Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Message to Bank of America CEO: Your stock has tanked, so don't lecture me!

Bank of America CEO Brian T. Moynihan scolded us customers (for me, I am now mostly a FORMER customer), saying he was "incensed" at criticism of his bank.

Well Mr. CEO Moynihan, sir...did you notice that your stock has dropped from over $50 a share to about $6 a share? To me that marks YOU as a failure. Meanwhile, TD Bank, which did NO predatory lending and took NO taxpayer funded bailout money, has stayed about $70 a share through the entire time Bank of America tanked.

Seriously, Mr. CEO Moynihan, you have ANY right to be scolding ANYONE given the disgusting performance of your company?

Come back to me when you no longer need my tax money to just stay afloat. In a TRUE free market you and your lousy company would already be bankrupt, with companies like TD Bank buying up the remains of your assets at bargain prices. That is what TRUE capitalism would look like. Mr. CEO Moynihan, sir, you would be out of a job in a real free market. So stop whining and stop scolding and start showing some humility given the failure you represent.

Mr. CEO Moynihan, or should I say Mr. CEO $50 drops to $6 a share, has no business telling me I shouldn't complain about his lousy company.

I am an investor in the stock market. When the predatory lending scandal hit, and I saw banks like Bank of America tanking, I saw TD Bank as a buying opportunity because they avoided the whole predatory lending mess. My instincts were right...I made tons of money on that purchase. It was clear to me Bank of America made LOTS of mistakes. Their stock dropped and never recovered. Bank of America would be a penny stock or bankrupt if it hadn't been for the taxpayer funded bailout. So how dare Mr. CEO Moynihan show such arrogance. He is a loser, plain and simple. He failed his company and now he is blaming us??? We bailed him out and our anger at his poor business practices are fully justified. He should be THANKING us. Instead he scolds us...well to hell with that.

I am also a mortgage holder. I never even considered Bank of America for my mortgage. They weren't even on my radar, Mr. CEO Moynihan. You had nothing to offer me. I was with Wells Fargo. Didn't really like them. So I tried Chase. they dicked me around until I told them to get lost. So I wound up with TD Bank who offered me a good deal and stuck with it. So now I pay my mortgage to TD Bank every single month and Bank of America and Chase can kiss my on time paying ass goodbye because they offered me NOTHING despite a solid credit rating and a consistently on time payment record. Again, Bank of America and Chase show what LOUSY business models they work with. And again, Mr. CEO Moynihan shows that he is a LOUSY businessman because HIS bank had nothing to offer me while their stock was plummeting.

I also use credit cards. And here is where I was a big Bank of America customer. Somehow I wound up with most of my credit cards with Bank of America. But I didn't like them. And Mr. CEO Moynihan confirms that Bank of America does not deserve my business. So at this point I have switched almost all my credit card use to Discover and USAA. Bank of America has LOST MY BUSINESS. Got that Mr. CEO Moynihan? You have LOST MY BUSINESS. Losing people like me is why YOUR stock is at $6 a share and TD Bank is at over $70 a share. I am surprised you maintain such arrogance with your tiny $6 a share company!

Smart businessmen know that making customers feel good is the whole trick to doing business. Bank of America, and particularly Mr. CEO Moynihan, have lost sight of that very basic rule of doing business. Without taxpayer bailouts Bank of America would be dead in the water. That is a plain fact. Mr. CEO Moynihan owes American taxpayers his very job. I see Bank of America as a toxic company at this point. They'd have to do a hell of a lot to convince me to patronize them ever again, and when Mr. CEO Moynihan, as CEO of a company, insults me, does he really think it inspires me to become their customer or investor again? Hell no!

So Mr. CEO Moynihan, do NOT get my business. You do NOT get my investment. There are better banks out there. I am now mostly doing business with THEM and not with you. And I have some investment in at least one of them (and it doubled in value since I bought it!), but would never touch your toxic stock.

So think about it. Mr. CEO Moynihan is CEO of a company that would be a penny stock or out of business if taxpayers hadn't bailed him out. So who gives a rat's ass if he is "incensed" at our anger? HE is the one who should be begging us for forgiveness. We owe him nothing. We already bailed him out and if we take our business elsewhere, that is his own fault, not ours. Personally I am happy with USAA and TD Bank. Others are switching to credit unions, with membership in credit unions BOOMING.

I feel that Occupy Wall Street protesters should publicly cut up their Bank of America credit cards and switch to credit unions or banks who didn't do predatory lending or take a taxpayer bailout. Tell Mr. CEO Moynihan just what you think of his being "incensed" at us. He needs us. We don't need him. Cut up your Bank of America credit cards, close your Bank of America accounts, and refinance your mortgages to other banks or credit unions. Then Mr. CEO Moynihan can be "incensed" all he wants without our business.

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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Oct. 14, 1943: Jewish Rebellion at Sobibor Death Camp

There is an image of Jews going tamely to slaughter in the Holocaust. And it is true, for various reasons, this did happen all too often. But some Jews stood up and fought, even at times defeating the Nazis at least for a time. Throughout the Nazi era, there were always Jews who stood up and fought, and we should not forget those fights.

Sobibor was one of the Nazi death camps. Not just a run of the mill, as it were, concentration camp. But a full out Death Camp whose sole purpose was the death of Jews.

Jews so thoroughly trashed the place that the Nazis did all they could to eliminate every memory of the place. I want to REMEMBER Sobibor, just as much as the Nazis want us all to forget it. In honor of the Jews who rebelled at Sobibor, here is a song written by someone in the Vilna Ghetto, inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, honoring those who stood up and fought. It is sung in this case by Paul Robeson, who does it full justice:

In 1943 Jews were responsible for the destruction of one of the worst Nazi death camps. You probably haven't heard of Sobibor. Sobibor was designed specifically and solely to kill. It wasn't a camp where they worked people to death. It was a camp where they killed people. Mengele in Auschwitz, sorting who died and who lived for just awhile longer, was kind compared to the brutality of Sobibor.

Two of the six Nazi death camps, Treblinka and Sobibor, were destroyed as a result of Jewish uprisings. These events were suppressed not only by the embarrassed Nazis, but also ironically by some Jews who felt ambivalent about resistance, and by some Israelis who, until the revelations of the Eichmann trial, felt those who remained in the Diaspora had, by not moving to Israel, been partly responsible for their fate. I think the memory of Jewish resistance against the Nazis is extremely important to keep alive. I think we all need to know in our gut that two Death Camps received fatal blows from Jewish rebels.

Sobibor was almost the forgotten Nazi Death Camp. It was almost forgotten because the SS themselves tried to eradicate all traces of the camp. The camp had become an embarrassment after nearly half the Jews at the camp rebelled and escaped. Yeah...nearly half. So the SS tried to erase all memory of it...but they have failed.

Some memories of Sobibor:

That rebellion happened October 14th, 1943.

Most concentration camps focused on working the prisoners to death. The Nazis had two, sometimes conflicting, goals. Extermination of Jews and slave labor. By their own admission they focused more on extermination and later felt they should have saved more Jews for slave labor than they did.

This confuses some people who expect all of the Nazi camps to be the same. Simply put the Nazis had different camps for different purposes. Some camps started early on as places to put political dissidents, mostly non-Jewish. Other camps, overlapping with this first set, were designed as work camps, turning everyone the Nazis didn't like into slaves. The "Death Camps" focused on killing people as fast as they could. There were six death camps, all located in Poland: Aucshwitz II, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka. More than 250,000 people were murdered at Sobibor alone. Both Treblinka and Sobibor were destroyed thanks to Jewish uprisings.

At 4 PM, Oct. 14th, 1943, rebels led by Alexander (Sasha) Pechersky started killing SS soldiers at Sobibor. The first to die was the camp's deputy commander, killed as he visited the tailor's shop to try on a new uniform. Here is an account of that first blow as told by a survivor:

October 14, 1943 was a warm, sunny day and nothing disrupted the routine. Only a very small group knew that this was to be the fateful day. The Nazis in the camp went about their business as usual. At precisely 4:00 P.M., the stage was set. Everything now depended on the nerves of the attackers, their faith in themselves and luck.

Acting commander SS Untersturmfuehrer Niemann rode up on his horse and entered the tailor shop. Mundek was ready, holding the new uniform. The German without suspicion, unhooked his belt with its pistol in the holster and causally threw it on the table.

As tailors have done for ages, he patted and turned Niemann at his will. Finally he told him to stand still while he marked the alterations with a crayon. Then the blow fell. The Nazi dropped like a fallen tree, his head split. Shubayev rushed to Sasha's quarters and delivered the first pistol. They embraced. Now, there was no turning back.

They killed 11 German and Ukrainian guards (more by some accounts), triggering a mass breakout. About half of the camp's prisoners escaped, though in the end only 50 survived the war. Some were killed by Germans...some by Poles. Here is the same survivor's account of the breakout:

Someone was trying to cut an opening in the fence with a shovel. Within minutes, more Jews arrived. Not waiting in line to go through the opening under the hail of fire, they climbed the fence. Though we had planned to touch the mines off with bricks and wood, we did not do it. We couldn't wait; we preferred sudden death to a moment more in that hell.

Corpses were everywhere. The noise of rifles, exploding mines, grenades and the chatter of machine guns assaulted the ears. The Nazis shot from a distance while in our hands were only primitive knives and hatchets.

We ran through the exploded mine field holes, jumped over a single wire marking the end of the mine fields and we were outside the camp. Now to make it to the woods ahead of us. It was so close. I fell several times, each time thinking I was hit. And each time I got up and ran further...100 yards...50 yards... 20 more yards...and the forest at last. Behind us, blood and ashes. In the grayness of the approaching evening, the towers' machine guns shot their last victims."

Within days of this rebellion, SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered the camp dismantled and all traces destroyed. Camp III, the actual extermination area, was immediately destroyed and hidden. The other facilities were used until July 1944.

This was one example of Jewish resistance against the Nazis. And, although only 50 survived the war, their actions shut down one of the Nazi death camps. That is about as successful as half-starved, terrified, desperate people can be in the face of one of the most technologically advanced group of sociopaths in history.

THIS is the kind of history we need to remember.


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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Funding or Defunding the Doe Fund...Council Members Brad Lander and Daniel Dromm Respond

A short time back I took City Councilmembers Steve Levin and Brad Lander to task for, what seemed at the time, a casual decision to defund the Doe Fund's clean up efforts in Park Slope. I particularly took them to task for misleading statements and for denigrating the Doe Fund overall, which I found difficult to stomach because the Doe Fund is one of the most successful (among the ONLY successful) organizations for reducing recidivism among parolees.

Steve Levin has shown no interest in this issue...or any issue in the district from what I can tell. I guess as long as he has the backing of corrupt Party Boss Vito Lopez (his mentor) he feels he can cruise along with no problem...particularly since he also managed to get the formerly decent Working Families Party backing him as well, creating a nasty and disgusting alliance between the Vito Lopez machine and a Working Families party that at BEST skirted the law, and in reality had to scramble to avoid prosecution after breaking some campaign finance laws for the likes of Steve Levin.

But Brad Lander, who I have had some serious disagreements with, seems different than Steve "Vito's Kid" Levin. Brad Lander HAS been involved with the community, even if I disagree with him on the Doe Fund's role in the community, and he took the time to respond to my article taking him to task.

Let me begin by reviewing what I wrote before, then quoting Councilmember Brad Lander responding to my article, then giving something of a rebuttal from myself and giving a different opinion from Councilmember Daniel Dromm.

It all started with my building's resident Yenta asking me why 7th Ave is no longer being cleaned up. Until recently, she observed, men in blue outfits (a collaboration between the city and the Doe Fund aimed to help the homeless and parolees transition back into society and employment while cleaning up city streets not adequately cleaned by the city) would help the city empty the garbage and clean the streets. Recently those blue-uniformed men disappeared from 7th Avenue completely and in their place garbage piled up everywhere adding to what my wife already referred to as the "7th Ave. Stink."

To me this is not, however, primarily about the cleanliness of our neighborhood. It is about a program that is one of the most successful in the nation in getting homeless and parolees back into society. Here is the description of the Doe Fund from their website:

Ready, Willing & Able is The Doe Fund's holistic, residential, work and job skills training program which helps homeless individuals in their efforts to become self-sufficient, contributing members of society. Ready, Willing & Able has helped more than 4,500 men and women become drug-free, secure full-time employment, and obtain their own self-supported housing. The program targets the segment of the homeless population considered the hardest to serve: single, able-bodied adults, the majority of whom have histories of incarceration and substance abuse. Criteria for acceptance into the program is that the applicant be ready, willing and able, both physically and mentally, to work and maintain a drug-free lifestyle.

Folks, this kind of program saves taxpayers money in the long run. Like vaccinations and education, programs like this are one of the best investments society can make with taxpayer money. And, like cutting education, cutting this program is one of the dumbest moves a government can make because it will COST us all money in the long run. That is why I am interested in this issue, even though the 7th Ave Stink is also something I am concerned with. But the media articles that only focused on the garbage issue missed the main point. As did, I think, the initial response from Brad Lander and Steve Levin, though as I will quote below, Brad Lander has more depth to his stand than his initial statements indicated.

Responding to the disgusting conditions on 7th Ave these days, my building's resident Yenta asked me who to talk to. I recommended several offices she could contact including city council reps Levin and Lander, who represent the area. Here is the letter she got from Brad Lander's office (Levin, who actually represents our building, never bothered to answer...says alot right there about Steve Levin!):

Dear Ms. _____, Thank you for contacting me. Unfortunately, the blue-uniformed street cleaners on 7th Avenue were lost to budget cuts. Do you know any of the merchants on 7th Avenue? The merchants on 5th Avenue have formed a Business Improvement District, that maintains the avenue at a higher level of cleanliness that the Sanitation Department can do on its own. Maybe something similar is needed for 7th Avenue or merchants there could team up with the 5th Avenue merchants? Best,Alex

Now first off, I will agree with Lander's office that perhaps 7th Ave needs a merchant's association like 5th Ave has. That would help. But I also want to say Lander's office is misleading here. The blue-uniformed men form the Doe Fund who clean our streets are at least partly funded by discretionary funding (and some City Councilmembers, like Daniel Dromm, HAVE chosen to help fund it...more on that below). So it isn't really budget cuts that led to the loss of this service in our neighborhood, it is mainly that Brad Lander and Steve Leven CHOSE to cut this program. They are using their discretionary funding money somewhere else. Discretionary spending all too often goes to rewarding political supporters, and Steve Levin, at least, is part of a corrupt political machine that is infamous for funneling taxpayer money to reward political allies. As I will quote below, Lander is making some decisions that I may not agree with, but which have some reasoning behind it. Levin may well be simply following in the Vito Lopez machine tradition of rewarding cronies and not giving a rat's ass about the community, though I don't know because he answered no one in our building on the matter.

I also should note that my building's Yenta had some very harsh statements about Lander after actually meeting him, though since I was not there I can't judge the interaction. She can be harsh, and Lander, in my experience, can fumble delicate interactions. I remain hopeful that Lander will prove a good Councilmember, but he failed to make a good initial impression on this issue...but after my original article, he took the time to respond and in that response showed a more thoughtful side that failed to come out when my building's Yenta was trying to get answers.

Here is Brad Lander's response to my objections to his decision...and note that it differs from what his office sent to my building's Yenta: (I left out parts...if Brad feels I did so unfairly I will repost with those parts added, but they mostly deal with his response to another article that both he and I feel didn't address the real issues)

First, thanks for your nice words on my support of community efforts in response to the awful string of sexual assaults in the area.

I wanted to respond to your post on the cancellation of the City’s contract (funded previously by City Council discretionary member-item funding) with the Doe Fund to provide extra sidewalk cleaning on 7th Avenue...[Here is where I cut something Brad may want included and if so I will repost including it...but I feel it didn't address the main issues I was engaging him on]

However, because you raised the issue of the Doe Fund in your blog post, I wanted to give you some additional background.

I’ve spent much of my career working on homelessness and affordable housing, and in my time at the Fifth Avenue Committee also worked extensively on supporting successful community re-entry for former prisoners through FAC’s “Developing Justice” program. If you take a look you’ll see that many of my member items go to organizations that try to help people get back on their feet, and address underlying causes. This summer, I helped Old First Church & the new Park Slope Interfaith Social Justice Network organize a new nightly respite shelter...[sentence fragment removed]

Many of the people who I most respect in this field – from the Coalition for the Homeless, and the Legal Aid Society – are highly critical of the Doe Fund. They believe that they pay the men in their programs less-than-minimum-wage, and that their programs are paternalistic.

As you may remember, it was the Doe Fund that bused homeless people to City Hall to support Bloomberg’s efforts to overturn the will of the voters & extend term limits so he could have a third term. And they were well-rewarded with increased funding afterward (maybe they could use some of the additional $10 million they got to keep the street-cleaning going on 7th Avenue):

Even before this, however, the Doe Fund was one of Mayor Giuliani’s most-favored-not-for-profit organizations, and founder/CEO George McDonald often defended Giuliani’s "approach" to dealing with homeless and poverty. You might also check out this article about McDonald keeping for himself $100,000 in prize money awarded to the organization:

All that said, we honestly cut the program because we simply could not afford it. Member items have been cut back, as the Council has tried to protect other things from the Mayor’s budget axe – not only teachers, firefighters, etc … but also some of the most important programs that address criminal justice, re-entry, and recidivism. For example, one initiative that I fought hard to have the Council restore, over the Mayor’s cut, was a $3.5 alternatives-to-incarceration & re-entry support initiative, that funds the best groups doing that work – including CASES, Center for Community Alternatives, Center for Employment Opportunities, Fortune Society, Legal Action Center, Osborne Association, and Women's Prison Association. The mayor wanted to eliminate the program entirely, and we were able to restore it. I believe these programs are the best at addressing re-entry (and related criminal justice issues).

But restoring cuts made by the Mayor leaves far less money for discretionary member items – in my case about 50% less. As a result, the Doe Fund cost about 25% of my total discretionary spending, for one street. Keeping it would have meant cutting another 10 not-for-profit organizations who rely on the small grants we are able to provide (like NYC Coalition Against Hunger, Brooklyn Housing & Family Services, CAMBA, Food for NYC, Center for Antiviolence Education, South Brooklyn Legal Services, etc).

Let me begin by emphasizing that Lander and Levin still were misleading in their response to constituents and the media, as I outlined in my last article. The cuts were THEIR choice and were not related to firehouses and teachers the way they implied. The explanation given by Lander in response to my article contains a good deal of thoughtful information, some of which I agree with some I do not. Had Brad been more up front rather than add his name to a claim about teachers and firehouses (whose funding is not really related to the Doe Fund getting discretionary funding) it would have looked better. Also, given the fact that the Doe Fund is viewed as having a very good record of reducing recidivism, Lander and Levin's claim that it is not cost-effective is suspect. A better analysis, and a more up front analysis, could have helped. I can point out a couple of instances where the Doe Fund's cost-effectiveness can be called into question (see below) but it also is one of the most successful programs at reducing recidivism (refer to numbers in original article). The benefit to the community of cleaner streets combined with one of the best records of reducing recidivism means it is a program that should not be easily dismissed. Brad Lander's thoughtful response gives some much needed background. The original misleading, glib answer was not helpful.

Now to start, I will give my agreements with Brad's statement. I also have criticized the Doe Fund for their ties to Bloomberg and their push for his third term. But in a nation where prisons are a sadly booming big business, costing an increasing amount of taxpayer money just to keep more and more people behind bars in perpetuity, it seems to me that the cost effectiveness of the Doe Fund is hard to argue with. And there are so few programs that succeed at reducing recidivism that it seems terrible to defund one of the few that works.

Let me review the cost effectiveness of the Doe Fund, even if they have their faults:

The Doe Fund program always struck me as a win-win situation: neighborhoods got cleaned up beyond the minimal effort the city puts in, and parolees get a much better shot at making life outside prison work, reducing recidivism and hence saving the state money in the long run. Great, no? AND IT WORKS!

From "Women Out of Prison:"

Since taking office in 1989, District Attorney Charles Hynes remains an active proponent of reentry programs, like Ready, Willing, and Able, as a viable means to reduce recidivism.

“Reentry is the most important criminal justice issue we face,” said Hynes at a Roundtable Reentry meeting last November. “Putting people back into prison is, simply, morally indefensible.”

Unlike studies that show two-thirds of all incarcerated people reentering civilian life return to prison within three years, the success rates coming out of transitional employment programs tell a completely different story.

“When we look at the graduates of our program, we are finding a recidivism rate of less than 4 percent, compared to a national average of 45 percent,” says Lee Alman, Director of Public Affairs at The Doe Fund. “They are staying out of the criminal justice system.”

According to Hynes, joint programs overall that incorporate both treatment and employment for newly released prisoners have the effect of “reducing recidivism to mere fractions.” In 1999, Hynes created the city’s first significant prisoner reentry program, named “Community and Law Enforcement Resources Together,” and partnered with The Doe Fund to provide these employment opportunities.

So far the Brooklyn model seems to be working. As the city has seen a huge rise in drug cases since Paterson’s historic reforms this past April, they have, in Hynes’ words, “hardly made a ripple in Brooklyn,” because of treatment programs like ComALERT that have been in place for several years now.

And the savings have been significant. A study conducted by the Office of National Drug Control Policy in 2004 found that the economic cost of drug abuse nationwide is $180 billion, and roughly 60 percent are crime-related costs (i.e., court costs, law enforcement, etc.). Furthermore, it costs $187 a day to incarcerate someone in the New York penal system. According to Hynes, it costs New York taxpayers $10 a day to put an offender through treatment programs like ComALERT.

THIS IS WHAT IS BEING CUT. Not just a cosmetic makeover of a fancy neighborhood. It is a program that reduces recidivism and saves taxpayers, based on District Attorney Hynes' numbers above, represents a net savings of $177 per day per person that goes through this program and does not re-enter prison. That is what good government is all about but it seems it is not a priority right now.

That may be my main disagreement with Brad Lander. He portrays the program as not cost-effective. I can't agree with that. His other criticisms I think I agree with. But it is the most cost-effective program I have been able to find when it comes to reducing recidivism. And so far nothing Brad has said counters that impression. YES they may be flawed. They have been criticized for paying their top execs high salaries (can I get in on that...I could use the raise!)...and they have been rightly criticized for getting too involved politically in Bloomberg's power grab for a third term. AND the Doe Fund may well be paternalistic and pay their workers sub-minimum wage. BUT...and this is the key point for me, they remain one of the most effective programs when it comes to reducing recidivism, and I consider this a VERY important thing. Lander has not convinced me otherwise here. The Doe Fund remains one of the best programs, even if it has its own flaws. Lander has not convinced me that he is supporting anything better. YES I may like the politics of what Lander prefers over the Doe Fund...but I remain unconvinced that the bottom line in cost-effectiveness and overall benefit to the community is better served by Levin and Ladner defunding the Doe Fund.

And I am not alone. Councilmember Daniel Dromm made a different decision about the Doe Fund. He chose to use his discretionary funding to support the Doe Fund in his district, continuing the clean up program for his constituents (the loss of which in Park Slope that led me into this issue) AND supporting the service given to parolees. I requested a statement from Dromm's office, asking some very specific questions partly based on Lander's comments to me. To give credit where credit is due, Lander went into detail. Dromm's office gave me a somewhat lame, canned answer. I happen to agree with the statement from Dromm's office, but it failed to address issues I specifically asked them based on Lander's statement. So, though I think Dromm has it right in many ways, Lander took more time addressing my concerns than Dromm did even though I asked Dromm's office very specific questions.

Here is Daniel Dromm's rather canned (though I thinks accurate) statement on his choice, contrary to Levin and Lander's choice, to support the Doe Fund in his district:

"The Doe Fund's Ready, Willing & Able program is a win-win situation for the community it serves and the individuals that are part of the program," said New York City Council Member Daniel Dromm (D-Queens). "It benefits our community by significantly improving our quality of life while giving the formerly homeless and incarcerated an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves and make positive contributions once they re-enter our society. The Doe Fund is one of a number of successful approaches to working with this group and helping them to re-enter as productive citizens. Our City needs more re-entry programs like the Doe Fund and The Fortune Society, which I am also proud to support."

I agree...but Dromm did not address the issues raised by Lander about the Doe Fund. Even though I continue to be critical of Lander (and even more so of Levin who doesn't seem to even care enough to respond to his constituents on the issue!) the issues he raises about the Doe Fund are valid. I asked Dromm's office about those issues and they failed to respond. Pity. I would have loved to hear how they address them.

Bottom line is this. Levin has once again shown a lack of concern for Park Slope. Brad Lander does show considerable concern for Park Slope, though his initial responses were just as canned as Dromm's and less tied to the facts. But once challenged he gave a much better response than his initial comments, and raised legitimate issues about the Doe Fund, though I think his conclusions of the cost-effectiveness of the program have been proven wrong.

I do hope that the businesses on 7th Ave take up the slack and clean up the streets better. I know I am not alone in somewhat avoiding 7th Ave during summer months when it stinks and the puddles are disgusting soups of rotting material. But the main focus of any business association will not be the homeless and parolees. They have no real reason to reduce recidivism. Any program they choose to fund to clean up Stinky 7th Ave will not necessarily do ANYTHING to reduce recidivism. THAT is where I think defunding the Doe Fund screws over New York. We lose our best program for getting people out of prison and back in society. Flaws and all, the Doe Fund is largely unsurpassed in that regard. So 7th Ave is getting stinkier and less pleasant to shop along, while prisoners lose yet another opportunity to turn their lives around.

I thank Brad Lander for his response. Unlike Steve "Vito's Kid" Levin I feel both Lander and Dromm are interested in their respective communities. Both gave lame responses when first challenged on this issue. But I do feel both gave serious thought to the issue before coming to opposite conclusions. I happen to think Dromm came to the right conclusion while Lander did not.

Taking on Wall Street Every Day

I have personally been switching my money (credit cards, accounts, mortgage) away from the big bad mega-banks that screwed Americans with predatory lending and took taxpayer handouts with better banks and financial institution. And I invite you to join me. It is a way of moving your money at least a step away from the worst of Wall Street.

In particular I pick four banks to target: Bank of America, Chase, Citigroup and Wells Fargo

I base my recommendations on three things:

1. Customer service complaints. The banks that get the most customer service complaints are as follows: (according to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, I think these numbers are from 2009)

Bank of America: 7,230 complaints (25.5% of total)
J.P. Morgan Chase: 4,890 complaints (17.3%)
Citigroup: 3,742 complaints (13.2%)
Wells Fargo: 2,695 complaints (9.5%)
HSBC North America: 1,963 complaints (6.9%)
Wachovia: 1,265 complaints (4.5%)
U.S. Bancorp: 1,027 complaints (3.6%)
National City: 586 complaints (2.1%)
The Royal Bank of Scotland Group: 537 complaints (1.9 %)
Key Corp: 343 complaints (1.2 %)

Total Top 10 complaints: 24,278 complaints (85.7%)
Total complaints: 28,316 complaints (100%)

Furthermore, the numbers of complaints are getting worse. Chase, Bank of America and Citicorp in particular declined seriously in terms of customer service in 2010, according to the Comptroller of the Currency, the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, and Better Business Bureau.

I advocate avoiding the banks that are around 10% or more of the total complaints (Wells Fargo, Citigroup, Chase and Bank of America). Why patronize companies that treat their customers like crap? Particularly since they have been giving even WORSE service since we bailed them out!

2. Predatory lending. The same banks that rank highest in customer service complaints are among the worst offenders when it comes to predatory lending. That is strike two against them. Why patronize companies that have bad, greedy business practices that lead to national and international economic crises? And furthermore the predatory lending was carried out by these same banks in a racist manner, charging higher interest rates for blacks and Hispanics than for whites and Asians. And it is the SAME four banks that were the most racist in their predatory lending.

3. Welfare Banks: The same banks are also ones that eagerly took taxpayer funded bailout money while also advocating for cuts to services for poor and middle class Americans as being "big government". They are selfish and hypocritical as well as lousy businesses.

Also, I should note that two of these banks, Bank of America and Citigroup, also are two of the top ten tax dodging companies in America. They love to take our tax money, but hate to pay their fair share.

So I advocate boycotting at least Wells Fargo, Citigroup, Chase and Bank of America. However people need alternatives. I personally have switched to USAA and TD Bank, both of which are famous for customer service, did no predatory lending, and took no bail out money. But I am learning about even better options through Green America.

Green America (which I have been associated with since they were Co-op America) has some resources:

* The basics about socially responsible investing

* How to retire with one million dollars in a just and sustainable world

* How your savings and checking accounts can build healthy communities through community investing

I personally have been divesting myself of these big bad banks like Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo and Citibank and instead switching my mortgage, accounts and credit cards to USAA (which only works with Veterans and their families) and TD Bank (a large bank that actually has excellent customer service and did not engage in predatory lending). Other people I know have been switching to local credit unions. I have particularly liked TD Bank who refinanced my mortgage at a much better rate and much simpler than the big bad banks. By comparison, Chase dicked me around so much, constantly upping the interest rate every time I talked to them, that I finally told them where they could stuff their refinance. TD Bank offered me a better rate and stuck by it.

But so far my wife and I still haven't been able to get rid of all our Chase and Bank of America credit cards. Paying off the debt is tough, but we are working on it. But I would like to find better credit cards to use.

Well, Green America has some suggestions I would like to pass on to you.

Cards Connected to Better Banks
There are socially responsible banks and credit unions that exemplify responsible lending practices—as well as community investing institutions that take the social mission one step further by also investing in low-income populations.

Wainwright Bank Visa Cards (fees and rates vary): Wainwright, a Boston-based bank with a tradition of “socially progressive” banking, offers six different Visa credit cards with different rates and terms. All of these cards are issued and managed by Elan, a financial services company. Steven F. Young, senior vice president at Wainwright, says they “chose Elan because we felt their consumer practices were best.”

Permaculture Credit Union’s (PCU) Visa card (13% apr, no annual fee): Based in New Mexico, PCU is committed to Earth-friendly and socially responsible loans and investments. PCU’s card is issued by the Illinois Credit Union League to anyone, whether or not they are a PCU account holder, though applicants should mention they are “affiliated” with Permaculture Credit Union.

ReDirect Visa (15.15% apr, no annual fee): The ReDirect card is issued by Washington state’s ShoreBank Pacific.Depositors fuel the bank’s lending programs, which enable sustainable community development. ShoreBank Pacific issues the card by way of TCM, which is owned by ICBA Bancard, a subsidiary of the Independent Community Bankers of America.

Your card fees support ShoreBank Pacific’s community investing mission, and half of the card’s proceeds go toward reducing CO2 emissions through Sustainable Travel International’s “MyClimate” high-quality offsets. In addition to a conventional rewards program, the card also earns cardholders discounts at the sustainable businesses listed in regional “ReDirect Guides” for Denver/Boulder/Fort Collins, CO; Portland, OR/Vancouver, WA; and Salt Lake City/Park City, UT. Those businesses that offer Internet purchasing will extend ReDirect discounts to any cardholder. There’s no need to have a ShoreBank Pacific account to apply.

Salmon Nation Visa (15.15% apr, no annual fee): This card, also from ShoreBank Pacific, directs a percentage of its income to growing a community of citizens that practice environmental stewardship of “Salmon Nation,” a bio-region stretching from Alaska to Oregon where wild salmon live. Like the ReDirect card, Salmon Nation Visa isn’t benefiting a mega-bank, and you don’t need a ShoreBank Pacific account to apply.

The Loop Card (11.99% apr, no annual fee): A Visa from Albina Community Bank in Oregon. Profits from this Visa from Oregon’s Albina Community Bank not only support Albina, but one percent of every purchase goes to Portland’s neighborhoods, funding education, health, social services, environment, the arts, or economic development projects. You do not have to have an account with Albina to get the card, and it is not connected to a mega-bank.

Shorebank’s Elan Visa Consumer Card (variable apr, no annual fee): ShoreBank, in the Midwest, is a community development and environmental bank that issues a credit card available to anyone nationwide through Elan, the same company servicing Wainright Bank’s cards, at a rate determined by your credit history.

Self-Help credit union cards (9.95–12.95% apr, no annual fee): Self-Help, headquartered in North Carolina, works in communities traditionally underserved by conventional financial institutions. It offers Classic and Platinum Visa credit cards to members, and through online banking, anyone nationwide can become an account holder and apply. The cards are issued by Self-Help, a community development bank.

For those purchases you make by credit card, using one of these best-option cards can make your charges a force for good.

One of my goals once we can pay off most of our current credit card debt is to switch from my current credit cards, which are still mega-bank linked, to one or two of these cards. I hope you will all join my in making the switch.

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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Preventing and Dealing With Bed Bugs

Best bed bug mattress cover for bedbug infestation

This is a second update from an earlier article. (I try to keep things fresh!)

In 2006 I wrote an article about a relatively new but spreading problem: bed bugs. Since I wrote that article the problem has gotten bad enough that it has sparked a whole industry of detection and extermination of bed bugs and has led to hundreds of articles all over the mainstream media reporting on this growing problem. But this has led to misunderstandings and some shady businesses as well. This article is designed to help you avoid bedbugs if possible, and get rid of them if you do get them. The problems continues to get worse. Every week I see mattresses wrapped in plastic laid out (unnecessarily!) on the street to be discarded, probably due to a bed bug scare or infestation. The last two days alone I saw some 20 mattresses as well as considerable amount of bedding and a couple of couches all tightly wrapped up and being needlessly thrown out. I assume most of these are due to bed bugs.

In 2010 the building I live in had a bed bug scare. It seemed at first as if several apartments were affected with possibly two separate initial infections (at opposite ends of the building). Turns out that probably only one apartment ever had them, but had the building's managing board not acted rapidly it would have spread. As it was the managing board spent tens of thousands of dollars to pinpoint possibly affected apartments and proactively treat them. During that time we became quite informed about the pests. More recently we had another scare. That turned out to be nothing. But it reinforced our knowledge of the issue.

The bad news is the problem continues to spread and a lot of what is being done about it is the wrong approach. For example, throwing away your mattress if it has bed bugs is unnecessary and it helps spread the problem because you have just put the bed bugs out on the street where they can get on people's shows (including your own to re-infest your home). The good news is there are some very simple things you can do that will prevent them from coming into your living space. Three relatively simple and inexpensive methods greatly reduce your chances of getting them: mattress covers, diatomaceous earth, and rubbing alcohol.

First, the problem...

From the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene website:

Bed bugs are small insects that feed on the blood of mammals and birds. Adult bed bugs are oval, wingless and rusty red colored, and have flat bodies, antennae and small eyes. They are visible to the naked eye, but often hide in cracks and crevices. When bed bugs feed, their bodies swell and become a brighter red. In homes, bed bugs feed primarily on the blood of humans, usually at night when people are sleeping...

Typically, the bite is painless and rarely awakens a sleeping person. However, it can produce large, itchy welts on the skin. Welts from bed bug bites do not have a red spot in the center--those welts are more characteristic of flea bites...

Although bed bugs may be a nuisance to people, they are not known to spread disease.

That is also good news. Bed bugs are not disease vectors like mosquitoes. They are just irritating in the extreme...and they can really infest an apartment if not properly addressed. But no one gets sick or dies from bed bugs.

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The problem first became wide spread in NYC in 2005...after a lull of about 60 years where there were few or no reportings of bed bugs in NYC, one of the current epicenters. Since then the epidemic has taken off. Now I have heard from one professional that one out of every eleven apartment units in NYC has bed bugs. Let me emphasize that I was sounding the alarm early on this one!

Why the sudden epidemic? There are several possible reasons. Some have tried to blame it on immigrants. That is almost certainly not true since here in NYC we have a pretty constant influx of immigrants and the influx of bed bugs has never correlated with influx of immigrants. If this was going to be a major source of spread, there would not have been a 60 year lull. NYC has always been a major immigrant hub (I know my ancestors came through here) but the upswing in bed bugs seems to have only started around 2005 for NYC. But elsewhere in the country the upswing started more like 2000, according to a an article from Time Magazine back when I first looked into this. Blaming immigrants is just plain unfounded.

One aspect of the sudden rise of the bed bugs is simple evolution. I have often reported on how the misuse and overuse of antibiotics, particularly in animal feed, has led to a huge emergence of antibiotic resistant bacteria. This has been a huge problem and is one reason why I now only buy meat and chicken raised without antibiotics. Well the same thing happens with insects. Overuse and misuse of pesticides in America and abroad has led to bed bugs that are resistant to most pesticides. For the record, same goes with lice. Those horribly toxic shampoos used for lice are mostly useless by now because the lice have evolved resistance against them. The proper use of a lice comb and careful removal of eggs is the only truly effective way to remove lice. And many treatments for bed bugs are ineffective for the same reason.

Another aspect that I suspect is going on is global warming. Simple fact is that most insects prefer warmer temperatures. I want to emphasize that this is speculation. The evolution of pesticide resistance is not speculative but pretty much established fact. But global warming HAS been shown to be the cause for the spread of many pests, and it almost certainly will eventually be shown to play a role for many more. So I am betting that rising temperatures have helped the bed bug infestation spread.

So what can you do? I'm going to work backwards, from treatment to detection to prevention. Why? Because if I give you an idea about how awful the treatment and expensive and potentially inaccurate the detection, prevention will sound much better to you. And honestly the more we all work to keep these things under control the more likely it will be we can limit them. Remember that if your neighbors get them, you will probably get them too if you aren't actively trying to prevent them (diatomaceous earth is the best way to prevent spread from a neighbor!).

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There seem to be three main treatments. All three are horrible to go through and hugely expensive. They are basically heating, freezing, and poisoning. I guess there is a fourth which you can use for any items that can't stand up to the other treatments: bag everything for 2 years. That is about how long it takes to kill bed bugs by starvation. I did notice that the more convinced exterminators were that we didn't actually have them, the more they backed off that number. Eventually they seemed to settle on 6 months. But there has been research that showed even after a year sealed in a bag with no food or water, the researchers could still find bed bugs not just living, but actually reproducing! They are tough SOBs. So sealing them off requires two years to be absolutely sure. One exterminator suggested adding moth balls to the bag you put things in can help speed up the process, but I have not confirmed that. Probably 6 months with mothballs in the bag is good enough, but not as certain as 2 years.

Also, I notice many homes in NYC with mattresses thrown out. I suspect this sudden increase in mattresses being thrown out is due to bed bugs. But there is no need to throw out a mattress because mattress covers will seal them in, away from you, until they die. Mattress covers are necessary anyway (see below) so just put them on and keep the mattress. It saves money and keeps them from spreading to other parts of the neighborhood. Mattress covers are cheaper than a new mattress!

Treatment usually involves bagging almost everything you own for months to years, punching 1 inch diameter holes in many of your walls, then either getting poison all over everything, including inside your walls (and it takes WEEKS to fully clean up), or raising the temperature in the whole apartment above what bed bugs can tolerate, or lowering the temperature in the whole apartment to below what they can tolerate. Only bathrooms and kitchens are largely left untouched (as long as you seal them off so the poison doesn't get in them). All of these treatments are horribly inconvenient, expensive and disruptive. Best to avoid them if you can by preventing bed bugs altogether!


Detection has issues as well. Usually what is first obvious is the itching from the bites. Then people will notice the bugs' very dark droppings (basically like dried up flakes of blood...yeah...your blood if you've got itching bites). By the time you are noticing them, it is likely that you have a pretty bad infestation. People won't always see them because they mostly come out at night, but a really bad infestation they will be everywhere, day and night. The earlier you catch the problem the easier it is to deal with.

There are two expert methods of identifying them: trained people and trained dogs. The dogs have been getting a lot of press these days, and they CAN be very effective. The dog's nose is an amazing thing, and they really can be trained to sniff out anything and tell you about it. There are bomb sniffing dogs, drug sniffing dogs, and now bed bug sniffing dogs. The flaws are that they are extremely expensive and, though potentially extremely accurate, they are in practice sometimes very inaccurate. Dogs basically want food and attention. They don't care about accuracy...they just want to be rewarded, so they are easily distracted. We are pretty sure that our building had many false alarms because of a dog whose handler was less than professional. I am not saying it is a scam (though that can happen if the same company offers detection and treatment!) or the dog was poorly trained. It just has a built in inaccuracy which has to be kept in mind. The dogs are VERY accurate IF AND ONLY IF they are properly trained and handled and not distracted.

When my building had a second scare I had the chance to better understand a good vs. bad use of a bed bug sniffing dog. I bet most of these dogs are almost as well trained as bomb or drug sniffing dogs, so have a lot of potential. But the handlers also have to be properly trained. The first time I personally witnessed a bed bug sniffing dog and handler team doing its thing I felt both dog and handler were performing for an audience and I felt they were giving false positive readings because of it. It seemed very unprofessional. Was the handler inexperienced? Or simply unprofessional? Or was it an outright scam to drum up business for his company? I don't know.

The second year we had an issue a different dog and different handler came (though from the same company). This time they seemed MUCH more professional and the handler limited the number of people around the dog to limit distractions. He did not detect bed bugs in our building. The difference was very clear between a handler who was showing off and one who was doing his job.

Bottom line is this: the dogs are potentially really accurate, but the handlers are variable, even from the same company. My advice is a.) get an inspection from a different company than you will hire to deal with any infestation and make that clear from the start. Otherwise the company you hire to detect a problem will be the same company that handles the problem, creating a conflict of interest. And b.) watch the dog and handler...if they seem to be playing to an audience there is a problem. If they seem to be open to one person observing but focused on keeping the dog from being distracted, then they are more trustworthy. Beware of show offs, whether dog or handler.

What about human detection? People will miss the very beginning of an infestation that a dog could catch, but they do the inspection in a smarter manner and so can be more accurate overall once an infestation has gotten going beyond the first stages. Dogs are potentially more accurate but sometimes people do the inspection in a smarter way. So it's a toss up which to hire.

But the bottom line is if either a dog or a person with training in detection tells you you have them, it is really hard not to say yes to the treatment because far, far better safe than sorry. The earlier you catch it the easier it is to stop, so if you want to wait and see if the dog or person is right, you may find yourself with an out of control infestation which will be even harder and more expensive to deal with.


Oh, and is now a good time to mention bed bugs are ALL OVER THE CITY? One out of every 11 apartment units in NYC. Hotels. In the UN building. In places of work. In movie theaters. The good news is that they don't really move around so much except at night, so they aren't jumping from person to person much. Though the darkness in movie theaters is a concern...when you come back from a movie, be particularly careful about your shoes, coat and pants cuffs. Treatment with rubbing alcohol (mentioned below) will help.

The main vector is bringing into your apartment items that have already got them living inside, books, etc. But one exterminator I talked to believed people's shoes are a major vector. So they aren't spread so much directly from one person to another (like lice) but by bringing infested things into your building.

So what can you do to prevent them from coming into your living space?

First be really, really careful scrounging anything, particularly furniture. Now I have scrounged a lot of stuff in my time...still do from time to time, but now I am highly careful. If a book has bed bugs, it is pretty easy to detect...if you look. You will see the black specs that are their droppings. Furniture can be harder, but there are treatments if you really want to bring a scrounged piece of furniture into your apartment. Heating (if you can), rubbing alcohol, or diatomaceaous earth (see below). But my wife figures the safest is to not scrounge at all.

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Mattresses and pillows can be sealed up. This costs some money, but if you get good mattress and pillow covers, even if you have an infested mattress or bed you can just leave it in the cover and they will eventually die and you keep the bed from being their favorite habitat. These covers are the most recommended action you can take. When exterminators heard we already had them, they were 90% sure we couldn't have a problem. So covering your mattresses and pillows with high end versions of these covers will really protect you. This is a cost you probably don't want to skimp on. And a good cover shouldn't be uncomfortable. It also keeps you from having major dust mite problems, something almost all beds have and can make allergies worse. So the mattress and pillow covers are good all around, reducing chances of bed bug problems and reducing allergies.

But shoes are an issue as well. One exterminator said you should always take your shoes off when you come in and if possible place them in a container with diatomaceous earth (again...see below). He believes that (scrounging an infested bed aside) this would prevent almost all spread of bed bugs. Not sure if that is true, but it certainly would help. Another exterminator I and others talked to suggested buying 90% or higher rubbing alcohol (a higher percent than the usual stuff you get, which is 70%) and putting some in a spray bottle in your entryway. Spraying your shoes every time you enter your home (particularly after being in a movie theater), your luggage when traveling (inside and out, before and after traveling), and any furniture you bring in can greatly limit the chances of bringing bed bugs into your home.

Now we come to some amazing stuff that I was dubious about but have seen in action. Diatomaceous earth is one of the best treatments to protect your home from ANY crawling bug, from ant to cockroach to bed bug, from entering. Diatoms are tiny animals that live in the ocean and create a silica shell. These shells are beautiful (if you have a microscope to look at them with), elaborate, and very sharp. These animals die, fall to the bottom of the sea, and form thick beds of diatom skeletons. When plate tectonics (earthquakes and continental drift) brings these deposits up above sea level, they can be mined. These deposits of tiny silica skeletons of long dead diatoms are called diatomaceous earth. It is a white powder of very tiny sharp skeletons. To us the sharpness, at worst, will irritate our skin a bit. It can't really harm us (in fact some people eat the stuff to cure or prevent intestinal parasites, but I am not sure this is okay!). But to something small like an insect, it is like the death of a thousand cuts. The coating around an insect that helps keep in moisture gets pierced and they dry out and die.

You can get diatomaceous earth online or in a hardware store. It isn't that expensive. If you even get so-called "food grade" diatomaceous earth it can be used in a kitchen because it is considered so harmless.

We got diatomaceous earth and I basically spread it around the entire perimeter of every room in our apartment, making sure to get it into every crevice. The problem is this stuff gets everywhere. I found it irritating to my lungs at first, but once most of it settled and we vacuumed up anything not around the edges of a room (this is also good for making sure your vacuum isn't infested!) that went away. Next time I use it so liberally I will wear a face mask. For months after I spread the stuff around, the diatomaceous earth was still visible in the crevices and corners around many of the rooms but isn't a problem in any way.

And the effectiveness? Within one day of spreading it around every single crawling insect, including ants, confused flour beetles, and cockroaches, just disappeared from our apartment. And they didn't come back for about a year. We live in a basement apartment, so we get insects every year and always have a kind of on going war with them. Nothing major, but we have to be vigilant. But after spreading diatomaceous earth, all crawling insects disappeared for a full year.

This year we started seeing some ants again and I spread diatomaceous earth next to the sliding glass door and our basement windows. And again all crawling insects just disappeared. I still see plenty of ants outside, but none have come inside. And no cockroaches for a more than year now! In NYC...almost unheard of. The stuff works.

So if most of NYC put their mattresses and pillows into bed bug covers, took off their shoes and put them in containers of diatomaceous earth or sprayed them with 90% or higher rubbing alcohol when they got home, and spread diatomaceous earth around the edges of their apartment walls, I am betting they would find many pests would be greatly reduced from their apartments. Bed bugs, ants and flour beetles are hard to get rid of. Diatomaceous earth does it. And it isn't the kind of thing that is easy to evolve a resistance to so it won't lose its effectiveness over the years.

So there you go. Together we can all fight bed bugs. Hope this helps!

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