Friday, February 27, 2009

Bye bye until late March. I'm off to visit the Third World.

I've got my malaria pills. I've had my shots. I've been admonished up to here about the water, ("Don't drink it. Don't even brush your teeth with it.")

I also know not to walk barefoot outdoors, not that I'd ever think to. ("They've got a worm that enters through the soles of your feet, crawls up the inside of your leg and...") Yecch! I get it.

So what with watching out for killer worms, staying wary of malaria-bearing mosquitos, avoiding cholera, polio, dysentary, and sorting out what's real from what's pop medicine, ("The international public health people gave you what kind of pills for Malaria Country? Don't you know about the side effects?")...

...With all that, I'm going to be too busy to blog. Or to moderate. Not to mention too far from a computer most of the time. Feel free to try posting here, but understand that your posts won't go up on The New York Crank until I crank my way back to New York.

See ya late March, possibly with some interesting tales to tell.

I hope not too interesting.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Associated Press reporter gets lost, can't find where he's reporting from

In an article datelined Danville, Calif., an Associated Press reporter today told the story of a couple who won a house in nearby Marin County, after the family breadwinner had lost his job.

And then the intrepid AP reporter revealed:

The house is in upscale Marin County, just north of San Francisco. The couple already own a home in Danville, a suburb south of San Francisco...
Small detail: Danville is a suburb east, not south of San Francisco. Check it out on the map.

Which raises some interesting questions such as:

• Did the reporter know where he or she was while reporting from Danville?

• Assuming the reporter is based at AP's San Francisco bureau, how did he or she get to Danville in the first place? Maybe while sleeping in the back of a helicopter?

• Is the AP fudging around here and actually reporting from San Francisco, doing its interviews via phone, and only pretending (tch tch) to be reporting directly from Danville?

My own theory is that the AP isn't lying about datelines. Its reporter somehow got to Danville, but now is hopelessly lost there and can't find his way home. Well, if he camps out on the streets, there's a terrific farmers' market there on Saturdays. Great produce!

This is an example of the sloppy reporting and editing you get when the news business, under pressure, pares down its staffing so severely that its "reporters" and the people who edit their copy don't have a clue where they're reporting from.

This time it's only a warm-your-heart feature story about a family that lost its source of income but won a$2 million house. Imagine what the AP is missing — or getting wrong — in Washington.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

"Too big to fail" is too big, period!

Before Republicans and a few Democrats began deregulating the United States economy to hell, we had the financial and business equivalent of traffic cops who actually did their job. And we had laws with teeth that gave financial cops the authority to do that job.

Their job was to keep the equivalent of drunk drivers at the heads of corporations like Merrill Lynch, Bank of America, General Motors and others from letting their companies get so big that their intemperate greed and dunderheaded incompetence could sink the entire nation.

It’s time to bust up the banks,
the brokerage companies, the car makers

big drugs and big nationwide utilities

When we had the Glass-Steagall Act, financial institutions had to make a choice. They could be in the investment banking business, the savings bank and mortgage loan business, or the checking account and business loan business. Pick one.

That ended, under the Democratic Clinton Adminstration I’m ashamed to say, but under fierce pressure from a then-Republican Congress. It’s time to restore Glass-Steagall. But that's just for starters.

There was a time when every bank had 50 choices of the state where it wanted to do business. But every bank could only do business in one state. That kept banks local and fairly responsive to the needs of their local constituencies.

The town banker knew the town merchants. The savings bank knew their mortgage customers. Any local bank that began handing out fly-by-night loans would self-destruct, the banker would get driven out of town on a rail, the depositors would get paid off by FDIC insurance, the taxpayers would be in the hole but only for chump change relative to the mess we’re in now, and that would be that.

Strictly local banks were never too big to fail. But most of them were too smart to fail — because they were smaller, more agile, and more aware of what was going on their markets. It’s time to revert to local banking. Let Bank of America, and Chase, and Wells Fargo, and what’s left of the mess that’s Citibank each pick a state, any state, and do business there. And then get the hell out of the other 49 states.

Shrink banks and you'll shrink
bonuses and credit card interest

That one move will eliminate greed-driven bank managements because there simply won’t be enough money there most of the time for double-digit million dollar bonuses. It will eliminate the probability of massive bailouts of banks too big to fail. It will simplify the audits that state and federal bank examiners ought to be conducting every year. And it will keep banks out of the stock market, and vice-versa.

Oh, and by the way, it will bring credit card interest rates and penalties back under the control of the states, which in many states will mean the end of outrageous 30% credit card interest rates and heads-you-lose, tails-you-lose “terms and conditions.”

Give General Motors
a general bustup

General Motors? It would be a lot less of a threat to the economy if instead of General Motors we had a Chevvy Motors, a Buick Motors, a Cadillac Motors and a Saturn Motors, each with its own board of directors and its own more agile management to respond to its own market. If we did that to each of the “way-too-big three,” you can bet that, for example, Ram Motors would be doing okay now, even as Chrysler Car Motors sank like a shot, its market quickly taken over by somebody who wants to build an electric hybrid instead of a soused-on-petroleum SUV.

We still have a Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Breaking up the Big Three automakers is the sort of thing it was designed to do. Mr. Obama , get out that Sherman hatchet and start chopping up car companies.

The Sherman anti-trust act was used against AT&T back in 1982. Suddenly, instead of a single sleepy telephone monopoly, we had lots of little regional phone companies competing. Before you could hiccup we had cell phone networks, phone companies competing with cable companies, cable companies competing with phone companies, and rate wars. But then guess what happened?

Laissez-faire economics is what happened. The so-called “Baby Bells” starting merging. Rates went up. And now the cell phone innovations are happening at Apple, not New York Telephone. No wait, New York Telephone became part of Bell Atlantic. No wait, Bell Atlantic got swallowed up by NYNEX. It’s time to start un-merging them again — and the cable companies along with them.

Big Pharma? It’s a few corporate behemoths, their huge, powerful hands maintaining a choke hold around the necks of Congressmen and Senators that are keeping drug prices in the stratosphere. Break the bastards into a thousand little pieces. We’ll get smaller, smarter, faster-moving, more innovative pharmaceutical companies — and better drug prices while we’re at it.

Demand an end to
Socialism for corporations

Breaking up big business, regulating it into behaving as if it belongs in a civil society, detoxifying it so it can’t poison the economy and steal your job — that isn’t Socialism. On the contrary, it would be the end of a bigger evil, Corporate Socialism.

Small business that’s small enough to fail is capitalism. Let’s demand some capitalism for America, despite what those conservative Republican Socialists say.

Are you listening, Mr. President? And what about you, Congress?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

How I pegged R. Allen Stanford for a phony four years ago

As some of my more faithful readers know, I’m an ad guy. Around 2005 I was doing work for a small Manhattan ad agency. I’m sure management there will be relieved a to know I’m not going embarrass them with the folly I saw there by mentioning the agency’s name.

They were pitching a new client. For a rather small agency, he was big business. I mean BIG.

“He’s gonna spend at least five million bucks with us the first year,” gushed an account management guy, who turned out to be painfully wrong.

“He,” was R. Allen Stanford, a Texas (of course) investment banker who now turns out to be a second string Bernie Madoff.

You gotta start off
cach day with a lie

Stanford told some agency people he was closely related to the founder of Stanford University. He evidently has told other people, too. (Not true, the University insists, turning around and launching a law suit against good ole boy R. Allen for trademark infringement.)

When R. Allen showed up at the agency, he ordered the entire staff lined up for him to meet. No, not a hand-shaking kind of thing. More of an inquisition.

“What do you do here?” he asked, glaring at a terrified looking woman. “And you, what do you do?” he demanded of another victim.

He didn’t ask everybody. He didn’t seem much interested in the answers, either. Instead, he seemed hellbent on impressing on everybody that he wanted respect, damnit. Groveling, bootlicking, kiss-his-butt respect.

Proud of terrifying a hotel

Stanford told us that he puts on a conference every year in New York, , using space at a particular Manhattan Hotel. “I spend $300,000 a year there, so I think I’m entitled to have everybody who works there know my name,” he said. He seemed to me to be impressed with himself. And proud.

Evidently, the entire hotel staff was briefed by their panicked management. Hundreds of people, including frequent repeat customers, come and go. But that guy with the doofy mustasche, whenever you see him, it had better be “Good morning, Mr. Stanford.” Or “Good evening Mr. Stanford.” Or else.

So one day good ole R. Allen walked into the news shop in the hotel lobby. The clerk there didn’t say, “Good morning, Mr. Stanford, Sir.” She just hands him the newspaper he asked for.

“Do you know who I am?” he asked her.

“Nope,” she said with a shrug.

Explosion! R. Allen Stanford, nearly in meltdown state, went to the management of the hotel and demanded to know why the clerk in the news shop didn’t know his name.

“The shop isn’t part of the hotel,” the manager explained. “They just rent the space from us.”

That was no excuse for R. Allen Stanford, who wanted things changed fast or there was going to be a $300,000 annual loss of business to pay.

Mind you, R. Allen Stanford told this story on himself, to a roomful of strangers.

Phony financier launches
Madison Avenue madness

Well, the ad agency set to work doing all kinds of things for Stanford's organization, starting with advising on what kind of “exhibits” he should put in some kind of weird “observation tower,” about four or five stories tall, that he built in Antigua.

He seemed to have a penchant for erecting tall things. (So does Donald Trump. What is it with ego-driven bullies and phallic symbols?)

Later that year, on vacation in Ecuador, I discovered another Stanford "tall thing" installation — an amusement park on a mountainside, high above Quito. You had to get there by paying to board a cable car. When you arrived, high up on a mountain, you found restaurants and souvenir shops. All of them were pretty much empty. Quito is a fairly poor town. How many people want to pay good money for a cable car ride before they sneak into the USA looking for work? This, Stanford investors, may be where your money went.

If you don’t come in Saturday,
don’t come in Sunday, either

Stanford also had a way of intruding on peoples’ lives. He’d call the little New York ad agency and say, “I want to see what you people are doing for me. I’ll be in to see a presentation, on Saturday.”

Saturday? Effin’ Saturday? The entire agency staff killed their weekend to come in Saturday. They came in at nine and stayed until 6 PM, waiting for R. Allen Stanford who never showed up. Then he called and said, “I got tied up. Come in Sunday.”

Clearly the guy was on a power trip. What it boils down to was, he was a refined schoolyard bully.

He wanted an ad campaign that was all about his integrity and reliability. When a financial guy tells you that integrity is the message he wants to get across, reach for your wallet and hold on to it tight.

Money burned, careers ruined

The New York agency went through all kinds of intensive and money-burning gyrations to come up with a campaign Stanford liked, and, on his insistence, getting it produced on the cheap. After all that, Stanford walked away from the agency and began airing ads, created at his own company, that he had been running before he connected with the gulled ad guys. The ad agency, and at least one other corporate entity, got left holding the financial bag.

The agency TV producer had been forced to twist so many arms at commercial production houses to get a cheap price, and the production houses had laid out so much money that they never got back, that the producer’s career was wiped out. Nobody will work with him again, which is death to a producer. He’s now running some kind of statistical information business. Every time I run into him he looks more depressed and disheveled than before.

The power to beat on people

All the while I kept telling anybody I could at the ad agency — the account management guy, the creative director, the producer — that this guy was a colossal phony. “He doesn’t want ads,” I told somebody, “He wants to beat up on agency people and show them he’s boss.”

Nobody listened. For the top guys, the issue was how to get Stanford’s $5 million budget. For the little guys, it was how to keep their jobs.

I moved on. I had better things to do.

Now, I understand, Stanford is a fugitive on the lam.* Well, good. His company's assets have been frozen by the Feds. He has evidently screwed so many people in Texas that he doesn’t want to be found there. Not in a state where lots of people seem to be packing heat, if not around their waists at least in the glove compartments of their cars, or on the rack over the rear window of the pickup truck.

If I were Stanford, I wouldn’t show up in New York, either.

P.S. The New York Times this morning ran a story saying Stanford had been, uh, found by the FBI and — get this — served with a civil summons. Ya gotta love it! Bernie Madoff, who ripped off $50 billion, is free on bail to hang out in his Upper East Side penthouse under luxurious "house arrest." R. Allen Stanford, who seems to have scammed only to the tune of $8 billion, is free to walk around anywhere without bail, so long as he shows up for his summons. But swipe a six-pack of Coke from your local convenience store and watch what happens to you.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Ageist bastards! American businesses (especially Madison Avenue) all but beat, stomp and throw their old out into the snow.

If you’re 49 years old today, you’ll have to wait 18 years before you can collect your full Social Security retirement benefit.

But if you’re 49 years old today and in the advertising agency business, your career is just about over, unless you’re either president of the company or own the agency outright. In fact, unless you’re very lucky, you may already be out in the Madison Avenue cold forever even if you're barely older than 40.

That may be why ads aimed at the 50-plus crowd seem so ridiculous and obnoxious to the very people they're aimed at. Kids young enough to be our grandchildren, kids who haven't got a clue, are trying to sell us a bill of goods. Piet Verbeck, an advertising colleague who like me has figured out how to live past age 50 on the crumbs that fall off big advertising agency tables, is quick to point out:

The advertising business seems to be way out of touch with one of the fastest growing and certainly the richest market of all: 65-plus. The reason could be that there is nearly no one in the agency business even remotely close to that age.
He said that in AdWeek magazine, where you can bet every last reader, just about, is nodding in agreement. Business is ageist in general. Advertising agency staffing policies are outrageously, disgustingly, repulsively ageist.

Baloney from Maloney

More than a decade ago, I started writing to Carolyn Maloney, my unresponsive Congresswoman, pointing out that if you need to keep increasing the Social Security retirement age, you have to keep raising the government protection for people below that age as well.

I made a proposal to her which I make again today to all of congress:

The United States needs a law that would would establish de facto age discrimination at any company whose employees in each department between the age of 50 and 65-plus don't bear some reasonable resemblance to the proportion of people that age in the general population.

I got back blithering crap from Maloney — a letter that said of course she opposed all forms of age discrimination as well as other forms of gender and racial discrimination, and always had. Yadda yadda yadda, with not a word about my proposal.

So I fired off a second later, an angry one this time, demanding a response, even a simple no, to my proposal. And I did get a response, of sorts. Some young male assistant (he sounded in his 20s) asked me what it was I wanted again. I explained it again. He seemed to be very much interested and sounded as if he was taking copious notes.

Never heard from him again. Nor from Carolyn Maloney.

Hey, need a cause? Remember,
you'll be in your 60s some day, too.

So now I’m putting it out there for you progressive activists to run with. It you’re going to raise the Social Security age, you’d better damn well protect workers from ages 50 to 68. And punish those employers who fire them. Or who don't replace them with workers of similar age.

Anybody in the Senate or House want to champion this one? I’m waiting for a show of hands.

Still waiting….

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Terminated: 9% of California employees’ pay. Evidence that if you vote for a Republican, you'll get a ton of collateral damage. Guaranteed.

Broke as a shoeless drunk on skid row, California has begun furloughing its civil service employees two days a month. This amounts to roughly a nine percent wage cut.

The “furlough” became official after the state’s employee unions challenged this "governator"-mandated slap in the face in court and lost. The Los Angeles Times reported:

"This state is in a huge mess . . . the scope of which is unprecedented," Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Patrick Marlette said in a courtroom packed with government workers. His ruling called the governor's order "reasonable and necessary under the circumstances."

He acknowledged that his decision could have "devastating" financial consequences for some workers, but said state law and union contracts provide the governor with the authority to cut the payroll during an emergency.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the screwing of public servants applies to:
“Engineers, scientists, nurses, Department of Motor Vehicles clerks, pharmacists, Caltrans maintenance workers, dietitians, psychologists, social workers, computer programmers, unemployment caseworkers, full-time state commissioners and attorneys not working for the state attorney general...”
Ironically, the pay-cut-by-furlough does not apply to the state’s legislators, who could solve the problem by increasing the taxes on upper income earners. You know, bankers, movie producers, and other fat cats who contributed to legislative and gubernatorial campaigns.

Fat chance you’ll see that tax increase happen! Better to whack a struggling $40,000 a year civil servant with a nine percent pay cut than to make a billionaire cut back on his personal use of private jets.

Governor “Ahhnold” Schwarzenegger might have stood up to the big money interests and defended the little guys who work for him. But it turns out that when you get down to where the rubber hits the road, he’s just another girly-man.

California taxpayers are getting a raw deal, too. They voted for Republicans to get their taxes lowered. Now they’re not even getting their tax refunds back. Instead, taxpayers who are due refunds are getting “IOUsfrom the state. Live long enough, you might even see the money.

A source in California informs me that he has the solution to this mess: “Put a proposition on the ballot that says when civil service workers get their pay cut, the legislators and governor’s staff get the same percentage cut. That’ll fix the problem fast.”

I agree. But I fear you’ll wait until Judgment Day to see that happen. The proposition will meet a wall of opposition from rich Republicans, who are perfectly happy to hear the change in their pockets jingle all the way, while California collapses around them.

Thanks to failed Republican gubernatorial administration and leadership, and to bad legislative judgment, California’s macho mood has stopped pumping iron and started sucking air.

Vote for a Republican and End of Days is what you get.

Friday, February 06, 2009

News bulletin! (Clouds With Silver Linings Department)

The economy is more than halfway down the toilet, with Republican legislative troublemakers competing to see which of them yanks the flush handle first.

If only they can lower taxes (which helped get us into this mess over the past eight years) instead of stimulating the economy.

If only they can keep money away from infrastructure, education, healthcare and technology projects, then maybe the entire United States of America will go up in smoke. Then it will be time for The Rapture. Or The Rupture. Or whatever it is they think will put them forever in Paradise with 72 Republican virgins.

Well, never mind that. The bad economy brings this joyous news for those who’ve ever felt besieged by junk mail from banks.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Pissed off groundhog takes a bite out of Bloomberg: an anthropological, meteorological and political explanation for my foreign readership

This piece is solely for the edification of my foreign readers. Please don’t read it if you’re a U.S. citizen and most especially if you’re a New Yorker. Mind your own business.
I want to explain to you, dear foreign readers, a curious American folk custom called Groundhog Day.

The “groundhog,” also known as a “woodchuck,” (M. monax) is a North American rodent about the size of what you Europeans and Latin Americans call a “football.”

It lives in the forests of the northeastern United States where it busies itself burrowing holes to sleep in and munching on nuts and other forest flora.

Death on four wheels

Like its fellow North American forest occupants such as the squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus), the raccoon (Procyon lotor), and the possum (Didelphis marsupialis), the groundhog’s most threatening natural predator is the automobile. (Automobilis horriblis.)

This is because the groundhog likes to cross roads. If in the course of crossing a road it sees an automobile speeding toward it, the groundhog assumes that if it stands very still, the automobile won’t notice it and will kill something else instead. Unfortunately for the groundhog, it is only half correct. Squish!

This may lead you to conclude that groundhogs are not very bright. However, everything is relative. For example, Americans believe you can use groundhogs to predict the arrival of spring weather.

Rodent long-range
weather forecasts

According to a popular myth, if the groundhog emerges from his burrow on February 2nd and sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter. On the other hand, if he doesn’t see his shadow, spring is, umm…well, closer than six weeks away, regardless of the calendar.

Americans believe this myth because we are stupid.

Well, let’s face it. We really are. Mine is the nation that allowed George W. Bush to become president not once but twice, correct? I rest my case.

Belief in the ability of groundhogs to predict weather has led to a ceremony in a little town in Pennsylvania called Punxsutawney. Every year, the Punxsutawney town fathers dress up in top hats and frock coats. While the press watches and cameras roll, the bewildered groundhog gets yanked out of a box that serves as his man-made burrow. He is held up for all to see. Miraculously, he almost always sees his shadow, even if the rest of us can’t.

There are loud cheers, which scare the hell out of the poor rodent. Then all of us go back to work, relieved to know that winter will last another six weeks. And the groundhog can sleep off this horrible moment in the public eye until next year.

The groundhog’s name is always Punxsutawney Phil. I say “always” because this annual ceremony has been going on since 1887. The groundhog you see on TV cannot possibly be the groundhog they started with. All the same, there never seems to be a Phil Jr., or more likely a Phil the Fiftieth or Phil the Hundred-And-Twenty-Second.

Mayor Bloomberg’s New York
jealous of Punxsutawney 

Groundhog Day brings a lot of prosperity to rural Punxsutawney, population 6271. The press come and overwhelm the local diner’s capacity to brew coffee. The town gets lots of free publicity. So naturally, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, population somewhere between seven and eight million, grew jealous.

Consequently, we now have a Groundhog Day celebration in New York, starring a groundhog named Staten Island Chuck. Well, it doesn’t happen in the center of New York. If we had this ceremony in Manhattan, too many people would stand in line overnight just to jeer.

Instead, Groundhog Day gets celebrated in a remote zoo in our remotest borough, Staten Island. Only a Staten Islander could tell you how to get there. Not that New Yorkers are all that knowledgeable about getting around their city in any case. If any of us knows how to get to JFK airport by subway, we probably learned it from a French tourist.

This Groundhog Day, Mayor Michael Bloomberg schlepped out to Staten Island, one assumes by limo, to check out Chuck (the groundhog, not New York Senator Chuck Schumer) and see if Chuck’s meterological prediction agreed with Punxsutawney Phil’s prediction.

A furry critter in a foul mood
foils the whole PR thing

Unfortunately, Staten Island Chuck was in a foul mood that morning and didn’t want to come out of his box.

Equally unfortunately, this mayor doesn’t tolerate those who don’t cooperate with his public relations efforts. For example, his cops went out and illegally busted demonstrators, most especially bicyclists, in police state raids against protestors during the 2004 Republican convention.

And when he can’t bully them, the Mayor, who on his own is wealthy enough to bail out a bank, finds a way to buy what he wants.

He has in effect bought elections by drowning the opposition in advertising they can’t possibly afford to match. And he has in effect bribed his own city council into overturning a law twice mandated by voters for term limits on elected officials. He did this by encouraging the Council members to overturn their own term limits as well. But back to Staten Island Chuck…

Irritated critter disses mayor.
I say, “Good for you, Chuck!”

Staten Island Chuck was having none of this photo-op. If the mayor woke you up at 7:30 am so that he could aggrandize himself by having paparazzi fire off strobe lights in your face, you’d be disagreeable, too.

Bloomberg then tried the same tactic he used with his City Council. Bribery. He left about half an ear of corn in front of the entrance to Chuck’s box to coax him out. No fool that Chuck. He grabbed the corn and backed into his box with it. I’d rather have breakfast in bed, too.

So the mayor, who wants what he wants — citizens and ground hogs be damned — reached into Chuck’s box to yank Chuck out by the neck. And that’s when Chuck bit Bloomberg, as you'll see in this video.

Well, no real damage done. From what I hear, the Mayor required no more medical attention than a Band-Aid.

All the same, given the fact that a lot of New Yorkers are madder than a pissed off woodchuck about the mayor’s usurping of their term limits mandate, I’d get a tetanus shot if I were Michael Bloomberg.

And now for the weather…

For whatever it’s worth, Staten Island Chuck didn’t see his shadow. Which means, if you believe in this crap, that spring will come very early to New York this year, even if it doesn’t come early in not-so-far-away Punxsutawney. Well, that’s meteorology for you.

Okay, American readers, you can come back in now. Especially if you live in New York. In fact, for your own good, you’d better. As I write this, it’s snowing hard outside.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Is this bill for insurance not purchased an AARP ripoff? A United Healthcare ripoff? Or just "a mistake?" You decide.

There are reasons I'm a cranky old fart. Consider this one:

After Congress invented the ridiculous and unnecessarily complicated "doughnut hole" prescription drug plan a few years ago, I signed up for it with AARP. I figured, what could be wrong with an AARP plan? They're there simply to represent the needs of older Americans, right?

Whoops! I forgot that AARP is first and foremost a sales agent for various insurance and travel businesses. "Lobbying" on behalf of senior citizens is largely a way of sucking us into their sales machine.

When old farts like me buy United Healthcare health insurance through AARP, those wonderful folks at AARP get a piece of the action. That may be why AARP never protested on behalf of the people it supposedly "represents" — as they should have — that the doughnut hole Prescription Drug Plan was outrageous and the financial benefit pathetic.

Last November, I found a cheaper prescription drug plan that gives me essentially the same benefits as the AARP plan. I notified Medicare via its website, did all the paperwork, and in due course found myself enrolled in somebody else's inadequate-but-cheaper drug plan, beginning January 1 of this year.

Cancellation of the AARP plan was unnecessary, according to the government's own website. (Root around here if you must, and try not to go blind.)

You'd think that would be the end of it. You'd be thinking wrong.

United Healthcare/AARP
duns me for money anyway

A couple of days ago I received an invoice from the AARP Medicare RX plan. (Note that in the letterhead above, United Healthcare's and AARP's logos both appear.)

It was a dunning letter for money I didn't owe them. To quote part of the letter above (from which I've redacted my name, address and other information for obvious reasons):

Our records indicate there is a balance due of $59.60 on your AARP MedicareRX Preferred account. The balance represents premium owed for 01-31-2009.

Please remit this amount by 01-31-2009 in the enclosed envelope to bring your account up to date. Be sure to include your member ID number on you check or money order. Please be advised, all payments made by you will be posted to the oldest outstanding balance on your account...
Is this a billing fraud?

Where I come from, sending people bills for services they haven't purchased is considered fraud. When the fraud is committed against the elderly — many of them vulnerable because of poor eyesight, problems concentrating, and in some cases confusion caused by dementia — it's not just a fraud. It's an execrably vicious fraud.

So I called AARP to complain. After the usual pushbutton hell exercise you go through calling any corporate bureaucracy these days, I got through to a real person. And he wanted something: my former member ID number and my mailing address. Fair enough. I gave it to him.

"Don't let 'em go until you
capture their private information
for your marketing database"

Then he wanted my telephone number. Why? He wouldn't say, other than he couldn't deal with whatever it was I wanted until he had my phone number.

Outrageous! But okay, I gave him my phone number.

"E-mail address?" he asked.

"What do you need that for?"

He kept insisting he wanted my e-mail address. But he never gave me a reason why he needed it.

I believe I can tell you why he needed it. He needed it so that AARP and United Healthcare can refine their marketing databases. And perhaps so that they can sell my information (and your information if you call them, too) to other direct marketers.

Finally I started to yell into the telephone. Maybe I scared him. He finally told me that the bill "was a mistake" and that I could ignore it.

Mistake? A mistake times how many tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands among the millions of AARP members who may have renewed their insurance with another company? And how much could this fraudulent billing enrich AARP and United Healthcare at $59.60 a pop?

Maybe you believe it was a mistake. Personally, I'd sooner believe in the Tooth Fairy.