Friday, March 25, 2005

Energy Corporations With Record of Cheating Consumers Form New Lobbying Group to Influence Energy Policy

Energy Corporations With Record of Cheating Consumers Form New Lobbying Group to Influence Energy Policy
Four of the Six Corporations Have Paid Nearly $1 Billion to Settle Allegations of Market Manipulation
WASHINGTON, -- March 25 -- A lobbying group formed by six energy companies is lobbying the federal government in an effort to convince lawmakers and regulators that deregulation is good for consumers, despite the fact that these companies have paid nearly $1 billion over the past three years to settle allegations of Enron-style market manipulation for acts they were able to more easily commit because of deregulation.

One company is under criminal indictment for its role in intentionally shutting down power plants in California -- also an act it was able to commit more easily because of deregulation.

With the energy bill due to be introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on April 5, this group is likely working behind the scenes to convince Congress that electricity deregulation is a benefit for the public.

Instead, recent history proves just the opposite: Deregulation has led to price-gouging of consumers and California's brush with bankruptcy, while the energy marketers have been raking in higher profits.

"It is disingenuous for this lobby group to push deregulation policies that they claim are good for consumers when history shows that their own companies used these very policies to profit from the biggest consumer rip-off in history," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen.

"The last people Congress should listen to for advice on energy policy are the companies that have succeeded in gouging ratepayers in some of the biggest corporate scandals we've seen in the past century."

Among other provisions in the energy bill that the group is likely targeting is the repeal of the Public Utility Holding Company Act (PUHCA), a consumer protection law that limits the investment of utility profits in unrelated business ventures and prohibits expansion-minded corporations from siphoning off profits for risky investment schemes that do nothing to improve service reliability or keep electricity rates low.

PUHCA is the key reason America has such stable and reliable utility companies.

Corporate opponents of PUHCA claim it stands in the way of a deregulated electricity market, but deregulation has been a demonstrated failure, with prices for this essential commodity rising faster in the 15 deregulated states than in the 35 states that remain regulated.

That's because companies in deregulated markets can -- and do -- charge much higher prices than companies in regulated states.

While proponents of deregulation were once common, they now are largely limited to those corporations profiting from under-regulated energy markets and the politicians receiving generous financial support from these companies.

Consumer groups such as Public Citizen have long said that the economic characteristics unique to electricity -- such as inelastic supply and demand -- preclude effective competition from occurring, making it easy for a handful of unregulated energy companies to control the market and gouge consumers.

William Massey, Democrat, commissioner for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission from 1993-2004 and now a lobbyist with Covington & Burling.

Don Nickles, a former GOP senator from Oklahoma and Senate majority whip, now the founding partner of the lobbying firm the Nickles Group.

Robert S. Walker, former Pennsylvania GOP representative from 1976 to1996 and a founder of the lobbying firm Wexler & Walker.

Jack Howard, former deputy assistant for legislative affairs to President George W. Bush and a former senior aide to House Speakers Dennis Hastert, Newt Gingrich and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

Howard now is president of the Wexler & Walker lobbying firm.

Hazen Marshall, former top aide to Don Nickles, now a lobbyist with the Nickles Group.

Joel Malina, Democrat, a lobbyist with Wexler & Walker.

Summarized by Copernic Summarizer


Health Care Costs Pose a Larger Economic Burden Than Prospective Social Security Tax Hikes

Health Care Costs Pose a Larger Economic Burden Than Prospective Social Security Tax Hikes

WASHINGTON -- March 24 -- Numerous politicians and commentators have claimed that the prospect of higher Social Security taxes in the future will threaten the living standards of our children and grandchildren.

A new report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), which was co-authored by Dean Baker and David Rosnick shows that rising health care costs pose a much larger threat to living standards than any potential tax increases for supporting Social Security.

The report, "The Burden of Social Security Taxes and the Burden of Excessive Health Care Costs," shows that the burden of excessive health care cost growth (defined as cost growth in excess of economic growth) over the years 1980 to 2004 was almost 7 times as large as the tax increase that the Social Security trustees project will be needed to keep Social Security fully solvent over its 75-year planning horizon.

The excessive health care cost growth over this period imposed a burden that is 18 times as large as the tax increase that the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates would be necessary to keep Social Security solvent.

The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services projection for excessive health care cost growth over the next decade is 4 times as large as the tax increase that the trustees project is necessary to keep Social Security solvent for its 75-year planning period, and 10 times as large as the tax increase that CBO projects is necessary.

While health care costs pose a problem everywhere, no other country has such a failed health care system.

Rising health care costs pose an enormous threat to the federal budget, as was illustrated in the new Medicare trustees report, but more importantly they pose a threat to the economy and future living standards.

Given the large amount of attention devoted to the threat of higher Social Security taxes in the future, it is striking that the continuing run-up in health care costs -- which is having a much larger impact on most workers' welfare -- is receiving so little attention.

Summarized by Copernic Summarizer


Left and Right Unite to Challenge Patriot Act Provisions

Left and Right Unite to Challenge Patriot Act Provisions

WASHINGTON-- An unusual left-right coalition opened a campaign Tuesday to sharply curtail controversial provisions of the USA Patriot Act, showing that Congress and President Bush face a pointed debate over renewing the law enacted just 45 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

It was a Washington rarity to see the American Civil Liberties Union line up with conservative lions like David Keefe of the American Conservative Union and former Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga.

But they were among those at a Washington press conference held to assail such Patriot Act provisions as those allowing law enforcement agents to look at library users' records or to conduct unannounced "sneak-and-peek'' searches on homes or private offices.

"It is not, and never should be necessary, to surrender our rights under the Bill of Rights to fight the war on terrorism,'' said Barr, who as a House member voted for the Patriot Act, which passed overwhelmingly in the House and provoked only one dissenting Senate vote.

Barr, leader of the new group dubbed Patriots to Restore Checks and Balances, concedes that the group faces a difficult fight in making changes to the 4-year-old law.

The law's supporters, many of whom point out that the United States hasn't been hit by another terrorist attack since Sept. 11, say it has proven effective and that many of the complaints offered by civil libertarians have nothing to do with the act's provisions.

Key provisions of the bill are scheduled to expire Dec. 31, so Congress must deal with the issue this year.

The Senate and House Judiciary Committees plan Patriot Act hearings starting later in the spring.

Instead of seeking wholesale changes, the coalition is focusing on three of the law's most-controversial provisions.

And rather than push for their repeal, the group wants the wording clarified to establish that the intention is to fight terrorists -- not let law enforcement agencies engage in fishing expeditions or silence dissent.

The group wants the section giving access to library, medical and firearm- ownership records modified to require that law enforcement officials present evidence to a federal judge supporting a link with suspected terrorism before warrants are served.

The group wants similar limits on the provision allowing secret searches of homes, businesses and personal property.

"If the Constitution stands for anything, it's that government does not have the power to peer into our private lives without evidence of wrongdoing, '' said Laura Murphy, of the ACLU's Washington legislative office.

Grover Norquist, the conservative activist who heads Americans for Tax Reform, noted the unlikely coalition of conservatives and the ACLU.

"For too long, conservatives assumed it was someone else's job'' to protect civil liberties, Norquist said.

At a recent House hearing, FBI Director Robert Mueller praised the Patriot Act and said he'd like to see it expanded to include administrative subpoena power in terrorism cases, something the FBI has in organized crime and health- care fraud investigations.

Summarized by Copernic Summarizer


Tuesday, March 22, 2005

AARP Claims Bush's Plan Is A Homewrecker

The group's latest TV ad passes off Social Security's problems as minor; claims Bush's solution would demolish the program.


AARP's latest TV ad shows a suburban home being flattened to repair a clogged kitchen sink, and claims that the creation of individual accounts would "dismantle Social Security" and "lead to huge benefit cuts. "The ad is intended to be humorous but presents a distorted picture.

It both understates Social Security's financial problems and misrepresents the effect that individual accounts would have.

Social Security's problems are more serious than a stopped-up drain. And the system isn't about to sink like the Titanic, either, as an earlier ad by Bush supporters says.

Social Security is more like a home being eaten slowly by termites.

Click the link below for the full article:

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Pro-Bush Group Overstates Social Security Shortfall



In a new TV ad, Progress for America exaggerates the true state of Social Security's finances by comparing it to the Titanic.

The ad claims the system will go "bankrupt" if nothing is done and that we must rescue the program "before it hits the iceberg." Actually, neutral experts predict the system can pay between 70 and 80 percent of currently scheduled benefits even if the Trust Fund is exhausted, which isn't predicted to happen for another 37 years, at least.

The ad also touts Bush's plan for "voluntary personal retirement accounts" as though that would improve the system's finances. But even the White House now acknowledges that individual accounts alone do nothing to fix the system's long-term financial shortfall.

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Tuesday, March 15, 2005

The State of Women's Finances

.... if you are a woman or someone who cares about one you should read these articles. plk

For the more than 1 million women who will go to the bankruptcy courts this year, there is no more important pending federal legislation than the bankruptcy bill.

Bankruptcy: The New Women's Issue

As a result of the bankruptcy legislation that was recently passed in the Senate (S.256) a
disproportionate number of women vs. men will bear the brunt of higher costs, more restrictions and less protection from creditor abuses. Women are now the largest demographic group in bankruptcy, outnumbering men by about 150,000 per year. More than a million women will find their way to the bankruptcy courts this year--more women than will graduate from four-year colleges, receive a diagnosis of cancer, or even file for divorce. The rapid rise of women in bankruptcy illustrates a shocking decline in the financial health of women who should be succeeding in our economy.
Read More
by Prof. Elizabeth Warren, Harvard Law School

Asset poverty among women is twice as pervasive as income poverty among women.

A Woman's (Net) Worth

While the widening wealth gap between rich and poor has garnered much attention, the wealth gap between men and women is equally astounding. Single women have about half the net worth of single men. In just about every category of wealth-holding, from personal savings accounts to retirement accounts, single women hold half the value of their male counterparts. The differences between non-homeowners are even larger: female renters hold about a quarter of what male renters hold. And never-married women have the lowest level of net worth of all types of households.

Read More by Javier Silva

The work / family conflict faced by working mothers is not an accident or an inevitable cultural evolution: it's an outcome of bad policy.

Who Pays for Today's Families?

We've all heard quite enough by now of the Lawrence Summers debacle at Harvard. He hypothesized that that the lack of progress for women in the sciences is attributable to either women's innate abilities (or lack thereof); the "general clash between people's legitimate family desires" and employers' demand for long hours, or--less likely in his view--discrimination. Controversy aside, what's indisputable is that caring labor is critical for the reproduction of our society; somebody has to do it and somebody has to pay for that time. Unfortunately, public policy failures have meant that women with children are the ones paying the most.
Read More

and finally..

From child care centers to elementary classrooms, women heed the call to educate the next generation of citizens. The problem is that their pocketbooks are the thinner for it.

The Wage Penalty of Our Earliest Educators

Nowhere is the educator wage penalty more egregious than in early childhood care and education. Reams of rigorous scientific studies have all shown that those first few years of a child's life are critical for cognitive, social and behavioral development. And yet America's child care providers, nearly 100 percent female, are at the bottom of the pay scale. At an average wage of $8.37 per hour and $10.67 for pre-school teachers, early educators are among the least-well paid workers in our economy.
Read More
by Tamara Draut & Julia Busch
by Heather Boushey, Guest Columnist and CEPR Economist

Top 5 credit misconceptions

We have all heard the rumors…from neighbors, relatives or friends. There are a wide variety of myths floating around about what you should and shouldn’t do to improve your credit reports and credit scores. The buck stops here! TrueCredit has exposed these urban legends to provide you and your informers with the truth about credit:

1. Your score will drop if you check your credit – Fortunately, this one is definitely not true. Checking your own report and score is counted as a "soft inquiry" and doesn't harm your credit at all. Only "hard inquiries" from a lender or creditor, made when you apply for credit, can bring your credit score down a few points. Worried about damaging your credit while shopping around for a loan? Multiple inquiries for the same purpose within a short amount of time (a few weeks) are grouped together into a less damaging period of inquiry.

2. Closing old accounts will improve your credit score – To close or not to close, that is the question. Many people advocate closing old and inactive accounts as a way for improving your credit. In most cases, closing accounts will actually have the opposite effect. Canceling old credit accounts can lower your credit score by making your credit history appear shorter. Think twice before closing the oldest account on your credit report. If you want to reduce your levels of available credit, ask for your credit limits to be reduced or close newer accounts instead.

3. Once you pay off a negative record, it is removed from your credit report – Negative records such as collection accounts, bankruptcies and charge-offs will remain on your credit report for 7-10 years after they are first posted. Paying off the account before the end of the set term doesn’t remove it from your credit report, but will cause the account to be marked as “paid.” It is still a good idea to pay your debts, it can improve your credit score, but the major improvement will come when the record expires.

4. Being a co-signer doesn’t make you responsible for the account – When you open a joint account, co-sign on a loan or become an authorized user on someone’s credit card, you are taking on legal responsibility for the account. Any activity on these shared accounts, good or bad, will show up on both people’s credit reports. If you co-sign for a friend’s auto loan and they don’t make the payments, your credit profile will be hurt by their actions and visa versa. The only way to stop this double reporting is to refinance the loan or to have the creditor officially remove you from the account.

5. Paying off a debt will add 50 points to your credit score – Your credit score is calculated using a complex algorithm that takes into account hundreds of factors and values. It is very hard to predict how many points you can gain by changing one factor. For a person with a high credit score, just one late payment can cause a significant drop. If a person has a low credit score, it may not cause a large drop at all. There is no magical way to improve your credit score, just keep paying your bills on time, reducing your debts and removing negative inaccuracies from your credit report. Good financial behavior and time are the two most important factors on your credit score.

Understanding Your Bank Statement

Bank statements are brimming with alphabet soup
By SUE STOCK, Staff Writer

Checking your monthly bank statement nowadays involves a lot more than looking at which deposits and checks cleared. Bank customers now need to understand three-letter banking codes.

The little gems are popping up now more than ever because more people are paying electronically -- with a debit card, electronic check, over the phone or online.

E-payments save companies substantial money because they eliminate the need to process paper checks. The Federal Reserve estimates an average bank savings of $1.62 on each e-payment.

With that kind of money at stake, companies are working hard to get consumers to switch to electronic payments. They have been largely successful.

Since it looks as if they are here to stay, here's what those little codes mean.

ACH (automated clearinghouse): This is the basic term for the nation's largest electronic payment system. Companies and banks save money by sending their payments to the clearinghouse in batches, instead of individually.

POS (point of sale): Typically, this is a purchase in which a debit card was swiped at the store. Sometimes debit card purchases simply appear as "purchase" with the name of the merchant. It depends on the retailer's technology and whether your debit card has a Visa or Mastercard logo.

PPD (prearranged payment and deposit): This appears if you have given permission for a company to automatically withdraw a regular payment such as a utility bill. It also may appear for regular deposits, such as a paycheck.

POP (point of purchase): This appears when you write a check at a store or doctor's office and it is turned into an electronic payment at the register. Your check is run through a machine that takes the information from the check. Then you sign an authorization slip that is similar to a credit card receipt, and the check is returned on the spot. Wal-Mart and Jiffy Lube use this process.

ARC (accounts receivable transaction): When you mail a check to a company, it can capture the information from your check and turn it into an electronic payment. The company name should show up on your bank statement. Companies should notify you in writing that payments will be processed this way. Many such notices come with billing statements.

WEB (Web-based payment) and TEL (telephone payment): This means a purchase was made on the Internet or authorized over the phone.

RCK (represented check): This category is for checks that have bounced and are being presented again to the bank for payment. If a check has bounced, it can be turned into an electronic payment, because it costs less to process it this way. On your statement, it will say "REDEPCHECK" and list the check number.

© Copyright 2005, The News & Observer Publishing Company,a subsidiary of The McClatchy Company

Monday, March 14, 2005

Encouraging social responsibility

Isaiah 58:2-12

Yet they act so pious! They come to the Temple every day and seem delighted to hear my laws. You would almost think this was a righteous nation that would never abandon its God. They love to make a show of coming to me and asking me to take action on their behalf. ‘We have fasted before you!’ they say. ‘Why aren’t you impressed? We have done much penance, and you don’t even notice it!’

“I will tell you why! It’s because you are living for yourselves even while you are fasting. You keep right on oppressing your workers. What good is fasting when you keep on fighting and quarreling? This kind of fasting will never get you anywhere with me. You humble yourselves by going through the motions of penance, bowing your heads like a blade of grass in the wind. You dress in sackcloth and cover yourselves with ashes. Is this what you call fasting? Do you really think this will please the Lord?

“No, the kind of fasting I want calls you to free those who are wrongly imprisoned and to stop oppressing those who work for you. Treat them fairly and give them what they earn. I want you to share your food with the hungry and to welcome poor wanderers into your homes. Give clothes to those who need them, and do not hide from relatives who need your help.

“If you do these things, your salvation will come like the dawn. Yes, your healing will come quickly. Your godliness will lead you forward, and the glory of the Lord will protect you from behind. Then when you call, the Lord will answer. ‘Yes, I am here,’ he will quickly reply.

“Stop oppressing the helpless and stop making false accusations and spreading vicious rumors!

Feed the hungry and help those in trouble. Then your light will shine out from the darkness, and the darkness around you will be as bright as day. The Lord will guide you continually, watering your life when you are dry and keeping you healthy, too. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring. Your children will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities. Then you will be known as the people who rebuild their walls and cities.

Holy Bible, New Living Translation, (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.) 1996.

Don't Be Fooled By Rhetoric

... don't get caught like the turtle and the little girl.

The Scorpion and the Turtle

A scorpion, being a very poor swimmer, asked a turtle to carry him on his back across a river. "Are you mad?" exclaimed the turtle. "You'll sting me while I'm swimming and I'll drown."

"My dear turtle," laughed the scorpion, "if I were to sting you, you would drown and I would go down with you. Now where is the logic in that?"

"You're right!" cried the turtle. "Hop on!" The scorpion climbed aboard and halfway across the river gave the turtle a mighty sting. As they both sank to the bottom, the turtle resignedly said:
"Do you mind if I ask you something? You said there'd be no logic in your stinging me. Why did you do it?"

"It has nothing to do with logic," the drowning scorpion sadly replied. "It's just my character."

The Girl and The Snake

This girl finds a snake that pleads with her to place it in her winter coat because otherwise the snake will freeze.

The girl goes "No you'll bite me blah blah blah".

Anyway the girl eventually puts the snake in her jacket to keep it warm and she continues on her walk.

Then she feels a sharp pain in her side, the snake drops out and begins to slither away.

The girl say something like "Why? I took care of you, blah blah blah".

The snake simply replies "You knew what I was when you found me".

Both stories and more can be found at:

Matthew 7:15-16 (New International Version)

“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?

The Mouse Trap -- A Lesson in Having Empathy for Others


A mouse looked through a crack in the wall to see the farmer and his wife opening a package. What food might it contain? He was aghast to discover that it was a mouse trap.

Retreating to the farmyard the mouse proclaimed the warning: "There is a mouse trap in the house, a mousetrap in the house!

"The chicken clucked and scratched, raised her head and said, "Excuse me, Mr. Mouse, I can tell this is a grave concern to you, but it is of no consequence to me. I cannot be bothered by it."

The mouse turned to the pig and told him, "There is a mouse trap in the house, a mouse trap in the house!" "I am so very sorry Mr. Mouse,"sympathized the pig, "but there is nothing I can do about it but pray. Be assured that you are in my prayers.

" The mouse turned to the cow. She said, "Like wow, Mr. Mouse. A mouse trap. Like I am in grave danger. Duh...NOT!"

So the mouse returned to the house, head down and dejected, to face the farmer's mouse trap alone.

That very night a sound was heard throughoutthe house, like the sound of a mouse trap catching its prey. The farmer's wife rushed to see what was caught. In the darkness, she did not see that it was a venomous sna ke whose tail the trap had caught. The snake bit the farmer's wife.

The farmer rushed her to the hospital. She returned home with a fever.

Now everyone knows you treat a fever with fresh chicken soup, so the farmer took his hatchet to the farmyard for the soup's main ingredient.

His wife's sickness continued so that friends and neighbors came to sit with her around the clock. To feed them, the farmer butchered the pig.

The farmer's wife did not get well and a few days later she passed away. So many people came for her funeral, that the farmer had the cow slaughtered, to provide meat for all of them to eat.

So the next time you hear that someone is facing a problem and think that it does not concern you, remember that when there is a mouse trap in the house, the whole farmyard is at risk.

-- Author Unknown
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Saturday, March 12, 2005


Sat Mar 5, 7:59 PM ET
By David M. Shribman


Blame not the heartless Republicans nor the spendthrift Democrats for the deficit.

Just when you thought there was no chance left and right could agree on anything, when you thought the primary colors red and blue could defy the natural world (where they meld quite nicely, which is why we have the splendid color purple) and clash in the political world (where the two colors repel each other), we have the biggest, the gaudiest, the most perfidious secret political agreement of our time.

Let's face the truth: The Republicans and the Democrats are conspiring to create, to perpetuate and to luxuriate in the deficit.

These distinguished solons of both sides haven't actually gathered secretly in the Senate Caucus Room, nor sent secret plenipotentiaries to each side, nor even dispatched conciliatory cakes and Bibles to each other.

A few days ago, the revered ancient mariner, Alan Greenspan (news - web sites), intoned the predictable diagnosis that the budget deficit was "unsustainable," thereby ending yet another myth in the capital, the one that says that Washington listens to what the Federal Reserve (news - web sites) chairman says.

Just as the War of 1812 was Mr. Madison's war, the deficit of 2005 is Mr. Bush's deficit.

Because it's not their deficit, it's not their problem.

The bigger the deficit, the better their argument that the president is an irresponsible steward of the national economy, and (to borrow a phrase from the president's father, no stranger to the dangers of the deficit straits), the beauty thing is that the midterm congressional elections aren't that far away.

Extending the expiring tax cuts will account for $1.6 trillion growth in the deficit.

The last time the deficit was a big issue was in the Reagan-Bush years, when the Republicans held the White House and the Democrats still had some power on Capitol Hill.

One thing we know for sure: There won't be a deficit summit this time like the one the first President Bush (news - web sites) endorsed in 1990, the one that brought a tax increase and, it is easy to argue, the ascendancy of conservative insurgents and the end of the Bush presidency.

Bill Clinton (news - web sites) pushed through a deficit-reduction pact and lost control of the Congress.

The deficit as a percentage of gross domestic product was a lot higher in the Reagan years -- 6 percent of GDP (news - web sites) in 1983, as opposed to 3.6 percent last year.

In the 1980s and 1990s this was a meteorite somewhere out there in the cosmos, maybe heading our way, maybe not.

In the first decade of the 21st century, the meteor showers are visible to the human eye, and the only question is where the crater will be.

He knew many things, but most of all he knew one thing, the way tax politics works: "Don't tax you, don't tax me.

Summarized by Copernic Summarizer

Friday, March 11, 2005

... it's that time of year again.

Case of Vanishing Deductions: Alternative Tax Called Culprit

Read the entire story at:


The valuable federal tax deductions that people receive for paying local and state taxes have quietly started to vanish for many households, raising the cost of living in places like New York, Massachusetts and California, already among the nation's most expensive.

The culprit is a once-obscure federal tax provision known as the alternative minimum tax, which was created in 1969 to ensure that a relatively small number of wealthy people did not use loopholes to avoid paying taxes. But it is increasingly being applied to families with incomes of $75,000 to $250,000 a year who claim relatively high deductions - like the ones for property taxes, state and local income taxes - and the exemption for children. When it does apply, it cancels some of those deductions.

Barring a change in the law, almost 19 million taxpayers will be subject next year to the alternative minimum tax, or A.M.T., up from roughly 3.4 million this year and 1.3 million in 2000, according to the Tax Policy Center, a Washington research group whose calculations on this issue are widely accepted.

The shrinking of the deduction for local taxes for millions more families in the next few years has the potential to cool price increases in thriving real estate markets, particularly in the Northeast and on the West Coast.

About half the people paying the alternative minimum tax in recent years live in one of four states - California, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York - accounting for almost a quarter of the nation's population.

"If you're just talking about a rank-and-file working couple, they're getting hit in these towns," said Timothy F. Allen, a tax preparer in Belmont, Mass., about many of the middle- to upper-middle-class two-income families he serves in the Boston suburbs. "It grabbed me in 2004, and I was kind of surprised.

"The A.M.T. effectively sets up a parallel tax system for all households, in which few deductions are allowed. Taxpayers whose alternative tax is higher than their regular federal income tax must pay the alternative one.

The taxes that people pay to their local and state governments become a deduction in the standard federal system but not in the alternative one. The higher those deductions, the more likely a household is to fall into the A.M.T.

A commission appointed by President Bush to make recommendations for overhauling the tax system met Wednesday in Washington for the first time, with a deadline of July 31 to issue a report, meaning there will not be a change before this year's deadline for filing 2004 taxes.

While many powerful members of Congress have called for a change, the administration's proposed budget did not offer one.

Almost any plan to ease the tax without raising other taxes would cost the Treasury hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue over the next decade, worsening the federal budget deficit.

Some tax experts say the relative simplicity of the A.M.T. offers a good model for tax reform.
The problem, people of almost all political viewpoints say, is the combination of the A.M.T. and the regular federal income tax.

"It makes the system completely opaque," said Pamela F. Olson, an assistant Treasury secretary for tax policy in Mr. Bush's first term and now a partner at the law firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom."People have no idea what their taxes are going to be, and it takes back things we put in the code.

"The interplay between local taxes and the A.M.T. has in effect become a face-off between two forces that many economists consider unsustainable: the rising federal budget deficit and the continuing leaps in home prices.

Left unchanged, the alternative tax would produce more revenue by 2009 than the ordinary federal income tax, according to the Tax Policy Center, a joint venture of the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute.

"It's an enormous issue," said Connie Mack, a former Republican senator from Florida who heads the commission Mr. Bush appointed to study tax reform, "and one we're clearly going to take a look at. "If the tax remains, living in many localities will become more expensive, potentially curtailing the growth in home values that has been a major boon to the economy recently. It could also create pressure to cut property taxes, the major source of public education funding in many communities.

Without a change in the A.M.T., 30 million taxpayers are likely to face it five years from now, many of them concentrated in high-tax states.

"Taxes do affect the market," said Raymond G. Russolillo, who oversees tax-consulting services at U.S. Trust in New York. "I suspect it will affect behavior at some point."Michael Levin, 52, is an anesthesiologist in Manhattan, married, with a daughter in high school and a son in college.

He does not use tax shelters or take big deductions from investments, he said. But his income, while not outsize by New York standards, is relatively high and he owns a condominium in the West Village section of Manhattan. As a result, he fell into the A.M.T. last year, costing him almost $5,000 in additional taxes.

"When I first heard about it," Dr. Levin said, "my understanding was that the concept was to prevent fat cats from not paying any taxes.But it's killing the middle class as well.

"The alternative minimum tax began in 1969, after Joseph W. Barr, the departing Treasury secretary under President Lyndon B. Johnson, told Congress that 155 wealthy families had used loopholes to avoid paying any federal income tax in 1967. Today, it exempts a standard amount of income - as much as $58,000 for a married couple this year - and allows further deductions for mortgage interest and contributions to charity.

"The Republican majority may not be acting on it because they see it as a red state-blue state issue," Representative Carolyn B. Maloney, a New York Democrat, said.

The A.M.T. is just one of many factors influencing the housing market; the effect of mortgage rates and the ups and downs of the economy certainly outweigh it in importance. But specialists foresee taxes becoming a more prominent factor in real estate markets as the alternative tax affects many more homeowners.

Carlo and Chris Marano bought their home in Danbury, Conn., for $265,000 in 1992. Marano said, and "we have significant space we don't need." But the Maranos - he is self-employed, helping design employee benefit plans, and she works for an accounting firm - could not find any house around Danbury that they wanted and that was inexpensive enough to make a move seem worthwhile.

Summarized by Copernic Summarizer
New Poll Finds Bush Priorities Are Out of Step With Americans

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Americans say President Bush does not share the priorities of most of the country on either domestic or foreign issues, are increasingly resistant to his proposal to revamp Social Security and say they are uneasy with Mr. Bush's ability to make the right decisions about the retirement program, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll.

The poll underscores just how little headway Mr. Bush has made in his effort to build popular support as his proposal for overhauling Social Security struggles to gain footing in Congress. At the same time, there has been an increase in respondents who say that efforts to restore order in Iraq are going well, even as an overwhelming number of Americans say Mr. Bush has no clear plan for getting out of Iraq.

On Social Security, 51 percent said permitting individuals to invest part of their Social Security taxes in private accounts, the centerpiece of Mr. Bush's plan, was a bad idea, even as a majority said they agreed with Mr. Bush that the program would become insolvent near the middle of the century if nothing was done.

The number who thought private accounts were a bad idea jumped to 69 percent if respondents were told that the private accounts would result in a reduction in guaranteed benefits.

And 45 percent said Mr. Bush's private account plan would actually weaken the economic underpinnings of the nation's retirement system. In a sign of the political obstacles confronting the White House, a majority of those surveyed said they would support raising the amount of income subject to Social Security payroll tax above its current ceiling of $90,000, an idea floated by Mr. Bush but shot down by Republican Congressional leaders.

Yet there is strong resistance to other options available to Mr. Bush and lawmakers to repair the system, in particular to raising the retirement age or making participation voluntary.

Notwithstanding Mr. Bush's argument that citizens should be given more control over their retirement savings, almost four out of five respondents said it was the government's responsibility to assure a decent standard of living for the elderly.

The poll was the first conducted by The Times and CBS News since the president's inauguration.It comes after six hectic weeks for the administration, in which Mr. Bush has witnessed successful elections in Iraq - which he hailed as validation of his decision to remove Saddam Hussein - but also the toughest period he has encountered on Capitol Hill, as he has struggled to win support for the signature proposal of his second term.

In an apparent reflection of the success of the Iraq elections, 53 percent of those surveyed said that efforts to bring order to Iraq were going very or somewhat well, up from 41 percent a month ago. That is the highest rating on that score since the capture of Mr. Hussein.

Still, 42 percent now say that Mr. Bush would have been better off trying to counter the threat of North Korea before invading Iraq, compared with 45 percent who think Mr. Bush was correct to focus first on Iraq.

Four months after Mr. Bush won a solid re-election over Senator John Kerry, 63 percent of respondents say the president has different priorities on domestic issues than most Americans.

Asked to choose among five domestic issues facing the country, respondents rated Social Security third, behind jobs and health care. And nearly 50 percent said Democrats were more likely to make the right decisions about Social Security, compared with 31 percent who said the same thing about Republicans.Lisa Delaune, 37, a student from Houston and a member of the Green Party, said in a follow-up interview, "My opinion is that the president favors big business over the health and well-being and overall stability of the entire American population."

And Mr. Bush does not appear to be much more in step with the nation on what the White House has long viewed as his strong suit: 58 percent of respondents said the White House did not share the foreign affairs priorities of most Americans.

For all that, Mr. Bush's approval rating remains unchanged, at 49 percent, from a month ago, suggesting that the disagreement with Mr. Bush's ideas has yet to take a toll on America's view of him.

If Americans are ambivalent about the need for Washington to grapple with Social Security, the poll found abundant concern with the budget deficit, with much of the blame attributed to Mr. Bush.

So far, at least, the evidence suggests that campaign has not succeeded.

Indeed, the percentage of respondents who think it is a good idea to permit people to invest in private accounts is as low as it has been since the question was first asked in May 2000.

Jim Choi, 34, an unemployed biotechnology worker from California, said: "The way the system is set up, it's not going to go bankrupt.

In this poll, 50 percent of those surveyed said they disapproved of his Iraq policy, down from 55 percent a month ago, while 45 percent approved, up from 40 percent.

Summarized by Copernic Summarizer

Greenspan Says Federal Budget Deficits Are 'Unsustainable'

Greenspan Says Federal Budget Deficits Are 'Unsustainable'

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WASHINGTON, March 2 - Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, warned on Wednesday that the federal budget deficits were "unsustainable," and he urged Congress to scrutinize both spending and taxes to solve the problem.Mr. Greenspan also warned that the deficits could be driven sharply higher by costs connected to the aging of the baby boom generation, particularly entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare.

While reiterating his support for President Bush's plan to offer private accounts as part of overhauling Social Security, Mr. Greenspan urged lawmakers to tackle the program's problems now, rather than later.Though Mr. Greenspan has made similar pleas in the past, he spoke more urgently on Wednesday and disagreed more adamantly with Republican lawmakers and Mr. Bush, who have steadfastly refused to put restrictions on new tax cuts."

Addressing the government's own imbalances will require scrutiny of both spending and taxes," Mr. Greenspan told members of the House Budget Committee."When you begin to do the arithmetic of what the rising debt level implied by the deficits tells you, and you add interest costs to that ever-rising debt, at ever-higher interest rates, the system becomes fiscally destabilizing," he told lawmakers.

White House officials played down Mr. Greenspan's remarks, noting that he had placed top priority on reduced government spending and that Mr. Bush had vowed to reduce the budget deficit by half by 2009.That would come on top of a rapid escalation in the federal debt from $3.4 trillion to $4.3 trillion as a result of soaring annual deficits since 2001.

None of Mr. Bush's big tax cuts are scheduled to expire this year, but the 2003 tax cuts on stock dividends and capital gains are to expire in 2008, and the other big tax cuts are all to expire by the end of 2011.Making all of those tax cuts permanent, as Mr. Bush wants, would add about $1.8 trillion to the federal debt over 10 years, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says.
Summarized by Copernic Summarizer

The Debt-Peonage Society

The Debt-Peonage Society
Published: March 8, 2005

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Today the Senate is expected to vote to limit debate on a bill that toughens the existing bankruptcy law, probably ensuring the bill's passage.

A solid bloc of Republican senators, assisted by some Democrats, has already voted down a series of amendments that would either have closed loopholes for the rich or provided protection for some poor and middle-class families.

The bankruptcy bill was written by and for credit card companies, and the industry's political muscle is the reason it seems unstoppable.

But the bill also fits into the broader context of what Jacob Hacker, a political scientist at Yale, calls "risk privatization": a steady erosion of the protection the government provides against personal misfortune, even as ordinary families face ever-growing economic insecurity.

The bill would make it much harder for families in distress to write off their debts and make a fresh start.

Instead, many debtors would find themselves on an endless treadmill of payments.

The credit card companies say this is needed because people have been abusing the bankruptcy law, borrowing irresponsibly and walking away from debts.

A vast majority of personal bankruptcies in the United States are the result of severe misfortune.

One recent study found that more than half of bankruptcies are the result of medical emergencies.

The rest are overwhelmingly the result either of job loss or of divorce.

To the extent that there is significant abuse of the system, it's concentrated among the wealthy - including corporate executives found guilty of misleading investors - who can exploit loopholes in the law to protect their wealth, no matter how ill-gotten.

One increasingly popular loophole is the creation of an "asset protection trust," which is worth doing only for the wealthy.

Senator Charles Schumer introduced an amendment that would have limited the exemption on such trusts, but apparently it's O.K. to game the system if you're rich: 54 Republicans and 2 Democrats voted against the Schumer amendment.

Russ Feingold introduced an amendment protecting the homes of the elderly.

As Mr. Hacker and others have documented, over the past three decades the lives of ordinary Americans have become steadily less secure, and their chances of plunging from the middle class into acute poverty ever larger.

Job stability has declined; spells of unemployment, when they happen, last longer; fewer workers receive health insurance from their employers; fewer workers have guaranteed pensions.

Some of these changes are the result of a changing economy.

Health insurance coverage is declining, but new initiatives like health savings accounts (introduced in the 2003 Medicare bill), rather than discouraging that trend, further undermine the incentives of employers to provide coverage.

Warren Buffett recently made headlines by saying America is more likely to turn into a "sharecroppers' society" than an "ownership society."

But I think the right term is a "debt peonage" society - after the system, prevalent in the post-Civil War South, in which debtors were forced to work for their creditors.

Summarized by Copernic Summarizer

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Fundamental Right You Don't Have

... while we're encouraging democratic elections around the world it's time that we clean our own backyard. plk

The Fundamental Right You Don't Have by Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.,
March 10, 2005

Last week, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Il., introduced House Joint Resolution 28 with 54 original co-sponsors. The Jackson amendment would reverse the Supreme Court's ruling in Bush v. Gore that the citizen has no constitutional right to vote. Currently, voting is a state right, and all 3,067 counties in the 50 states have different rules about who votes and how. The congressman says it's time to make voting a citizenship right.

Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., D-Ill., has served Illinois' 2nd congressional district since 1995. He is a board member of FairVote--The Center for Voting and Democracy.

The right to vote is the fundamental citizenship right that protects all other rights. Maybe that explains the shape we're in.

The Bible says that if you build a house on sand, when it rains, the winds blow and the storms come it will not stand. The last two presidential elections have demonstrated that our voting system is built on sand.

Republicans and Democrats alike concede that votes have been lost or miscounted; machines have malfunctioned; and voters who should be able to vote are turned away while those that shouldn't be allowed to vote have voted anyway. The question that's been on all our minds is: What is wrong with our democracy? Why in state after state, year after year, do we keep on having these problems? What do we need to do to reinforce our electoral house so it does not sink into oblivion?

The fundamental reason is this: The U.S. Constitution does not contain a right to vote, and therefore Congress fails to establish enforceable uniform standards or a unitary voting system. While it is true that the Constitution does protect against voter discrimination based on race, sex or age and prohibits the use poll taxes or literacy tests, it does not explicitly guarantee that U.S. citizens have a right to vote.

You might say, "But Congressman, I have been able to register to vote and cast ballots my entire life, what do you mean I don't have a right to vote?" The fact is that as an American, you don't have a citizenship right to vote. Voting in the United States is a "state right," not a "citizenship right."

The First Amendment contains individual citizenship rights that go with you from state to state (that is, they are the same wherever you are in the United States) and they are protected and enforced by the federal government. As a result of the First Amendment, every American citizen has an individual right to free speech, freedom of assembly and religious freedom (or to choose no religion at all)—regardless of which state you're in.

Comparatively, a "state right" is not an American citizenship right, but a right defined and protected by each state—and limited to that state. Therefore, when it comes to voting, each state, each county and elected jurisdiction is different.

In other words, our voting system—our house—is built on the foundation of "state" rights: 50 states, 3,067 counties and more than 12,000 different election jurisdictions, all separate and all unequal. These election jurisdictions can each individually set voting policies and procedures such as ballot design, voter eligibility, what voting equipment is used, polling hours, how to count provisional ballots and what ID requirements are needed.

As a result, more than a million votes in the 2004 election were discarded. In one instance, 4,500 votes were lost forever when a touch screen voting machine malfunctioned in North Carolina and there was no back-up. In Florida and Pennsylvania—two of the most important battleground states in the presidential contest—more than half of the provisional ballots cast were not counted.

Election officials claim most of those were from unregistered voters. The question remains why weren't they registered? Did the local officials make mistakes when preparing voter rolls, a partisan organization simply not mail in their registration forms, or were these voters simply not registered?

Moreover, more than nine million U.S. citizens are permanently or temporarily denied the right to vote they would otherwise enjoy if they lived in a different state. Several states deny voting rights for life to anyone once convicted of a felony. Children of American families living abroad often cannot vote when they come of voting age. American citizens living in Puerto Rico, Guam and the Virgin Islands can be drafted into the military but are unable to vote for their commander in chief. Congress governs the District of Columbia more directly than any other state, yet more than half a million citizens living in the District have no voting representation in Congress.

The United States stands virtually alone on denying constitutional protection of the right to vote. 108 of the 119 democratic nations in the world have a right to vote in their Constitution—including the Afghan Constitution and the interim Iraqi Constitution. The United States is one of only 11 that do not. As we assist other nations in implementing democracy, we must also turn the mirror on ourselves and examine what we are doing, what rights we are protecting.
States should have control of many decisions, and should be able to set certain laws and standards that are applicable to the responsibility each state has for its citizens. But voting—like freedom of speech, like freedom of religion, like due process of law—operates outside of state authority.

Instead of a house on sand, we need to build our democracy and our voting system on a rock: the rock of a Voting Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that applies to all states and all citizens. That's why I and 56 colleagues in the House of Representatives have joined to support House Joint Resolution 28—which, in the cause of electoral justice, should be the 28th amendment to the Constitution.

Only For The Rich

.... a must read for anyone facing severe financial hardship

Blog of Blogs: Bankruptcy Edition by Talking Points Memo

Experts weigh in on the bankruptcy bill now pending before the U.S. Senate.

Saturday, March 5, 2005

False Attacks Over "Windfalls" to Wall Street


From: "" Sent: Thursday, March 03, 2005 6:33 PM

False Attacks Over "Windfalls" to Wall Street



New information turned up by shows that the type of private Social Security accounts being proposed by President Bush would yield very little profit to the securities industry, contrary to persistent claims of a potentially huge "windfall" to Wall Street.

What we have discovered is that the model for Bush's accounts -- the Federal Thrift Savings Plan for federal workers -- actually paid securities firms a net total of only 16 cents for every $10,000 in workers accounts. The TSP had refused to make that information public -- until now. It shows that fees actually being paid to Wall Street are hundreds of times smaller than some critics had assumed.

For that reason and others we find that ads run in Louisiana by the liberal Democratic group Campaign for America's Future are grossly misleading. The group is accusing Republican Rep. James McCrery, who is chairman of the Social Security subcommittee and a supporter of Bush's private accounts, of "corruption" for accepting campaign donations from Wall Street, which it falsely claims will "profit most" from private accounts.


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Friday, March 4, 2005

Public Agenda Alert -- Report Calls for Reforms to the "No Child Left Behind" Act

Public Agenda Alert -- Feb. 24, 2005
* Report Calls for Reforms to the "No Child Left Behind" Act
* Behind the Headlines: U.S. and Russia to Sign Counterterrorism Accords
* Report Calls for Reforms to the "No Child Left Behind" Act
A bipartisan panel of lawmakers called for reforms to
President Bush's education initiative, the "No
Child Left Behind" Act. The 10-month study, conducted
by The National Conference of State Legislatures,
concluded that certain aspects of the act need to change,
such as providing states with financial flexibility to
meet the law's goals.
Public Agenda has conducted extensive
research on public attitudes about education reform. Our
study, "Rolling Up Their Sleeves," probed
the attitudes of superintendents and principals
about their jobs. While the vast majority said
the era of testing and accountability is here to stay,
almost nine in 10 called No Child Left Behind an
"unfunded mandate," and most said the law "will
require many adjustments before it can work."
Superintendents from large school districts are much
more likely to support the law's key components than
their colleagues from smaller school systems.
We also summarized a decade of opinion research on
education in our 2003 report, "Where We Are Now."
Our review found that the standards movement is in
full sway in American schools, and support for higher
standards and accountability remains solid among
teachers, parents and students. But beneath the surface,
teachers are discouraged, administrators are besieged
by politics and many teachers and students worry about
an unruly, disrespectful and sometimes violent atmosphere
in American high schools.
Registered users may download free copies of Public Agenda
- Find out more about "Rolling Up Their Sleeves: Superintendents
and Principals Talk About What's Needed to Fix Public Schools
- Find out more about "Where We Are Now: 12 Things You Need
to Know About Public Opinion and Public Schools
- Visit our issue guide on Education:
- Read The National Conference of State Legislatures report:
- Read The New York Times story:

Thursday, March 3, 2005

Automakers v. the People

California recently passed landmark legislation to reduce harmful global warming emissions from cars, trucks, and SUVs. But now, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers has sued to block this law! Tell automakers that they can't hide behind environmental marketing. They must end this irresponsible lawsuit, or suffer the consequences with consumers.

Act now:

Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Action Alert: Protect the Rights of Rwandese Refugees

Amnesty International USA
February 2005
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In spite of the real security threat that still exists in Rwanda, hosting governments of Rwandese refugees have been showing signs of involuntary and forceful repatriation of these refugees to Rwanda. Urge the governments of Tanzania and the Republic of Congo to honor their commitments under the 1951 Convention on Refugees and the 1969 Organization of African Unity convention relating to refugees.

Please send appeals to the governments of Tanzania and the Republic of Congo.

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Amnesty International is proud to support Hotel Rwanda -- an important and timely film that chronicles the 1994 genocide in Rwanda that claimed the lives of over 800,000 people and created a refugee crisis affecting over 3 million others.

Learn more about Hotel Rwanda:

Learn more about human rights in Rwanda:

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