Friday, February 29, 2008

Another USPS Ripoff

Today's rant is about the online change-of-address form. After they spam you with advertisements for magazines and catalogs, they charge you $1. They claim it is to verify that the person making the request is really that person, but then why not put the $1 back onto your card like a refund? Maybe I am wrong here, but it is my understanding that this is a costless process. But even if it is not, why not reduce the fee to just cover the cost of the charge by the credit card company? What are credit card companies charging these day? $0.30 a transaction plus 3%? Make the verification $0.35 then. I know this seems trivial, but if I have to be bombarded with advertisements from a government agency, THEN I SHOULDN'T HAVE TO PAY FOR THE SERVICE!

Doesn't the postal service make enough money? I mean really, $0.43 to mail a piece of paper, which seems to increase on a monthly basis (actually I think it is yearly now). This is outrageous if you really think about it. Luckily I don't mail a lot of things, but when I have to, usually I can only find an outdated stamp that needs to have postage added to it. The new forever stamp solves this problem, except when the postal person sells you on the new Star-Wars commemorative.

What about all the other services they offer? The passport process includes $15 photos and a $30 processing fee. Thankfully you can get your photos elsewhere and spend only $7.50, but if you remember the old days when you could process actual film, it was still $5 to develop an entire roll. The $30 fee is for a guy to look over your passport application and then mail it in. Why don't they just start charging people for standing in line at the post office? Isn't that essentially the same concept?

The delivery confirmation - It's just another way to add $0.75 to your already inflated shipping cost. Is the marginal cost of scanning the package when the post guy delivers it, really $0.75? No, it is probably closer to zero but, hey, I think $0.20 would be fairer and it would still be enough to prevent every person from adding it to every piece of mail they ship.

Stamp collecting - they promote this like it is the best fad to hit America since the 1920's flappers. Why? Because essentially you are just giving them free money! They can print as much postage as they want, and if it is never spent, presto! I used to collect stamps in the 1990's but a collection only yields value if it is a rare commodity. I stopped collecting circa 1999 because they were constantly creating new issues like the New York Times and started heavily promoting stamp collecting as an "exciting hobby for all ages" (translation: if you are dumb enough to give us real currency worth 100 times the exchange for a piece of paper with a picture on it, we'll gladly accept it!). Sure there are probably quite a few ding dongs who collect stamps because "they are pretty" and are spending buckets of money to acquire them, just like beanie-babies, but postage actually provides a service and has a use. I'm not sure how many stamp collectors there are currently, but I'm sure it provides the postal service with a lot of free money that doesn't translate into lower postage costs for the rest of us.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Saddam Hussein Obama

One can discover a lot and uncover hidden thoughts and motivations by observing actions. Take today’s article about the Republican National Convention’s Chairman decrying the use of Barack Obama’s full name. What is the problem? His middle name is “Hussein.” I guess the opposition thinks that there are some American voters who will think Saddam’s corpse is running for president and will vote for it. Then I suppose there are probably a few voters who confuse Osama with Obama and think the terrorist mastermind is drumming up support for universal health insurance. (At Bin Laden's inauguration, in a heavily accented acceptance speech, “Allah Akbar! Death to America”). Are American voters really this stupid? Well... errr... Bush did get voted in twice, so maybe those who oppose the use of "Hussein" have a point. Either way, Obama’s own name can supposedly harm his image and Republicans want to make sure that Democrats play fair.

You might think, “Wow, how charitable that the Republicans will defend their enemy. Maybe they aren’t such a bad bunch after all.”

But what are we really being told here? They want to keep support high for Obama, so he can defeat Hillary and win the nomination. Why do they want this? Because they think it will be easier for McCain to beat Obama than it is to beat Hillary. Hillary is a stronger candidate with the American people and those on the fence who would vote for Hillary will instead vote for McCain if Obama is nominated.

I strongly believe that Hillary would easily win the election against McCain, but it is harder to say if it is a race of Obama vs McCain. McCain is much more moderate than previous Republican nominees, which makes him appealing to a lot of independents who would prefer to go closer to the middle of the political spectrum instead of the far Obama left.

Tennessee got a little excited and jumped the gun a little. Republicans want to hold back on the attacks until after Obama is nominated because that alone will help them out the most and give McCain the best fighting chance. And if Obama beats Hillary what do you think the Republicans are going to do then? They are going to pull out all everything they have to use against him and I wouldn't doubt it if more Hussein and Osama similarities were introduced into the media at that point.

Similar situations occur when Nader runs for presidency, as he recently announced again. Republicans know that Nader draws votes away from the Democratic nominee, so with more Nader support there is less Democratic support. Nader denies this, and actually thinks that he steals Republican votes, but we know that, as a smart man, he can’t really believe it. As my significant other would say, “He’s a closet republican.” Why else would he have so many Republican donors?

In past elections, Democrats have fought to keep Nader off the ballot in some states and Republicans cried foul because “Democracy was being infringed.” Let's cut the crap. You and I know god damn well that if the situation were reversed, with a spoiler on the Republican side, they would be doing the same god damn thing!

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

WaMu Update

Cue the $50,000 banner: "Mission Accomplished!"

WaMu refunded my $10.00 excess activity fee after I sent in my letter. It goes to show that if you fight, you can win.

Barack Obama and the National Anthem

Now, I'm sure that everyone heard about the incident where the national anthem was being sung and Barack Obama refused to put his hand over his heart. Obama was quick to fire back that the photo was taken out of context. I figured it probably was as well since that is what politics is all about - misrepresenting your opponent. Well, tonight, poking around YouTube, I came across a video that looks like hardcore evidence against his statement. It looks pretty clear cut to me. Maybe one is not required to put one's hand over his or her heart during the national anthem, but one looks like a jackass when EVERY other candidate is doing just that. What do you think?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Alternative Admissions

My university decided to increase the standards for admission, with a high school GPA entrance requirement set at 3.0. Normally this would increase the overall average quality of the underlying student body and set higher standards for degree attainment, which allows a university to become more recognized nationally. This is a good thing.

Unfortunately there is a caveat. At the same time, the university has decided to implement an "Alternative Admissions" program. What's this, you say? Essentially it is affirmative action, also known as discrimination against white people. So essentially, the standards for admitting white people goes up, but blacks and hispanics get the old standard, even if they aren't as prepared and can't compete academically. You know why I only mentioned blacks and hispanics and omitted asians? Because asians don't have a problem being admitted. As a group, asians are very studious and have high standards for academic achievement. In California, when Prop 209 passed, it eliminated affirmative action and enrollment in UC schools for blacks and hispanics plummeted and Asian enrollment sky-rocketed. Visit the Cal Berkeley campus and take a gander at the student body. Now isn't that an anomaly? The smallest minority group suddenly over represents the student body and benefits when affirmative action is outlawed.

Does anyone else see a problem with affirmative action? If you cannot achieve the minimum standards for enrollment at a university, you should not be admitted, period. If the university looks at everything except race, and if all racial groups have the same intelligence, ability, or whatever, then minorities should naturally be represented at the same percentage level as the general population.

Why are blacks and hispanics not represented in the proper percentages then? Well if someone claims they are less intelligent than whites and asians, like Dr. Watson, who discovered the double helix of DNA and won a Nobel Prize, did, then there would be an outrage and a firing. Personally, I think it is a cultural difference for achievement and attitude, but saying that can also lead to an outrage with Jesse Jackson showing up to protest. If you can't say those two possibilities, then what else is there?

Assuming the university makes their degree attainment "harder" as a result of a more capable student body, minorities will automatically be at a disadvantage if they are admitted under the lower standards because they will be competing against more qualified students. This will increase dropout rates of minorities, and there will be fewer college graduates overall because the more qualified candidates were denied admission.

Plus let's just state the obvious: When you have different requirements for people who differ only by race, then it is blatant racism anyway you look at it.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Making History

Is this a crazy presidential election or what? We're making history on both sides because we've got a woman, a black man, and a 71 year old as the leading contenders!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Excessive Legal Disclosures

When I opened my WaMu account, I think I spent more time than the average consumer does by taking an hour to skim through all the account and legal disclosures. Apparently I didn't spend enough time since I missed the part about getting excess activity fees. But this got me thinking. Why do we have to read 80 pages of text to open a savings/checking account? Why do we have to read through 1000 pages to get a mortgage? Why do businesses require us to sign off on massive amounts of legal jargon all the time?

Advocates will claim that they have to protect themselves from lawsuits so they cover every possible position. They (usually neo-conservatives) are always quick to blame 'frivolous lawsuits' (FLs), but we had huge legal disclosures before the FLs label became commonplace and they still claim that we have FLs now, so obviously that argument is out. The fact of the matter is, most lawsuits aren't 'frivolous.' If they are, don't you think a judge with 7 years of education and many more years of legal training under his or her belt is going to see right through it and toss it right out the window? I mean come on, give judges some credit. Supposedly if all these FLs are still being committed, excessive legal disclosure are then pointless, right? But I digress.

You know what the real reason is? It is a blanket excuse for corporations to screw you. "Read your disclosures!" They know god damn well that the average consumer does not have enough time or the desire to slog through hundreds of pages of arcane legal jargon. And with more text, it becomes easier to stuff in hidden fees and charges, and more opportunity to take away your legal rights as a consumer. Most contracts offered by corporations are completely one-sided in their favor and attach clauses that make it harder for you, the consumer, to take any action against if there is an injustice. Some clauses are more subtle - many people don't know that clauses such as binding arbitration overwhelmingly favor corporations in the proceedings, as found by the group Public Citizen.

I think that legal disclosures should be a maximum of 5 pages in plain English where fees and expenses clearly highlighted and clauses that take away consumer's rights should be illegal. Call your congressmen and senators and tell them to support the Arbitration Fairness Act of 2007. There is a legislative directory for your representatives at People Over Profits

Death To EBay!

Interesting article about alternatives for unhappy EBay flee-ers.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Washington Mutual

Last summer I signed up with WaMu for their Checking/Savings account combo. I've been a U.S. Bank member for over a decade, but my problem with them is their lack of locations. My primary motivation for signing up with WaMu was the convenience of having multiple locations where I could have access to my money (however they seem to lack drive-thru ATMs which is very inconvenient). After 4 months of my sign up I incurred $10.00 "Excess Activity Charge," so I called them up to see why it was assessed. I was informed that my account is limited to 6 withdrawals per month and that all withdrawals over that amount are fined. In my experience, banks waive charges like 9-volt batteries, so I asked and they refused. The customer rep told me that that government requires the charge and the fine is sent to them. It sounded like bull corn. So I got off the phone and did a little research.

Regulation D apparently requires these limits on savings accounts, but I can only theorize as to why. Perhaps some cartel of banks banded together to lobby the FDIC to create this requirement so that savings accounts don't become the de-facto checking accounts but with an interest requirement. They love the money you keep in their interest-free accounts! However, if you read the regulation, it says nothing about assessing fees to customers. It simply informs the bank to notify the customers if they do it more than occasionally. Is the first time more than occasionally? No. It further informs that if the customer does not comply, then limits should be placed on the account or the account should be closed. So, armed with some fodder, I decided to call back and finally got a supervisor to admit that the fee is not a government requirement, but that is how they deal with the issue. So if it is not a government requirement to assess fees, it is refundable right? Not since their sub-prime disaster caught up with them! They've lost billions and $10.00 fees add up for shareholders. Hell, I'm sure Killinger himself issued a decree denying refunds of fees. Off with their heads!

I became motivated to get this fee reversed, not particularly because of the amount, but because of the principle of it. So, I called a couple more times and interacted with a lot of mean American supervisors telling me "that's why it is important to read your fee disclosures" (my next blog entry) and arguing with me (well, perhaps it was me arguing with them. I had made a strong case as to why it should be reversed!). But they would rather waste $100 in customer service time instead of just giving me what I wanted. In fact, I figured I might as well get my customer service money's worth if they are going to refuse the refund. I kept going higher in the food chain until I reached a dead end - a senior supervisor's voice mail. He called back a few days later after 12pm on Christmas Eve, but didn't leave a personal phone line where I could reach him at. I could almost hear a hint of glee that he was successful in reaching my voice mail. When I got back to the office after Christmas, I tried to track him down, but was unsuccessful.

I just sent them a letter. The battle continues.

Other "By Mail" Requests

Also annoying is the requirement by some companies for the consumer to send in a letter requesting not to be on their spam list. Washington Mutual is a prime example of this. When I signed up for their checking/savings account combo, I never anticipated that I'd have a whole new barrage of junk mail filling up the little box next to my door. Since they are so generous to provide return letters that don't require postage, I can't help but express my thoughts to them with that mail. Usually my return thoughts amount to two or three words involving a few magic expletives.

Unfortunately, the requirement to get off their spam list is to send a letter and wait 2 months. Great.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Interest Rate Lowering Request

When I requested that Discover Card lower my interest rate on my credit card, they told me I had to request a form by mail and then send it back. When the form arrived, all it required was a signature indicating that I met some requirements. The idiotic part is that they already have this information!! I had to sign that I hadn't missed any payments (what, you don't have computerized records at Discover Card headquarters?), that my address was correct (Duh!) and one other asinine requirement that slips my memory at this point. They also require it to be sent back within 30 days.

Why would they require such a moronic method of lowering your interest rate when every single other credit card company will do it in 5 minutes over the phone? Well, I'll tell you why. Simply because they are trying to screw you. They are betting that you will either never open the mail, lose it, forget to turn it back in or miss the 30-day deadline. And they have another trick up their sleeve:

A few weeks later, I get a call from Discover Card. It went something like this:

"Mr. X, we received your request to reduce your interest rate."
"Oh good, so what are the results?"
"Well, we are sorry to inform you, but there was a problem with your form."
"Ummm... okay.... what was the problem?"
"Well, I am not sure because I don't have your form, but I was informed there was a problem."
:::slight pause:::
"Who informed you? Can't they tell you what the problem is?"
"No they can't, but maybe you forgot to sign it"
"Forget to sign it? Are you kidding me? That was the only requirement for the request and I am 100% sure that I signed it."
"Well, I don't know what the problem is, but we will have to send you out another form."
"I would like to speak with a supervisor."
:::slight pause:::
"Hi you've reached Mr. Corporate Asshole's voice mail, please leave me a complete message and I'll make sure your message is promptly deleted along with every other complaint ever left here."

My voice was elevated, as I was obviously pissed off when I left my message, but I tried to politely indicate my displease for a process that is clearly full of bull corn. I never got a call back.

It is in my to-do list to write them a letter explaining why my $1,500 a month charges suddenly dropped to zero.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Free Delivery?

Remember when pizza delivery used to be "free?" Sure, you had to pay a few bucks to the pizza delivery guy as a tip but that was a transaction between you and him/her. So the other night, my significant other and I decided to order pizza from Pizza Hut for delivery. The delivery charge tacked onto the final bill was about $3. I figured that perhaps drivers were getting stiffed on tips so they started forcing those tips, but I asked about it anyway. It turns out that less than half of the fee they charge goes to the driver! Why is Pizza Hut essentially stealing money from their drivers? I think most people would assume that the charge is given to the drivers, which would imply to the customer that most (maybe all) of the tip has already been paid. It is simple... more money for Pizza Hut and less money for the poor guy spending gas and risking accidents. This pisses me off and it should piss off drivers too. I wouldn't stand for that crap. In the end, I decided to drive the 2 miles and get carry-out instead of spending $5 (25%) on a delivery charge and tip.

Serving Sizes

You know what is really annoying? When you look at the back of a package of food and it says, 10 grams of fat. You think, "oh great, this is not that bad," until you look at the number of servings supposedly in the package. In my experience I have to multiply by 3. Any mammal larger than a a Yorkshire Terrier's left paw is going to have to eat more than two or three servings to be at least halfway satiated.

Did you know that if a "serving" has 0.5 grams of trans-fat or less, they can claim it is trans-fat free? This is also true for the other fats. So if you eat 10 servings of potato chips (something very easy to do while watching TV), you may have ingested up to 5 grams of trans-fat.

Is this just corporations attempting to fool consumers into thinking their food is healthier than it really is? Or is this some predefined size required by the food pyramid? I don't know, but it really annoys me because it is misleading and important information is harder to see. I mean, come on... When you buy a candy bar and it says "servings: 28" you begin to think there is some chicanery going on.

An interesting table has been compiled that lists some other tricks that manufacturers are allowed to do.