Monday, October 30, 2006

Stick out your tongue and say, “Hell no!” Here's why most seniors won’t be fooled by the Bush Administration’s latest Medicare flim-flam attempt

Oh, those doctrinaire free market Bushniks! There they go again, trying to privatize you out of the benefits you’ve worked hard for all your life.

According to a story in the October 30th New York Times, five U.S. Senators and Representatives on committees charged with overseeing Medicare caught the Republican administration at its latest attempt to trick old folks out of taking full advantage of their benefits. The annoyed members of Congress gave it to Health and Human Services secretary Michael O. Leavitt with both barrels.

“The 2007 handbook strongly favors health maintenance organizations, preferred provider organizations and other private Medicare Advantage plans over the traditional Medicare fee-for-service program,” they complained.

They called the handbook’s recommendations “misleading” and “biased.”


"Misleading" and "biased" are nice ways of saying, "You're a trash-talking liar." Fortunately, Leavitt won’t fool any senior who at some time in his life had to put up with the requirement that you visit a doctor for permission to visit a different doctor. Or with some clerk making a medical decision about whether you could or could not seek the care or procedure you needed. Or with an HMO telling you the equivalent of, "That procedure's not covered, so drop dead."

Yeah, the Leavitt/Bush Health and Inhuman Services Department points out that some HMOs will pay for your eyeglasses and some dental services. But they fail to point out that the dentistry rarely includes the kinds of dental services you need most late in life, like dental implants to replace lost teeth. Admittedly, getting your teeth cleaned is almost free under some HMO plans – if you have any teeth left to clean by the time they’re done with you.

As for those eyeglasses, well, if you want to choose from the selection of cheesy-looking frames set aside by your HMO, welcome to it, pal. Maybe after that you can get a walk-on part on Ugly Betty.

More important than ugly glasses and limited dental care, your HMO may block you from seeing a specialist who has a more reliable (but more expensive) way of, for example, saving your life than a hack doctor who signed up with a tight-fisted HMO. Remember, insurance companies aren't in business to buy you medical care. Insuranced companies are in business to make the fattest profit they can from your health care premiums, whether you, your employer or the government is paying them.


True story: Two and a half years ago, I had kidney cancer. My HMO doctor had a quick solution. He insisted he had to cut out the kidney, the whole kidney, and nothing but the kidney right away – before he left on vacation.

Fortunately, just at that moment I became old enough for Medicare. I enrolled and then went to see a urological surgeon who really knew his stuff. “No,” said the better surgeon, “it would be a mistake to take out your whole kidney. You have a blood pressure problem, and if the whole kidney goes, the pressure problem will be worse. Besides, you can just cut out the cancer and some of the tissue around it and you’ll be fine. ”


So the surgery was done laparoscopically, saving 90 percent of the kidney and weeks of recovery time. And I’m cured. It's more than two years later and MRI tests show there's no kidney cancer left in my body.

You want to trade that kind of medical care for an HMO surgeon who’s in a rush to hack out your kidney, and a pair of free eyeglasses to go with your cheap false choppers? Do you think any member of the Bush family would settle for that? Do you think Secretary Leavitt would settle for that for himself? If you do, sign up for your Senior HMO and I wish you lotsa luck, sucker. See you in the coffin.

You’ll find the full New York Times story at:

Friday, October 27, 2006

Doubletalk! Goodbledygook! Pompous trash-talking and the thespian sisterhood. It can drive you crazy, crazy, crazy!

Listen up. The crime of misleading people with meaningless or misused language is nothing new. I wish I could track down the name of the early 20th Century candidate for US Senate who slimed an opponent by defaming the guy’s sister, an actress. “My opponent’s sister…” the candidate told his shocked and horrified audience of rubes, “is a known thespian!”

Academia has been picking up on this technique over the past few decades. Since academic audiences can’t be bowled over by throwing a single ten dollar word at them, the self-appointed seers of academia do it by tying sentences and lines of reasoning in knots that’ll cross your eyes and snap your ganglia if you try to parse them.


A school of something-or-other called “Deconstructionism” has been taking the lead in this fine art of wowing people by tossing out just-about meaningless stuff – stuff that might sound profound if you’re the academic equivalent of a con man’s mark. For example, Here’s Jacques Derrida, the father of Deconstructionism, describing what it is he does:

“I would say that deconstruction is affirmation rather than questioning, in a sense which is not positive: I would distinguish between the positive, or positions, and affirmations. I think that deconstruction is affirmative rather than questioning: this affirmation goes through some radical questioning, but it is not questioning in the field of analysis.”

Right Jacques, I get it. Deconstructionism is bullshit. What I want to know is, if you’re the father of Deconstructionism, who’s the mother you raped to produced this abortion?

Well come to think of it, nevermind. The real question facing us is not how many sheep it takes for Derrida and his pack of academic charlatans to pull the wool over our eyes. It’s why is this disease spreading?


Poetry, for example, started out as a form of communication. But academia has infested the ranks of so-called “poets” with poseurs who couldn’t communicate their way out of a paper bag. For some reason, the following brain-buster appeared on a blog devoted to poetry. (Http://

“The phenomenological power of both metaphor and thisness derives from an awareness of an extreme tension between being and time. Thisness is the lyric comprehension of this tension; an instant of time opens to embrace the resonance of all that is; time is present, but suspended--held in balance. Metaphor, by contrast, is a form of domestic understanding: wholeness overrides morality, but does not erase it. The distinction of things remains the foundation of their resonant connexion. In metaphor, gestalts glitter: those inflected by being and time, flashing back and forth over the hinge of what is common. –Jan Zwicky, Wisdom and Metaphor, #67”

Thanks, Zwicky. And thanks, Ursprache. I’ll return to you guys whenever I’m in the mood to have my mental chain jerked.

All this stuff boils down to bad writing. Sad to say, bad writing has even infested businesses that get paid to write well.


Suck on this excerpt from a want ad recently placed in a magazine called ADWEEK by Digitas. (You should know that Digitas is the meaningless name of an advertising agency):

“…searching for an Account Supervisor to spearhead the strategy and development for direct mail or interactive initiatives to meet the marketing and business objectives of a specific client.”

A less pompous-assed ad agency would say they want “a junior executive to head up direct mail and internet projects that will help one of our clients make his sales numbers.” But that clear and truthful description would sound a hell of a lot less impressive and make clients wonder why the agency is soaking them with formidable fees.

You can help cure the problem for those Digitas junk mail guys. Call them by the name they deserve: “Digit-Ass.”


It’s getting so bad that even the lumber business is talking like a full Professor of Contemporary Eschatology on a magic mushroom trip. Take this choice morsel from a want ad placed by Woodworker’s Supply in Alberquerque, NM:

“Successful candidate will embrace established company core values and vision in managing experienced staff in executing multiple B-B and B-C initiatives in web, catalog and showroom channels…We require strong analytic tool knowledge and analytic skills, one or more degrees...”

In other words, they’re looking for a “company man” who knows how to sell to consumers and other businesses using the Internet, catalogues, and showrooms and who also can crunch some numbers.

If this is kind of language the company uses all the time, no wonder the poor bastard who gets the job will need a couple of degrees.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

“OxyContinRush” Limbaugh slimes Michael J. Fox. Hey, in America you have a constitutional right to be a slimebag. Right?

It was too much for OxyContinRush Limbaugh. He just had to rush to the airway and start smearing slime. Why?

Michael J. Fox, suffering from the tremors and shakes of advanced Parkinson’s Disease, had done a TV commercial in support of a politician who favors stem cell research that might help cure Parkinson’s.

OxyContinRush is the radio commentator whose drug history involves getting dragged into court by a Florida DA for illegal acquisition of more than 2,000 OxyContin painkillers. That’s a felony in Florida. But it usually ropes in drug addict and drug dealers who aren’t also nationally-known radio commentators.

Offended by those people who have the gall to want to see a cure for diseases like Parison’s and will support a Democrat to do so, OxyContinRush decided to slime Fox.

"He is exaggerating the effects of the disease," OxyContinRush Limbaugh said on the radio. "He's moving all around and shaking and it's purely an act.”

And for insulting good measure, OxyContinRush added, “This is really shameless of Michael J. Fox. Either he didn't take his medication or he's acting."

Well, the Washington Post went and interviewed Elaine Richman, a neuroscientist who literally wrote the book on Parkinson’s disease.

Richman said of Fox, "Anyone who knows the disease well would regard his movement as classic severe Parkinson's disease "Any other interpretation is misinformed."

Which is a polite way of saying, if I may crib a line from Al Franken, “Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Liar,” as well as“a Big Fat Idiot.”

This past spring, OxyContinRush Limbaugh signed a “deferred prosecution agreement” with the Florida State Attorney in Palm beach.

It’s time that agreement became un-deferred.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Las Vegas: What happens here stays here, including Steve Wynn’s wrecked Picasso painting. But is it art? And what’s it really worth?

My favorite advertising slogan – at least for today – is the one promoting Las Vegas tourism.

It says, “What happens here stays here.” It’s permission from a state government to sin your head off. Or your pants. Or your wallet.

Wanna cheat on your wife by getting nekkid with a free hooker supplied by a grateful pit boss to thank you for leaving 50 grand of the family's money at a craps table? Not to worry. It’s “our little secret.”

Of course, some local Nevada blue noses consider the slogan “repulsive.” See

On the other hand, some folks (me for instance) love the slogan because it’s so upfront about what Las Vegas always has been and probably will continue to be. Personally, I hate the place. It’s all plastic – manufactured excitement and glitz, designed to lull you into parting with your money. But at least the advertising’s honest these days.


Some years ago, a dumb attempt to sell Las Vegas as a place for “family vacations” crapped out in the marketplace. This was proof that you can’t fool all of the people all of the time, or even josh them a little by telling them that an openly sinful city is a great place to take the little kiddies. Not that I have anything against sin. It's the commercializing of it that gets my goat.

Las Vegas for family vacations? Come to think of it, it wasn't a little fib. It was a big lie. But I’m beginning to stray a bit too far from the points I really want to make. So let’s get on to the topic of the day.


Just recently, Casino mogul Steve Wynn auctioned off the Picasso painting you see reproduced above for $137 million. And then – accidentally – he poked his elbow through it, substantially diminishing its value. He immediately cancelled the deal.

Nevertheless, the story raises some questions. Why was the Picasso worth $137 million and not $13.7 million, or just 13 cents? Why is the jpeg reproduction of it at the top of this page worth nothing at all, even though you can see almost exactly what Steve Wynn saw before he trashed this great piece of art and object of desire? And finally:


Let’s start with what art started out to be. Originally, it was simply a way to show us what something looked like. Pre-historic cave men drew animals on their cave walls. It's easy to imagine them saying to each other, “Yeah man! That looks exactly like the beast I’m gonna put an arrow through tomorrow morning. We’re eating meat tomorrow night, baby. Meat, meat, meat!” You can almost see a bunch of happy Neanderthals dancing around their cave painting, laughing and high-fiving one another.

A bit later on, art began serving religious functions, but it still had to do with showing us what things – or people – looked like. Walk through any antiquity museum or ancient ruin. Here’s a portrait of Dionysus, the booze god. Here’s Zeus, ruler of the sky. Here’s Persephone, goddess queen of the underworld. Yadda yadda yadda. Oh, and by the way, here are my human pals: Plato, and Emperor Nero, and Queen Nephertite. That’s what they looked like.

Still later, in medieval and into Renaissance times, church paintings told stories to illiterates who couldn’t read the Bible. “Here’s Moses coming down from the mountain. Notice he has stone tablets with 10 commandments in his hand. See the 10 lines? Count them on your fingers.” “Here’s the Last Supper. See all the disciples?” “Here’s St. Sebastian, suffering his terrible martyrdom. See the arrow in his abdomen? Betcha that hurts! See the look of agony on his face?”

So in essence, art was a comic book without all those hard-to-read things called words.


In Bayeux France there’s a 230-feet long tapestry telling the story of the Norman invasion. It’s a big deal, about a thousand years old, that has a museum all to itself. There are hundreds of separate drawings embroidered on a piece of cloth. You see medieval war ships. You see guys wading ashore. You see knights in armor getting zapped.

What it boils down to is, it's giant war comic, not terribly well-drawn. The only things missing are frames drawn around each panel. Art was always intended to be displayed like the Sunday funnies. In this case, it was a funnypaper you have to take a 230-foot hike along, while getting elbowed and jostled by other museum-goers who want to stand in front of the panel where you’re standing.


Hey, I know I’m about to take some giant and clumsy leaps through art history. Bear with me. I’m not going through the whole damn history of painting here. I’m trying to make a point. So to continue...

In the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century, artists like Pissaro and Seurat began to show off. “Hey, I can make a whole lot of little dots and if you stand close to my painting they’re just little dots, but if you stand back, you still have a comic book frame. Look, now that you’ve stood back you can see your girlfriend sitting on the grass.”

Picasso took things even a step further. “Look, I can take your eye and put it here, and take your head and shove it there, and stick your shoulder and your neck someplace they don’t quite belong, and you can still recognize yourself. Is that cool, or what?”

Well, maybe. But things ran downhill pretty quickly after that. By mid-20th Century we had Jackson Pollack throwing paint at canvas, in a “that’s-how-I-feel-man” frenzy that apes in zoos have replicated with their own feces, and Piet Mondrian was drawing lines and boxes and then coloring them in, the same as you could do with a ruler and a paintbrush.


I once asked a woman who told me that for a living, “I make art” what all those pictures-of-nothing that hang on museum walls and sell for millions are supposed to be telling us. She got huffy. “They don’t have to tell you anything,” she said, as if a painting is a form of lazy entitlement. “They just move you.”

Move me? So does a taxicab.

“Also art is something that gets you thinking and talking. Art creates buzz and excitement.”

Yeah yeah. So does an enraged bee at a garden party. Why isn't a live bumblebee art? And how come a fish tank containing a dead shark – pickled in formaldehyde by Damien Hirst – is considered to be exceptional art by some critics?

Why is a forgery of a Rembrandt worth not nearly as much as the original painting, even though you can barely tell them apart?

Why is a Picasso original worth $137 million without a hole in it, but a whole hell of a lot less with the hole? After all, the one with the hole got me buzzing – or at least writing. It has us – right now – pondering the purpose and value of art together.

So if the purpose of art is to create conversation and buzz, shouldn’t a Picasso with a hole in it actually be worth a whole lot more than if it were undamaged? After all, had Wynn merely sent the intact painting to his buyer instead of jamming his elbow into it, none of this conversation would be happening.


Where I come out is, “Art" is anything somebody says is art. And the rest of the world can take it or shove it. Cherish that definition. It will serve you well – as long as you keep it to yourself.

And the value of art? Here's an economics lesson for you:

Any piece of art on the planet is worth exactly the maximum sum that a buyer is willing to pay for it.

And not a penny more.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Why health care is too important to leave to a bunch of greedy bloodsuckers out to get rich off your insurance premiums.

Once again, a CEO has gotten himself and his company into trouble. And once again, it started because thanks to Bush administration regulatory and tax policies, big business CEOS can suck other peoples’ money out of the companies they run. They make the perpetrators of the famous Brinks robbery look like pikers.

Who suffers? Usually it’s confined to the stockholders. Their equity gets diluted and their profits get drained off by money vampires in the executive suite busy making their grabs for megamillions, or even billions.


This time, a new executive “compensation” scandal helps explain why health insurance costs are outrageously high in this country.

The News York Times this morning reported that Dr. William W. McGuire, former chief of UnitedHealth Group one of the two largest health insurers in the United States, was forced to resign from the company yesterday. He also had to give up some – but only some – of the $1.1 billion he holds in stock options.

You read that right. $1,100,000,000.

Don’t feel too bad for Bloodsucker McGuire. According to the Times, “he will still take home hundreds of millions of dollars from stock options. Over his 18 years at UnitedHealth, he banked more than a half billion dollars. UnitedHealth said last night that it was still negotiating whether he would receive a $5.1 million a year pension, which is called for in his employment contract.”

Furthermore, McGuire’s cronies shared in this shady ripoff. Says the Times, there were “45,000 separate stock option grants made to company employees.” What the Times doesn’t say – and perhaps nobody has even been able to calculate yet – is what the total cost was not only to the company's stockholders but also to the poor chumps (or their chump employers) trying to buy health insurance at a reasonable price. Somebody has to come up with all those billions the chairman and his buddies pocket for themselves. That somebody is you, pal.

There’s even more to the nightmare. Read the Times story (URL at the bottom of this article) and you’ll discover such shady practices as backdating, and what comes down to watering down the stock to enrich the chief and his cronies.

Remember, this is out of earnings that you or your employer paid into the company as insurance premiums, or were owed as dividends.


One of the nation’s largest sources of supplemental Medicare health insurance is AARP. And guess who AARP’s supplemental insurer is? You guessed it. United HealthCare.

By the way, the head honcho at AARP is Bill Novelli, former handmaiden to big business when he was at the helm of the PR firm Porter Novelli. And wasn’t it Novelli who supported the present crummy prescription drug coverage for seniors, with the nightmarish “donut hole" and a chaos of confusing and ever-changing coverage choices?

Novelli said he supported the present system instead of holding out for a better deal because, according to his tortured logic, some insurance coverage was better than none at all. Right, and if you have a brain tumor, cutting off your head is better than no surgery at all.

Speaking of heads, should Novelli still be at the head of AARP? Should United Health Care (perhaps it ought to be renamed United Chairman Care) still be AARP’s health insurance company?

I leave that to the membership of AARP, who seem unconscionably, slow to bring themselves to a boil of outrage. Here at The New York Crank, we have bigger fish to fry.


America’s health is too important to be left to the tender mercies of big business and the self-serving profiteers who run it.

This country needs to go to a single payer system, like most of the rest of the Western world. What would such a system look like? It would look a lot like Medicare.

Talk to most seniors and you’ll find that – except for the prescription benefit supported by Novelli – they’re quite satisfied with the way Medicare works. They get to pick their own doctors. They get to see specialists without obtaining permission from some insurance company clerk – or anybody else. And most of their doctor bills get taken care of.

But wouldn’t this cause an increase in taxes?

For sure. But hold on. You and your employer would stop paying out the king's ransom in health insurance premiums that’s now bleeding you dry. Almost guaranteed, government-insured healthcare would cost you less, simply because there’d be no legion of bloodsuckers to drain the system dry and no profits that need to be earned on top of operating costs.


Right now, the maximum income tax rate is 35% -- but only on the part of your income that’s over a third of a million bucks. Of course, if you earn less than $330,000 you pay a lower rate.

It’s that personal max tax of only 35% that makes corporate crime pay. Here's why:

If you grab money from your stockholders or customers – legally or otherwise – and if the money you grab is up there in the tens or hundreds of millions, or even billions, you still get to keep nearly two thirds of it. It has seemed – and probably will continue to seem -- worth the risk of getting caught to the likes of Bernie Ebbers, Ken Lay, Richard Scrushy and now William McGuire.

Even if you get caught – and then in a “compromise” designed by a not-entirely-impartial consultant you have to give some of the money back – you’re still hundreds of millions of dollars ahead.

Which leaves you plenty of loose change for $6,000 shower curtains, million dollar birthday parties for your second wife, and other “perks” of high-end money-grabbers.

But now consider: If from an annual income $2 million and up, the personal income tax rate climbed stratospherically, say to 70 or even 90 percent, the incentive to steal would vanish. Oh sure, the remaining 10% of, say, a $200,000,000 gift of stock to yourself is still more than $20 million – not exactly chicken feed. But somehow $20 million is a lot less tempting than $200 million. It starts to seem just not worth risking the possibility that you'll get your butt tossed into the slammer. So it would make a lot less sense to stick your hand in the cookie jar. And there would be a lot less demand for -- or temptation of boards ot directors to pay -- outrageous compensation.


For sure. They’d be deprived of incentives to steal, incentives to cook the books, and incentives to buy themselves costly toys (such as company-supplied limousines, jets and luxury apartments) with, say, your insurance premium money or the stock dividends you ought to have coming to you.

Only 25 years ago, most CEOs were making only a few hundred thousand a year. I don’t recall a single case where some Fortune 1000 corporation President or Chairman threw up his hands whining, “I can’t live on my salary,” and quit to pan for diamonds in Brazil.

Instead, big business attracted impressive management talent. Maybe it was even better talent than we have today, because the top people were in it for the joy of running a great company, or of growing a company, or of serving their customers and their clients.

Instead, we now have CEOs who claw their way to the top in order to grab more money for themselves.
A simple change in tax policy will fix that.

It’s time.

(For the full New York Times story about the scandal at United Health Care, go here):

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Three people who deserve capital trials followed by the death penalty. And why.

No no, the two guys whose pictures you see at the top aren’t the ones I’m talking about, but there is a connection. Ordinarily I’m opposed to the Death Penalty on humanitarian grounds. But I want to make three exceptions.


1. The barber who styles Donald Trump’s hair.

Look, I know The Donald has an ego the size of one of his towers and wants to cover what must be a humongous bald spot. But there are limits to what the world can stare at in disbelief before pointing their fingers at him and doubling over, roaring with laughter. A slight comb-over and blow dry (see virtually any male U.S. Senator) is understandable –although after a while you begin to wonder if you should trust anybody who parts his hair under his armpit.

But this is different. The Donald’s hair is coming from behind his head. No wonder Trump is a laughing stock. Who can trust a man who parts his hair under his ass? I say, to the wall or the scaffold with his barber.

2. The person who dresses Kim Jung Il.

If you want to be a ruthless thug of a dictator, at least have the good sense to dress the part. Take the boss in Russia – and this story – for example:

Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist who was actively reporting things about corruption that irritated, annoyed and infuriated the Putin government – and made Putin look bad – was found shot to death outside her apartment recently. The prosecutor is "investigating." Yeah, sure.

Anyway, let me ask you two questions about that:

Who do you suppose was ultimately responsible for the journalist’s murder? And have you ever seen Vladimir Putin wearing anything except a suit and tie?

What scares me even more is that George Bush (who also usually wears a suit and tie) and his pal “Poot-Poot” as George calls Putin, are hugging buddies.

But that’s off the point. What I’m trying to say is, ruthless dictators are supposed to dress nice. Even Saddam Hussein wore a necktie on state occasions. (They’ve since taken his away so he won’t hang himself with it in his cell.) So why is Kim Jung Il dressing like a 1950s Texaco gas station attendant? And why is his barber almost as bad as Donald Trump's? Send his dresser-person to the little green room, pronto!

3. The schoolteacher who taught George Bush how to mispronounce “nuclear.”

It’s “New-klee-ar,” teach, not “Noo-kew-lar.” How did you get your teaching license when you can’t even properly pronounce an important English-language word like nuclear? Or do they let anyone teach in Texas who can tell you which is his right hand within two guesses? All I can say to Texas educators who let people graduate when they speak like George, is “nuke-you!”

Horror in Ohio. Thousands to get robbed of their right to vote.

I keep telling ya, guys. Small town newspapers have a nose for news and for the outrageous behavior of thug politicians that the big city dudes and network titans tend to overlook.

For a look at what outraged – and very sarcastic – locals have to say about the "good work" of their own lawmakers screwing them out of their right to vote, go here:

Monday, October 09, 2006

Department of Unanswered Mail: CEO at JP Morgan Chase effectively thumbs his nose at high value customers, employees and stockholders.

You want to know why nothing seems to work the way it used to?

Want an example of how CEOs who are grossly overpaid don’t seem to give a damn about their companies, their stockholders, their employees or their customers?

Look no further than James P. Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase. Read the letter below, which was mailed to him on August 2 of this year. It explained the reasons for customer and employee disgruntlement – and it came from a high value customer.

Dimon’s response after all this time? As of today (October 9, 2006)....Nothing, nothing, nothing.

No, I don’t expect the busy chairman to stop counting the millions he takes from the bank’s stockholders as salary, bonus and other compensation just to answer a cranky letter. The poor bloke must be busy full-time just adding it all up. (In 2004 it added up to $14,871,096, according to the Newark, NJ Star-Ledger.)

But you’d think he might appoint some flunky to at least give the appearance of having some interest in what his high value customers have to say.

Fat chance. Apparently, he’s gotten so fat and happy on his income, he doesn’t even care what anybody else thinks.

Here’s the unanswered letter. Read it, weep, and then feel free to comment below on whether he should be fired or run out of town on a rail by his own stockholders.

Feel free also to recommend this post to friends who are about to open a bank account, or to link this to your own website.

And then remember to put your money in some other bank.

August 2, 2006

Mr. James Dimon
Chief Executive Officer
JP Morgan Chase
270 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10017

•Customer-hostile banking systems and literature at Chase Bank
•A bank that clearly doesn’t test dumb ideas with its customers before launching them – or listen to its own employees on the front lines after the disasters are set in motion
•Plus examples of some of the remarkably stupid stuff Chase is doing that offends its customers

Dear Mr. Dimon,

At this moment I have in excess of $450,000 on deposit at your bank in savings, a CD and checking – quite a bit more than either the FDIC limit or, I imagine, your average individual depositor. So I hope you’ll give this letter some attention.

In recent months, new systems at Chase have become annoying and difficult to use to the point of customer-unfriendliness. No, make that customer-hostile.

I have been complaining about various aspects of this at various Chase branches, always with the same results. Roughly a dozen times some very nice tellers, customer services people and assistant branch managers have said things such as, “Lots of customers are saying that.” “I hear this every day.” “I’ve told this to people higher up, but nobody listens to me.”

What’s the complaint? Some examples:

• Deposit slips involving deposits of more than one check have to be filled out on both sides and involve the transfer of information from one side to the other. This leads to the possibility of transcription errors, confusion, and worse.

• The slips now demand information that was never required before, such as that the depositor fill out his address. That’s information that ought to be instantly retrievable once you have the depositor’s name and account number, also required on the slip. So this new extra requirement smacks of bumbling bureaucracy for the sake of bumbling bureaucracy.

• Your old deposit slips produced a carbon copy for the depositor. Now, even if I stand in line to make a deposit, all I get is a computer-generated slip with no depositor name, no list of individual check sums deposited, and only a partial account number. Heaven forbid something gets entered wrong either by a teller or me. I’ll have no ready and definitive evidence of the deposit.

• Column rules on the back of the insanely baroque deposit slips are faint, which makes them difficult and confusing for nearsighted people over 40 to use.

I’m sure that if the person in charge of Chase graphic standards ever tries to fill out one of his own deposit slips, he’ll shoot himself. I’m afraid that if you ever try to fill out one of the slips, you’ll shoot your head of graphic design. And I haven’t even gotten to your cash machines.

• Your cash machines used to dispense account information and cash with some reasonable degree of speed and customer-friendliness. Someone at Chase has fixed that. Now, to get balances on my checking and savings accounts at Chase in a single session, I have to enter my PIN number twice. If I then want to transfer funds from one account to another, I have to enter my PIN a third time. If I then want cash, I have to enter my PIN a fourth time. If I want a printed record of my new balance after the withdrawal, I have to enter my PIN a fifth time.

• This infuriating process slows down the works not only for me, but also for all your irritated customers standing in line behind me. It makes us hate to use Chase, as several conversations with my fellow depositors have indicated.

•I should also mention that I recently received a booklet filled with pages and pages of new rules, terms and conditions for depositors. It’s turgid, forbidding, and to my mind clearly done in an attempt to discharge a legal obligation with no expectation that most of your depositors will read any of it. I gave up after two or three pages and tossed it in the trash. You may be satisfying the lawyers, but you’re doing one hell of a lousy job of informing or winning the friendship and loyalty of customers.

• Worst of all, nobody in a position of real authority at Chase appears to be listening. Not to the customers. Not to the poor line employees who have to listen to the complaints and attempt – hopelessly – to get management to hear. Ultimately, that has got to be bad for business and your stockholders. Thank God I’m not one of those.


Friday, October 06, 2006

Torture, talk and ice cream: A professional spy’s Interrogation 101 Primer – for Congressmen and Bush administration hacks

Quite a few years ago, I had a revealing chat with a retired American spy.

For reasons of discretion I won’t tell you why or where it happened, who he was, or which branch of what service he worked for. Suffice it to say that some years earlier, during the Viet Nam war, he found himself in Saigon. Among his duties, he interrogated Viet Cong prisoners suspected of having useful information.

He had deliberately volunteered for this duty, I learned, after giving up a “safe” and relatively cushy job in Europe under the command of another American who believed in snatching suspected communist agents off the street and “beating the crap out of them in the hope they’d tell us something.”


It was all, he complained, repulsively “inelegant” and in violation of everything he’d learned in– oh let’s call it an intelligence training program. He mentioned – years before the subject ever came up in national debate – that torture usually produces only what the victim thinks you want him to say so you’ll stop the pain, if it produces anything at all. “Professional interrogation techniques,” he insisted, were far more likely to result in valuable intelligence.

Naturally I was curious. What the hell is “elegant” interrogation? What makes it “professional” or “unprofessional?” How can you pry information out of people who refuse to talk without torturing them?

“Well,” he said, “let me give you one example. Somebody brings me a prisoner who I believe has some useful information about Viet Cong troop movements and locations. So I sit him down and I have a little discussion with him.”



“Yes, discussion” said the retired spy, “I’d say to him, ‘I am pleased and honored to offer you two alternatives. The first alternative is, you give me no information or bad information. If you prove to be that uncooperative, I will feed you lots of rich, delicious food. You will get to eat ice cream and chocolate cake three or four or five times a day. If you refuse to eat your ice cream, I will melt it, put it in a funnel, and force it down your throat.

“’I will also sing your praises. I will go to a certain bar in Saigonthat we know to be a Viet Cong listening post, and a friend and I will get very drunk, and I will gossip very loudly about what wonderful information we are buying from you.

“‘After you have gained 50 or so pounds from your rich food diet, I will give you a haircut, dress you in a brand new suit and throw you out in the street. Your own people will kill you within 24 hours, and I shudder to think what they will do to you in the last few hours before you die.

“‘The other alternative is, you give us useful information. We will check it out, and if it proves reliable, we will put you on a diet of water and just enough rice to keep you alive until you lose 20 or 30 pounds. Then we will rough you up, break your leg, and leave you out on the Ho Chi Minh trail armed with a believable cover story about your injury, evasion of capture, and survival until your own people pick you up. You will return to the Viet Cong a hero.

“‘The choice is yours. Ice cream or a broken leg. Which will it be?’”

Surprising numbers of prisoners vastly preferred the broken leg, said my spy friend.


No doubt some partisans of torture will point to administration assertions that the torture is working and has enabled us to prevent many acts of destruction, mass murder and sabotage. You have a right to be highly skeptical of these claims.

What are these so-called events that torture and long detention have prevented? Nobody will get specific. They’re protecting intelligence sources, they insist.

Aw come on! Do you mean to tell me that a bunch of Alchaida suicide bombers were prevented from, say, blowing up the Washington Monument but don’t know it and still think the obelisk fell down? Believe me, if an enemy operation actually was prevented, the enemy has to have noticed. Why doesn’t some enterprising Washington news reporter shout out a followup question to the administration’s claims of interdicted terrorism?

Or is there such a thing as an enterprising Washington news reporter any more?

The bottom line? I don’t know how badly our presumed enemy prisoners are getting treated while you read this, but if it were my call I’d start waving containers of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey or Cherries Garcia at them in a menacing way.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

So I'm so-o-o like, ready to puke!

I mean like, can't nobody speak no English no more?

The following is from Lloyd Grove's gossip column in the New York Daily News.
It quotes an irate college freshman who complained that his exit from a book store was blocked during the making of a film:

"They literally told me I couldn't leave the record store. I was like, 'I'm late for class, I'm leaving,' and the guy stood in front of me and he was like, 'If someone is on the street, it will ruin the shot...'"

So let me tell you what I'm like. I'm like, "How did a person who speaks or writes this way get admitted to New York University?" Once upon a time it was supposed to be a "safety school" that New York high school kids applied to "just in case." Then it got rich and supposedly it upgraded its teaching and students. But it looks to me, uh, like they can't even attract literate students.

So, like, isn't that what you're like, like?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Necessary and urgent, but political poison: Why the United States needs to restore the draft

On September 11th of this year, a 52 year old woman Army Sergeant was killed in action in Afghanistan. Her name was Meredith Howard. She hailed from Waukesha, WI, and she was the oldest U.S. war casualty in at least half a century. Details at:

This raises a question that ought to be burning up the talk shows, but isn't:

What was a 52 year old woman doing in a combat situation in the first place? Why was the powerful United States resorting to what Nazi Germany had to resort to in the last days of World War II – calling up people you’d think ought to be too old to fight and throwing them into mortal combat?

Unfortunately, the answer is no mystery. The Bush war in Iraq has so drained our limited troops everywhere that we are recycling soldiers into combat in Afghanistan and Iraq – some for their third tours of war duty – who were past combat age, at least by commonsense standards, decades ago.

There is something completely immoral and possibly criminal about the nincompoops in the White House and the Pentagon starting a war we can’t finish, and then insisting that we “stay the course” using exhausted, often demoralized and overaged troops to do the fighting and dying for them.


Donald Rumsfeld’s glib retort to a soldier who legitimately complained of inadequate equipment and support, “You go to war with the army you’ve got,” might briefly have made sense when we needed a quick reaction to the destruction of the World Trade Center – at least until we could have raised a much larger army. But it makes no sense whatsoever long term.

It would have won the approval of the majority of Americans if a President who was a real leader, riding the surge of patriotism that arose on 9/11, called for an immediate reinstitution of the military draft. This would have given us the army we needed to complete the job that should have been done in Afghanistan – including capturing or killing Osama Bin Ladin.

Whether you believe (as I do) that we had no business going into Iraq (as opposed to Afghanistan) or you’re foursquare behind the war there, it’s clear that Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush and their followers plunged into Iraq with the abandon of a drunk diving headfirst off a high board into a dry swimming pool.


The Bush rationale for entering Iraq has changed many times – from the original claim that Saddam Hussein possessed and/or was manufacturing weapons of mass destruction, to the ridiculous claim that Saddam Hussein was somehow linked to Alchaida, to the latest ridiculous rationale that we are somehow transforming the world for the better by attempting to bring democracy to Iraq.

Clearly, even if this new rationale made any sense, there was no need to dash immediately off to war with the army we had. What difference would it have made if we had first raised a larger army and gone in, say, six months or a year (or even two years) later to chase Saddam Hussein into a rabbit hole? My goodness gracious Mr. Secretary, we might even have restored civil order in Iraq at the same time.

But of course, the White House and the Pentagon had no intention of raising a significantly larger army. To do so would have meant spending money and instituting a draft. You have to assume they thought this would incur too high a political price. The evident object was to ruffle as few American feathers as possible while we blew Saddam Hussein off his perch. Sacrifices? No. Tax cuts, at least for the very wealthy? Certainly. Tax increases to actually pay for our war effort? Don't be ridiculous. Weakness? Lots of it, but they kept it quiet in Washington.


The “evildoers” of the world have smelled the weakness that these Bush policies have created. And this has enabled them to grow from cartoon despots exploiting only their own people to serious threats against America's security and that of the planet.

Soon after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, North Korea detected the stench of decaying American power, threw out the international monitors at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, and got into the nuclear bomb business.
Even worse, as I sat down to write this article, news came over the wires that North Korea is now threatening to test a nuclear weapon.

Iran is next in the nuclear conga line. The fact that its radical Moslem President Ahmadinejad can virtually thumb his nose at the United States, leaving us with no alternative save to send Condi Rice out blustering on the talk show circuit, indicates that our weakness is showing like a gaudy necktie. The world knows we have few funds and virtually no army to spare.

Even Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, who at this time has no reason to go nuclear, was able to flip us the bird at the UN recently with his jibes that President Bush is the devil, jeering that, “I smell sulphur.” Pakistan already has the bomb. So does China. Who’s next in the parade of small nations who dare to pull our tail or poke us in the eye?


Instituting a draft (and restoring the taxes and tax rates that can pay for it) could have a powerfully positive impact on U.S. power around the world.

Aware that we could pour half a million or a million soldiers into their nations on very short notice, the North Koreas and Irans of the world would be a trifle less eager to tell us where to shove our concerns while they go about creating and building the next nuclear nightmare.

At the same time, adraft could also have a moderating affect on our government's stupid eagerness to march our kids off to wars that make no sense. Otherwise, members of Congress would have a hell of a time explaining to their constituents why so many neighborhood kids got called up and killed.

The draft helped end the war in Viet Nam because millions of young people (and it turns out, some of their parents) were outraged at having their lives placed on the line for virtually no reason at all. And ultimately, the kids were right. Despite dire predictions of a world falling like dominoes to Communism if we “cut and ran,” which we most certainly did, no dominoes fell after Viet Nam.

To the contrary, communist regimes either fell or were forced to reform least partially. The U.S. even manages to maintain good relations with Viet Nam, our former “enemy.” We're eager to trade with them now. Your most recently purchased sneakers may have been made by the daughter of a guy who was wearing sandals cut from tires and shooting at American soldiers only 37 years ago.


Every young person in the United States, male or female, in excellent physical condition or handicapped, ought to be subject to two years of national service. It ought to be as much of a patriotic duty – and an involuntary one – as paying taxes.

Obviously, somebody who can’t walk can’t be a combat soldier. Draft him or her regardless. That person can contribute to the national defense in a variety of other ways. You can’t walk? Sit there in your uniform and key quartermaster statistics into a computer. Or clean rifles. Or write training manuals. Or sort laundry.

You have plans to go to graduate school? Too bad – unless graduate school will give you a skill the army wants, such as surgeon. In that case, you can be deferred until you’ve got your medical degree, and then called up for service. Otherwise, you can go to graduate school after you finish your military service.


Even if the world suddenly turns so peaceful that no U.S. Government can make use of a standing Army of several millions, everyone ought to be required to go through basic militry training – or some rough equivalent for those who are disabled – and then required to spend the rest of their two years of national service doing something useful for the nation.

Teach school. Clean bedpans. Clear slums. Plant trees in national forests. Join a reinvigorated Peace Corps, or its domestic equivalent.

Since there should be no exceptions to the draft – none whatsoever – you can bet that most of the wars we enter will either be wars of necessity or wars that end pretty quickly and disgrace pretty quickly those who caused us to enter them unnecessarily. How long do you think we’d be fighting in Iraq if President Bush’s daughters Jenna and Barbara were on the front lines? Would Hillary Clinton still be supporting the war if Chelsea were toting a rifle in Baghdad?

Every Presidential candidate in the coming primaries and elections – candidates of both parties – ought to be asked, “Do you support the restoration of the draft, with a clear no-exceptions clause?

If they answer no, ask them how they intend to defend this nation with a handful of ageing soldiers and new potential nuclear fronts opening against us with the regularity of dandelions blooming in spring.

If they answer that they won’t support a draft but plan to stay the course in Iraq, ask them how they can fight a war with soldiers who will be in their 60s and even 70s by the end of their second Presidential term.

My guess is that no matter what you ask, no candidate in either major party will publicly support a draft before the elections. It’s what comes after the election – no matter who wins the Presidency – that will be interesting.