds majority for an override may or may not not exist -- another bout of gridlock for America's least fortunate might not seem so bad. Hell, it's not like anyone pays attention to their needs now, right?

I've already had progressive and Democratic friends ask, "What the hell just happened?" My response to that question is simple: let's stop wringing our hands, stop playing defense, and stop spending so much time parked at the goal line. The day of reckoning is coming, but until then, there's no plenty of work to let's get moving. -- The Reckoner
Links To Go (Here's Why You're Never On The Dark Money Radar): Congressman Fred Upton 
Declares Victory Over Democrat Paul Clements:

The Chicago Tribune: Senate Control No Cure For Republican Ills In 2016:

The National Journal: Six-Year Itch Plagues Presidents In Midterms:

The New York Times: 
Tough Tests Looming In 2016 Raise Stakes For GOP In Midterm Elections:

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Life's Little Injustices (Take III): "They Just Cut My Hours..."

It's one thing to read about the stark reality of Part-Time America in a news story, but quite another to confront its results face-to-face. President Obama's critics have hammered long and hard on this point, which isn't our focus here – because, quite frankly, all this” hectoring is lost on men and women who can't get full-time work, or struggle to string together part-time, temp or contract jobs for the privilege of getting by for another week or two.

The Squawker and I went on a grocery run tonight, though we both found the trip diminished by how this particular store is busily eliminating the healthier items we've enjoyed lately (such as a certain high-quality white meat turkey burger that Butterball produces).

Many conventional brand choices have narrowed drastically, as well – for example, when I went to grab a seven-inch Home Run pizza, I found only two choices (plain old cheese, or plain old sausage – look, ma, it's one from Column A, and another one from Column A)!

Of course, the prices have shot up dramatically, as well, which inspired a discussion at the checkout between the Squawker and myself.

“This is the last time that we can shop here,” the Squawker muttered, as the cash register ticked off $110 – beyond where we wanted to go, so we started taking items off the conveyer belt. “This food is getting way too expensive.”

Suddenly, the cashier jumped in: “I know what you mean – I have trouble affording the food here, too.”

“Don't you get a discount?” the Squawker asked.

“Oh, sure, 10 percent – but not on groceries.” The cashier wrinkled her face. “You'd think they'd put it on something that matters. I mean, it's been me and my son for 15 years now – he's 17 – and it's hard.”

We finished sorting out how many items were going back on the floor.  The cashier gestured for me to begin writing my check.

“I imagine it takes a fair amount of footwork to afford it all...” I ventured.

“They just cut my hours at work,” the cashier frowned.

“Well how many were you getting before?” I asked.

“Oh, it was usually between 30 and 37 hours...but last week, they cut us down to 25, so I had to borrow a couple weeks' rent from my dad.” She began running my check through the reader. “I felt bad, because he had to go into his 401(k) to get it...”

“Don't feel bad,” I interjected. “This is how so many people are living now – and yours isn't the first story of this sort that I've heard.”

With a couple customers fidgeting in line behind us, that's where we had to leave the story – which doesn't come attached to a particular party label, or philosophical bias. It's just one of many accounts getting drowned out by the braying of lobbyists, the carnival barking of the political class, the clanking of uber-connected insiders rattling their tin cups at the public trough, their eyes flashing a knowing wink as they grease the proper palms, endlessly grubbing for more...and so, the drain circles round, and round, and round, with no end in sight...and no cavalry coming over the horizon. --The Reckoner

Life's Little Injustices (Take II): I Feel An Overdraft In Here

A funny thing happened to my bank account last week. Late one night, I decided to check my account online, only to find myself staring down a big, ugly, negative number. How'd this happen? I wondered.

Only yesterday, I'd deposited $100 to cover another bill hovering around the corner.  What happened?  I thought I was covered! I quickly found my answer...somebody had cashed a couple checks that I'd written three and four months ago, yielding a black hole in my account.

I did what any rational person does in this type of situation...I narrowly missed doing a limbo dance off the ceiling!  After all, in this economy, most people don't wait that long to cash their checks...because they literally can't afford the luxury (like my hairstylist, who cashed a check of mine within two hours after doing her work).

Anyhow, I popped by the drive-through and made a deposit to erase the deficit, and pleaded my case to the manager that afternoon.  "Surely you can't expect me to anticipate somebody sitting on a check that long..." I contended.  "I assumed those checks were long lost, or long cashed. Either way, I had no reason to question them."

Not quite, the manager responded: most jurisdictions impose a six-month limit for cashing checks, so the bank had to honor them. The overdraft protection policy was crafted to spare the embarrassment of bouncing a check or two.  At $32 a pop, I could afford it, right?

Fortunately, we struck a compromise. The manager lifted one overdraft charge, because I'd never asked for a reversal before, and the situation was a little unusual. By Friday, I closed the gap after transferring $25 from another source, and selling a stack of albums for $35 at my local music shop.

Normally, the shop only pays a dollar apiece on used vinyl, but the owner gave me $2 each, because he liked my selections so much -- including my second copy of The my Faces stack (Long Player, First Step, A Nod's As Good As A Wink To A Blind Horse, Ooh-La-La) some imd-'80s Lou Reed fare (Legendary Hearts, New Sensations)...and my early XTC collection. Ouch!

Of course, we know why banks charge these types of fees. They're pure gravy, as a June 2013 white paper from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau suggests.  According to the report -- which comes from survey data reported by larger institutions -- overdraft and non-sufficient funds fees accounted for 61 percent of the charges that banks got in 2011.

Based on those figures, the bureau estimates that banks netted about $12.6 billion from consumers in 2011. That same year, the average consumer paid $225 in overdraft charges, and roughly 27 percent of all checking accounts paid at least one overdraft fee. If you felt stung, you've got plenty of company.

You can read the full report below, or skim the New York Times story if you're pressed for time. Suffice to say, more discussion needs to occur, Thankfully for me, good musical taste still pays off when you're struggling, as another vinyl proprietor told me earlier this month: "I still get people saying, 'Why can't you pay three bucks a pop for my Journey albums?'" 

The CFPB report's figures also convince me of something else...if John Dillinger had owned the banks that he robbed...he might have been a hell of a lot better off.  As for those copies of Legendary Hearts, or Ooh-La-La?  I'll just have to replace them later, I suppose. Such is life. --The Reckoner

Links To Go (C'mon, You Know The Drill Already): (Lots of good info here):
Bank Fees Are Hard to Avoid, Especially For Low-Income Customers:

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
CFPB Study Of Overdraft Programs:

The New York Times:
Banks Rake In Overdraft Fees, Report Finds:

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

UPDATE: CTA Kicks Workers To The Curb With Rules Crackdown

At times, the ever-mobile art of blogging demands an update of the original material. In this case, it's a timely reminder of the latest employee bloodletting at the Chicago Transit Authority, which we first documented in this post, "CTA Kicks Workers To The Curb With Rules Crackdown" (9/9/12):

As today's update suggests, the average CTA worker's lot is apparently continuing its backslide under the unforgiving gaze of Forrest Claypool, one of many well-connected political insiders who gets to decide the direction of a city...while those below him, apparently, are expected to gaze in wonder as he ponders and rules.

In any event, read the updated post and link for yourself...then repeat this mantra under your breath: "The more things change...the more they stay the same."  At least, that's how the view looks from here, anyway.  --The Reckoner

Would You Work Here? Decide For Yourself:
CTA Reviews @

Chicago Tribune: 
Problem Solver: Ex-Felon Feels Job Squeeze At CTA:

NBC Chicago: Union Blames CTA Delays On Manpower, Morale: